If Darron Thomas is starting for the Portland Thunder in a couple of weeks, I just might buy a ticket.
The new Arena team has started practice, and Thomas, who was 23-3 as an Oregon starter with two PAC-12 Championships and the Ducks first Rose Bowl win since 1918, is competing to be their quarterback. The Thunder open with a road game at San Jose on March 17th, and their home opener comes April 5th against Colt Brennan and the L.A. Kiss at the Moda Center.
DT burst on the scene at Oregon as a skinny freshman, tossing three touchdowns in the fourth quarter in a comeback effort versus Boise State. Down 37-13, Mike Bellotti turned to the fifith-string quarterback, then a true freshman from Houston, Texas. Nate Costa had gone down with a knee injury in fall camp. Justin Roper hurt his left knee in a double overtime win over Purdue, and Jeremiah Masoli was out in the first quarter after a helmet-to-helmet late hit by one of Chris Petersen's cornerbacks.
The Ducks turned first to an untested athlete from Kansas, fellow freshman Chris Harper, but he was 0-3 with two interceptions, clearly not ready to run the offense.
Bellotti and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly had Thomas grab his helmet, and the Aldine High flash started slinging. He zipped a 24-yard post pattern to Jeff Maehl between two defenders for one td, then two more scoring strikes to Ed Dickson, for 19 and 7 yards. The young quarterback was fearless, just playing backyard football in his first college game. With 2:07 to play he got the Ducks to within 37-32, but an onside kick failed and the Broncos ran three running plays to kill the clock.
In one quarter, the true freshman had completed 13-25 passes for 210 yards. The message boards wanted to annoit him as the starter right then, but Masoli returned the next week against Washington State.
Thomas surfaced again at the 2008 Civil War. Leading 20-10 in the second quarter with first and 10 on the Beaver 42, Kelly dialed up a reverse with Masoli at qb and Thomas lined up at wide receiver. Thomas took the pitch, rolled right, dodged an unblocked Beaver linebacker and hurled a perfect strike to Maehl streaking on a deep cross along the right sideline, first down Ducks at the OSU 7. The kid came in cold off the bench, and along with Jeremiah Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, Spencer Paysinger and Walter Thurmond, ripped the heart out of Beavers in a 65-38 victory.
Thomas redshirted in 2009, and took over as a redshirt sophomore in 2010 after a close quarterback battle with Costa in 2010. The Ducks looked promising behind their second year head coach. They blasted New Mexico and Portland State, came from behind to beat Tennessee and Arizona State, setting up an ESPN Game Day matchup with Andrew Luck and Stanford on October 2nd, #4 versus #9, 4-0 with Heisman and National Championship hopes.
Down 21-3 after a disastrous first quarter, the Ducks turned things around with a gutsy second quarter onside kick and a Heisman-worthy performance from LaMichael James, who rushed for 257 yards and 3 tds, including a 76-yard burst to ice the game late in the fourth. Thomas contributed 238 yards passing and 117 rushing, passing for 3 scores and running for another, making a nifty fake pitch to scoot in from the six.
In his two-year career as a starter DT beat Luck twice, hung 53 on USC and 60 on UCLA. He outdueled Russell Wilson in the Rose Bowl and had 363 yards passing in the national championship versus Cam Newton and Auburn. He wasn't a choir boy. He didn't have a perfect delivery or Marcus Mariota's speed, but he hung in there to deliver the ball and operated the offense the way Chip Kelly wanted, always with a dazzling smile, leadership and courage.
It's great to see him playing football again, pursuing his dream. Asked by Sean Meagher of the Oregonian what he remembered about his Oregon years, he said, "Just being a family, just being a brotherhood. I think that's what got us going in the right direction. I remember every game like it was yesterday; I cherish every moment. But what I remember most was going out and competing every day with my brothers."
In all he had 6629 yards in total offense as a Duck, and 66 career touchdown passes.
With the Thunder, he gets a fresh start, and the opportunity to again show scouts in Canada and the NFL what he can do in the pocket. Arena ball is a fast-paced game on a narrow field, with a lot of scoring. The quarterback has to make quick decisions in close quarters, a perfect environment for an athletic, gutty competitor with a Chip Kelly pedigree.
Thunder coach Matt Sauk hasn't named a starter, but when Thomas was announced for the roster he said "Darron is an outstanding quarterback with rare talent. He’s accustomed to putting up a lot of points in a high-tempo environment, which is what we plan on doing offensively. I know that with his hard-working attitude, he will learn the arena game and make a quick transition.”
The website for the team is portlandthunder.com, and their phone number is 503 773-4325. Season ticket packages start at just $99.