The deep fear of the black mamba stems not only from its reputation for aggression, speed and toxic venom, but also from stories and legends that have been passed down from one generation to the next. Magical abilities have been attributed to the black mamba. It is said to be able to bite itself in the tail to form a loop so it can roll down a hill, only to straighten out at the bottom and attack like an arrow. It is said to chase away large herds of buffalo. It is said to eat elephants in one bite.
— Compiled from various publications
The nugget was buried deep in the piece, yet it told much.
It was May 2010 and De’Anthony Thomas had just let it be known he would be attending USC on a football scholarship. The Los Angeles Times quickly jumped all over the story with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for a Kobe Bryant or a Frank McCourt.
“His decision to choose USC is big news in the Los Angeles football community. There are young kids who idolize Thomas from his youth football days when he was given the nickname ‘Black Mamba’ (by Snoop Dogg),” reported the fourth-largest newspaper in America, apparently seeing a need to explain why it was devoting so much space to a high-schooler.
Twenty months later, Thomas is still idolized. In Los Angeles even.
Even though he ultimately juked USC in favor of Oregon and now has tons of admirers in Eugene and in all households where Ducks abide.
On Friday, reporters swarmed over the Black Mamba during media day as the Ducks continued their preparation for the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.
For good reason. On Monday, he will not only trot out in a green jersey in his first game back in the L.A. area — an auspicious homecoming if there ever was one — but many observers see him as a possible gamebreaker.
Consider all the attention Wisconsin stars Montee Ball and Russell Wilson and Oregon stars LaMichael James and Darron Thomas have been getting. Consider the Badgers will be super-focused on stopping James and fellow running back Kenjon Barner (as Oregon’s running attack goes, so go the Ducks). Consider Wisconsin is rock solid defensively but lacks the overall speed that LSU and Auburn utilized in slowing the Oregon attack in the past.
Then consider Thomas’ afterburners and shiftiness in taking advantage of the slightest crack — and from anywhere on the field as a receiver, runner or returner.
His numbers thus far as a true freshman are truly astounding: A touchdown every five times he catches a pass and a touchdown every 10 times he carries the ball.
“He’s the type of player who you identify where he is every play before the snap,” Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said this week.
Good thought. Good preparation. Still, can the Badgers accomplish that every play, all game long?
There is the possibility, sure, that Thomas will have some jitters playing in his old stomping grounds. But against USC this season — at Autzen Stadium, mind you — there was nothing of the kind. Indeed, he ignited a furious rally against the Trojans with a scintillating 96-yard kickoff return for a TD. He also had a 29-yard catch for a score and generated 214 all-purpose yards.
What is Thomas saying about his homecoming? In fitting with his modest nature, not too much.
“Just being back home is a great feeling,” Thomas said Friday. “A lot of people are happy to see me, haven’t seen me in a long time.”
In interviews, he shrugs off the Heisman talk that is starting to stir. He doesn’t have a favorite play from this season. He doesn’t watch himself on YouTube.
When you really press him, Thomas responds that football is all about having fun.
“He’s the sweetest young kid I’ve ever been around,” Barner said. “I’ve never seen him frown.”
Come Monday afternoon, before 95,000 in that ancient bowl in Pasadena, Duck fans are likely to see much more of that sweet combination: Electrifying plays followed by smiles.
The question is how much.
Not to put too much into nicknames, but a black mamba is said to avoid confrontation until provoked. Then it attacks with the kind of speed and aggression that has inspired legends.
Is there a better description of what the Wisconsin Badgers must fear most?
“There is a suddenness to him,” coach Chip Kelly said.
Could there be a better Hollywood storyline?
Here is a hunch. Expect the cheers to be really loud for No. 6 in the green jersey. In his old Crenshaw neighborhood. In Eugene. And in all households where Ducks abide.
De’Anthony Thomas as an Oregon freshman
— 42 receptions for 571 yards (an average of 13.6 yards per catch) and 9 TDs
— 53 carries for 440 yards (an average of 8.3 yards per carry) and 5 TDs
— 31 kickoff returns for 858 yards (an average of 27.7 yards per return) and 2 TDs
— 1,968 all-purpose yards (third all-time on the Oregon single-season list)