Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas celebrates after scoring… (Don Ryan / Associated Press )
Reporting from Eugene, Ore. — It still mystifies De'Anthony Thomas, all those people talking about him, spreading rumors, devising theories about what happened. Nearly a year later, he throws his hands in the air and shakes his head.
"Those people didn't even know me," he says.
Which doesn't matter when you rank among the best high school football players in the nation, everyone watching to see which college you will choose, presuming they can decode the riddle that is an 18-year-old's thought process.
When Thomas changed his mind at the last second, dumping USC to sign with Oregon, all hell broke loose on talk radio and Internet forums. Fans speculated about hidden disputes and NCAA sanctions. They whispered about a party where someone had been shot.
"What were people thinking?" Thomas says.
Now two months into his college career, Thomas still looks the part of the teenager, arriving for an interview in a sweatshirt and a long, gold chain around his neck, a black knit cap tugged down over his head. He is friendly if not particularly talkative.
The former Crenshaw High star wonders if his success with the Ducks — he is averaging a touchdown every six touches — makes USC fans even angrier. He knows they will be watching when the Trojans visit Autzen Stadium on Saturday.
If nothing else, USC Coach Lane Kiffin still feels the sting, musing: "I don't have closure on the whole thing. It was just shocking to everybody around here."
But if you are looking for a smoking gun — literally and figuratively — to solve this whodunit, it won't come from Thomas. The story, as he tells it, is fairly simple.
Too close for comfort
Recruiting is a precarious business. The fate of entire programs, coaches' jobs, millions of dollars, can teeter on the whims of a single young man.
The Trojans never suspected trouble with Thomas. After making a commitment as a junior, he pitched in to help woo others, including a good friend, Crenshaw lineman Marcus Martin, and receiver Victor Blackwell.
"At that point, you've been around him so much and you've seen so much of his film," Kiffin says. "You start to picture how he's going to piece in with all these other guys."
Did Kiffin and his assistants take their star prospect for granted? Thomas thinks so. It certainly did not help when the man who recruited him, running backs coach Todd McNair, was let go in the wake of the Reggie Bush scandal.
Asked if he had close ties with anyone else on the staff, Thomas replies: "No. Not really."
But there was another part of the equation — a bigger part — that had nothing to do with the Trojans.
The Crenshaw district is a tight-knit community that takes its football seriously. As Thomas became a local celebrity, emerging from a youth league sponsored by rapper Snoop Dogg, more and more people gravitated toward him.
"He had a lot of friends," Crenshaw Coach Robert Garrett says. "You know how that works sometimes."
People wanted to be around him, be his buddy, and the preternaturally gracious Thomas rarely said no. By the winter of his senior year, he says, "It was getting old."
Despite his attachment to USC, Thomas wondered if he might find someplace better. He began to entertain thoughts of leaving Southern California.
There is no rule against recruiting players who have committed to another school but, with Thomas, the Oregon coaches insist they saw no point.
"He never came up in spring evaluations or anything like that," Coach Chip Kelly says. "He was already committed and off the board."
Then came word from Los Angeles. With national signing day less than a week off, Thomas had asked Garrett to help him arrange a visit to Oregon.
"I'd say I was surprised," Kelly recalls.
The coaches were eating breakfast when their unexpected recruit walked in. They could have talked football, explaining the benefits of Oregon's up-tempo offense, but Kelly says there wasn't time — they needed to get acquainted with a kid they barely knew.
And that might have worked in their favor.
When Thomas discusses his change of heart, it's all about the personal connections he made that weekend. Quarterback Darron Thomas seemed a born leader and running back LaMichael James made him laugh. His host, running back Kenjon Barner, came from a similar family, all boys.
Just as important, defensive end Terrell Turner — a Crenshaw alum — said, "Man, it's nice up here." The city of Eugene was greener and quieter than Los Angeles, distant enough to feel separated yet close enough that family could visit.
"I just felt comfortable here," Thomas says. "I was surprised."
After his return to Los Angeles, someone snapped a picture of him decked out from head to toe in Oregon gear, hanging out with one of Snoop Dogg's sons at L.A. Live. The photograph quickly made its way to the Internet.
Line them up. One theory after another.
The Trojans supposedly asked him to switch to cornerback, a position he did not like. Thomas says: "Nope."