Starling Thomas V made Bruce Feldman’s annual “Freaks List” last fall because of his world class speed. The undrafted free agent Detroit Lions cornerback was a high school sprint champion in Alabama who was clocked at running 24 mph on GPS tracking data in-game at Alabama-Birmingham.
“I used to (joke) I’d get a speeding ticket in a school zone cause miles per hour in the school zone’s like 15 or 20,” Thomas said Thursday.
But Thomas could have made the list for a different reason.
As a true sophomore in 2019, he played the final seven games of UAB’s season with a torn ACL.
Thomas, who Lions coach Dan Campbell singled out this week as a player who impressed in organized team activities and mandatory minicamp, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second time in an Oct. 19, 2019, game against Old Dominion.
He finished that game, convinced trainers he could play when he still was squatting more than 400 pounds after the following week’s bye, and helped lead UAB to the Conference USA championship game and New Orleans Bowl before undergoing surgery. Thomas said he considered sitting out the end of the 2019 season, and that playing on a bad knee might hurt his NFL draft stock.
“I thought of that, but at the same time I’m like, ‘Man, there’s not too many tough people out here that can even do that,’” Thomas said. “So I take that on the chin as I’m able to play through anything. I actually love this game, so whoever gets me, they’re going to get a tough player, hard-nosed player who gives their all. So that’s how I thought about it.”
Three years after tearing the same ligament in a high school playoff game, he needed football in his life for a myriad of reasons.
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Thomas was already dealing with personal tragedy.
His mother, Stephanie Williams, had died after a yearlong battle with breast cancer the previous fall, and Thomas had buried himself in football — “It was a safe space between those white lines,” he said — to avoid his new reality.
After knee surgery, and with football shut down in the COVID spring of 2020, Thomas took time to heal physically and emotionally. He openly grieved his mother’s loss. He spent time with his siblings she raised. And when football returned on a limited basis in the fall, Thomas took his time with his rehab and made sure to see all of his brother’s high school games.
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“I just looked at it as a bright spot, a time to heal myself mentally, physically, emotionally and come back a better man, honestly,” Thomas said. “I didn’t look at it too negative, a negative aspect, I tried to find a positive in it.
“I think it was just a breath of fresh air being able to actually sit down and see my friends play and then just being able to go see my brothers play and (finally get) to see them on holidays. Just being able to spend time with my family after that tragedy, was able to do that. Like I said, it was a blessing in disguise that it did happen, and now I’m out here in Detroit, I’m trying to give it my best foot.”
Thomas, who turned down Power Five scholarship offers including Notre Dame coming out of high school in order to stay close to his sick mother, had two interceptions in 2021 and 15 pass breakups last season, when he earned first-team all-conference honors.
Despite his injury history, Thomas, whose paternal grandfather, Billy Williams, qualified for the Olympic trials as a sprinter, said he expected to get drafted. He had a strong performance at the East-West Shrine all-star game and ran a 4.28-second 40-yard dash at his pro day in March.
When that didn’t happen, he signed with the Lions as a free agent after getting a phone call from defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn on draft night.
“Coach A.G. called me, told me they loved me, they (wanted me to be a Lion),” he said. “I said, ‘I’m coming. I’m coming, Coach. I’m on the way.’”
The Lions signed veterans Cam Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley to start at cornerback in free agency and return Jerry Jacobs and Will Harris from last season, but Thomas should contend for a backup spot this summer, like Jacobs did as a UDFA in 2021.
On Wednesday, he broke up a pass to Jameson Williams in the end zone and had good coverage on another red zone incompletion to Marvin Jones. Campbell mentioned Thomas unprompted Thursday, saying he’s “made a few plays now, he’s showing some things,” but cautioned it’s June and no one is in pads yet.
Thomas, who has his mother’s initials along with a heart and a drawing of a breast cancer ribbon scribbled on his cleats, said he likes what he’s put on tape so far and likes his chances of making the roster if he stays on the same trajectory this summer.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I came from two ACLs, a lot of people doubting me, thinking I’m not (as fast as before the injuries), and God just, cause really at the end of the day, I just give it all to him and at the end of the day when I come out here I just try to give it my all and listen to the older guys in the room. Man, they just embrace me with open arms, so I just continue to learn from them and just continue to put my best foot forward.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.