Jeff Thomason, project manager for a New Jersey construction firm, is using his remaining vacation days for this year to go to the Super Bowl. It's a good deal. He gets an expenses-paid trip to Jacksonville, Fla., a great seat in Alltel Stadium and a chance to win big money.
Thomason, though, is not just going to the Super Bowl. He's going to play in it.
Thomason was signed Tuesday by the Philadelphia Eagles to replace tight end Chad Lewis, who was put on injured reserve after Sunday's NFC championship game because of a severely sprained left foot. Lewis, who was injured while scoring the final touchdown in the Eagles' 27-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, was scheduled to undergo surgery today.
It's not as if the Eagles, in search of a replacement, went out to construction sites looking for the biggest pair of biceps they could find. Thomason spent a decade in the NFL, playing for the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and the Eagles, and appeared in two Super Bowls with the Packers.
At 35, the 6-foot-5, 255-pound Thomason, a native of Newport Beach, has been retired for two seasons but has stayed in shape by competing in triathlons.
Thomason was a two-sport athlete at Corona del Mar High , where he swam and played football. His biggest triumphs came in swimming, where he won consecutive Southern Section Division 4-A titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events. But, when it came time for college, Thomason opted to go to the University of Oregon to play football.
"He had been swimming since he was 6 and he was burned out," said his brother Tom Thomason.
After two seasons with the Bengals, Jeff Thomason was cut at the end of training camp in 1994 by the Packers.
Figuring his football days were over, he decided to go into sales. Shower heads seemed like a lucrative product to push. Thomason got a few samples and installed one in his shower. The problem was, no one told him to let the water run for 30 minutes to clean out the head. Instead, he jumped in and found himself covered in black particles from the dirty water that came out.
Life after football was looking pretty bleak.
But then Andy Reid, then the Packers' tight ends coach, called to tell Thomason to stay in shape because he might be called back the next year. Sure enough, Reid called and Thomason became a Packer.
When Lewis went down, Reid, now the Eagles' coach, called again.
Still, Thomason was stunned when he first got a call from Lewis, who said he was recommending Thomason to fill Lewis' spot.
"I said, 'Come on, dude, you've got to be kidding me,' " Thomason said. "That just shows how unselfish Chad is, to be thinking about me at that time."
Still, Thomason had to undergo a workout.
"When the Eagles saw what good shape my brother was in," said Tom Thomason, "it was a no-brainer to sign him."
On Tuesday, Jeff Thomason sat in the Eagle offices, trying to convince himself this was reality and not some reality show he'd stumbled into.
"It's incredible to think that I'm actually doing it," he said. "But I'm thrilled to be able to go out and play with these guys again. I'm probably the luckiest guy in the world right now. I always thought I could fill in if something would happen. It was a far, far dream, and I never thought it would happen at this point."
Thomason has no doubt he can fill the role. He has played in 118 regular-season games and has caught 67 passes for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns. Seven of his 25 catches in a Philadelphia uniform went for touchdowns.
"I've been in this offense for 10 years, so I know it very well," he said. "Little things like formations have changed, but it shouldn't be too hard to grasp. Wherever I can fill in, I'll be more than comfortable."
Thomason may get in for 15 to 20 plays, replacing Lewis, who caught a pair of touchdown passes in Sunday's NFC title game. L.J. Smith, a second-year player, will be the starting tight end. The Eagles also have Mike Bartrum, an 11-year veteran, who is third on the depth chart at tight end, but he also serves as Philadelphia's long snapper and is more valuable to the Eagles in that capacity.
Thomason will be paid by the Eagles -- they haven't said how much that will be -- and players on the winning team will make $68,000 each, those on the losing team $36,500.
"I'll probably make more during vacation than my annual salary," Thomason said. "Now I know how hard it is to earn a buck in the real world. I worked a lot of hours."
But for the Super Bowl, Thomason will be only a temp.
"This is going to be it," he said, adding that he would be back at a construction site the Monday after the game, win or lose. "But this is a great way to go out."
Even if it does mean no vacation for a year.
Associated Press contributed to this report.