In 2005, Oregon Ducks star running back and receiver De'Anthony Thomas was a grade schooler playing youth football in the Snoop Youth Football League. It did not take long for the league's founder, iconic rapper Snoop Dogg, to realize Thomas was something very special.
Snoop Dogg has practically invented a language by adding the qualifier 'izzle' to words (e.g., fo' shizzle). And the wordsmith had no problem coming up with a nickname for Thomas: the "Black Mamba."
The black mamba snake lives in the savannas and rocky hills of southern and eastern Africa. Largely considered the world's most deadly snake, black mambas are fast and highly aggressive.
The nickname is a perfect fit for the blindingly fast, incredibly quick, big-play making Thomas.
'It's a great name for me,' Thomas says. 'It fits me. And it traveled with me since Pop Warner.'
Thomas lived up to his nickname at Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. As a senior, Thomas rushed for 1,299 yards on 114 carries (11.4 yards per attempt) and scored 18 TDs. He caught 16 passes for 359 yards and four TDs. On defense, he had five interceptions, with 122 return yards.
One of the nation's most highly touted recruits, Thomas was all but signed, sealed and delivered to USC.
The 5-9, 170-pounder then shocked everyone when he decided to sign with Oregon.
Shortly after Thomas signed with the Ducks, reports on various blogs surfaced giving a possible explanation. The stories recounted a horrific tale of Thomas attending a party, witnessing a gang-related murder, identifying the suspects to police and having a hit put out on him and members of his family.
Thomas says that there is absolutely no truth to the harrowing tale, though, and that he was not running from anything in Los Angeles.
'I love L.A,' Thomas says. 'I love where I come from.'
After he committed to USC, Oregon did not bother trying to recruit Thomas. Coach Chip Kelly was as surprised as anyone when he heard that Thomas wanted to take a trip to Eugene.
'We never home-visited him,' Kelly says. 'We really weren't involved until that last week. We don't really recruit kids that commit to other places unless they call us. And he called us.'
On his recruiting visit, Thomas was wowed by Oregon's facilities and developed a connection with Duck players, including quarterback Darron Thomas, running backs Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James and cornerback Cliff Harris.
'Basically, I just saw Oregon, with the great facilities, the atmosphere,' De'Anthony Thomas says. 'Also I bonded with the players well. It really wasn't even about the coaches. It was about me just building relationships with the players.'
USC had planned to use Thomas as a defensive back. Thomas says that the theory that he chose Oregon so he could play offense is as fictitious as him witnessing a murder.
'My decision wasn't based on whether I was playing offense or defense,' Thomas says. 'My decision was based off where was I going to fit in and what team I could bond with.'
Thomas' ability to bond with his teammates has been a huge part of his success at Oregon. When he arrived in Eugene last summer, Darron Thomas (no relation) took De'Anthony under his wing.
'I had a great summer,' De'Anthony Thomas says. 'I came in working hard in the weight room and also just learning from Darron. Darron Thomas is really one of the reasons why I can perform like this right now. In the summer, we played a lot of catch, and pretty much he was just teaching me the offense.'
There have been bumps in the road (two fumbles in the season opener against LSU), but for the most part De'Anthony Thomas has been sensational in his true freshman season.
He has been playing everywhere on the field the that Ducks can put him on offense. He has carried the ball 46 times for 366 yards and five touchdowns, caught 27 passes for 423 yards and seven TDs, returned 26 kickoffs for 656 yards and one TD, and brought back three punts for 52 yards.
'My role on this offense is just to contribute to the team and be an extra man out there to make plays,' he says.
A question that springs immediately to mind when looking at Thomas' almost delicate frame is whether or not he has the ability to take Division-I hits. Kelly's play calling has usually kept Thomas away from a high level of contact, and Thomas has gotten up after every tackle.
'I have the heart,' Thomas says. 'It doesn't matter what size I am. I have the heart to take any hit.'
Heading into Saturday's 5 p.m. game in Eugene between the 9-1 Ducks and the 8-2 Trojans, Thomas says that almost deciding to go to USC does not make the match-up any more meaningful to him.
'All that recruiting stuff is over for me,' Thomas says. 'Now I feel like this game is just another game to me.'
USC coach Lane Kiffin says he knows exactly what his program lost out on with Thomas.
'The only guy I've seen like that is Reggie (Bush),' Kiffin says.
Thomas says he was flattered by Kiffin's remark.
'Reggie Bush was a good athlete,' Thomas says. 'I just try to follow his footsteps.'
Thomas' true hero was not a football player, though. Growing up, he revered his maternal grandfather, Rayfield Dupree, who competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a triple jumper, but has since had legal trouble.
'To be honest, I just really looked up to my grandfather,' Thomas says. 'I never really had a favorite football player or anything. It was just my grandfather who has been my idol.'
As successful as Thomas has been on the football field, he says he has found time to adjust to the rigors of college classes.
'I'm doing as well (in school) as I'm doing on the field,' he says.
Having a lot of support from Los Angeles has made Thomas' adjustment smoother. He says he doesn't know if Snoop Dogg will attend the USC game, but that he still periodically talks with his old coach and listens to Snoop's music.
'He's got some good songs,' Thomas says. 'I love it.'
Thomas' mother, Gaylian Dupree, his grandmother and his four brothers have been flying to Eugene to watch Duck games.
'My mom, she's going to do whatever for me,' Thomas says. 'I've been a momma's boy, and she's just going to be there for me no matter what.'
Thomas' mother supported her son in his decision to leave home, he says.
'She just wanted me to experience life,' he adds.
The next chapter of Thomas experiencing life will see him step onto the field on Saturday and look across at what might have been. Thomas says he is confident that he made the right decision coming to Oregon. And, incredible as his season has been, Thomas says that the best is yet to come.
'I'm happy,' he says. 'I feel comfortable up here. Just a different environment, the school, football, it's great right now. I have a lot more to learn, and I have a big future ahead of me.'