Jeff Thomason's football career had just come full circle.
Two years removed from a job in sales, Thomason -- the Packers' backup tight end -- was summoned for a first-and-goal against the Chicago Bears before a packed house at Lambeau Field and a Monday Night Football audience. He veered to the right off the snap, turned and found a football in his hands, courtesy of Brett Favre.
Thomason had his first NFL touchdown. Now came the hard part.
"It's funny," Thomason says. "I was talking to my brother the night before the game and he was telling me what I needed to do if I scored..."
What Thomason did do was a rather awkward "Lambeau Leap," perhaps better described as a lunge of sorts. And it was one that earned him consistent ridicule from his teammates.
"It kind of caught me off-guard," he says. "The series prior to that, (starting tight end Mark) Chmura got hurt, so I was thrown in there and one play later I score a touchdown. I wasn't sure what to do, so I just ran.
"And that cement is kind of tough; people don't realize that wasn't there last year. You can't get good footing. Of course, I've never been one for great hops. I think my chin hit the wall."
Fair enough. Thomason is 6-5, 250 pounds. Gravity prefers the likes of him to, say, a Robert Brooks or Antonio Freeman. Of course, Chmura offers a much more succinct description of Thomason's celebratory launch.
"Lame," he says. "Very...very...lame."
Thomason can stand a little ribbing now that he has firmly established himself as a key element in the Packer offense. Not many people could have seen Thomason scoring for the reigning Super Bowl champs a few years back. Except Thomason himself.
"I always knew I could play in this league," he says. "I just had to prove to myself that I could do it for a decent amount of time."
Thomason played two years (1992-93) for Cincinnati, seeing action in seven games with just four receptions for the run-oriented Bengals. He was cut by the Bengals early in training camp in 1994, then picked up by the Packers. Thomason hung on until Green Bay's final cut, but on August 22 of that year he found himself out of a job. So Thomason packed up his things and headed for his home state of California, stopping off to visit a friend on the way.
"I packed up a U-Haul and started driving back to California, with the full intention of making it to California," he says. "But I stopped off in Boulder (Colo.) to see a buddy of mine.
"One year later I was still there."
Thomason took a job in sales for an environmental products company in Boulder, working on commission. He enjoyed the experience, but football wasn't far off his mind.
"I kept working out because I knew that I still had a chance to go back to the NFL," Thomason says. "The job I had was fun but it was also tough. There were times that I'd work all day and not make a penny. It was kind of a slap in the face."
But Thomason still intrigued the Packers. Green Bay invited him back to training camp in 1995, giving Thomason another opportunity to show he could contribute as a tight end in the 'West Coast' offense. And when five-time Pro Bowl selection Keith Jackson held out of camp that year, Thomason knew he had a terrific chance to survive the final cut this time around.
"I knew I had to pick it up a notch, starting with the mini-camps," he says. "Then we didn't know whether Jackson was coming to Green Bay or not, so I knew I had a chance to be the No. 2 tight end. I just stepped up my play and worked as hard as I could."
The reward was a spot on the roster. And Jackson's holdout extended into the first seven games of the regular season, elevating Thomason to that backup tight end slot. Chmura saw most of the balls thrown his way, but that gave Thomason the opportunity the sharpen his blocking skills. He still had three receptions and even made his first professional start when the Packers opened in a two-tight end formation against Detroit. Then Jackson returned, relegating Thomason back to the third position, where he saw most of his action on special teams.
But Thomason had proved his worth to the offense and continued his aggressive play on special teams. He tied for third on the squad with 15 special teams tackles. His script was virtually the same in 1996 -- three catches, one start and a lot of special teams work. In fact, Thomason was one of the four key blockers that helped launch Desmond Howard into the NFL and Packer record books as a punt returner.
Jackson retired following Green Bay's Super Bowl triumph, once again giving Thomason a shot to back up Chmura. When draft day rolled around in April, 15 tight ends were drafted. But the Packers stayed pat, preferring to run with Thomason.
"Thomason is very promising," Green Bay offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis said during mini-camp. "We're going to miss Keith, but we think Thomason is going to be a very fine tight end for us."
Thomason's primary goal in the preseason was to secure Favre's confidence in him as a receiver. After catching five passes in the season-opening win against the Bears, Thomason believes he has accomplished just that.
"I think I showed Brett in the Chicago game that I can catch the ball," Thomason says. "I've established a rapport with him, which is what I wanted to do at the outset of camp."
And with Chmura's knee injury , Thomason was inserted into the starting lineup at Philadelphia the next week, even though he had rolled his own ankle against the Bears.
"That start was not as exciting as people might have thought," he says. "You don't want to earn a spot because another guy gets injured. And it would have been nicer had my ankle been healthy."
Nevertheless, Thomason responded with two more catches for 32 yards. And lo and behold, the tight end with seven catches for 54 yards in his first three NFL seasons had seven catches for 90 yards in his first two games of 1997.
Has Jeff Thomason finally arrived?
"Hey, the touchdown was great, but I still have to keep working hard and just go out and do my job."
And perhaps, when he has a few spare moments, polish up on that leap.
Editor's Note: Thomason began his pro career with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1992 as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Oregon. He first made the Packers' roster in 1995, and has played in all 16 regular-season games for Green Bay each of the past two years.