GENERATION NEXT: Saints WR Michael Thomas Becoming “Face of the Franchise”

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

Whether they want to or not, professional athletes and especially the most popular ones — because of their fame and notoriety from playing in games potentially seen and viewed by millions of sports fans from across the world — are considered to be role models for young people, ranging anywhere in age from small children to teenagers.

And for the better part of the last 15 years or so, no one particular member of the New Orleans Saints NFL football team has fit that description any more perfectly than 20th year veteran QB Drew Brees. It’s for that very reason that the future Hall of Famer is widely considered to be the “face of the franchise”.

But for the past year or so, a change appears to have been slowly taking place, a change that has now seen a brand new face begin to emerge as the next player to fill that role for the team; as Brees gets closer to retirement: the face of superstar WR and now 5th year veteran Michael Thomas.

Yesterday in a teleconference interview at Training Camp with reporters, the Black and Gold’s top offensive superstar seemed to openly acknowledge his responsibilities as a player who squarely is now in the public limelight on a national level, and as such will be ‘unofficially’ representing the Saints organization for what likely will be the entire new decade.

The 27-year old Thomas — whose notable performance last season saw him lead the NFL in receiving yardage (1,725) and also break the all-time record for most receptions in a single season ever (149) — has not only become one of the best players at his position in the entire League, but also somewhat rather quietly but very notably has began taking a much more active role regarding issues which have directly impacted society and culture.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on / Original via Wesley Hitt

That was never more evident than a few months ago not long after the nation-wide protests which followed the brutal murder of Minneapolis resident George Floyd by four city police officers, that have reinvigorated and further inspired the Black Lives Matter social justice movement; which have been fully supported big-named athletes such as Thomas and many others.

Thomas, along with recent Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs superstar QB Patrick Mahomes and the additional help of a few unnamed NFL Social Media employees, were two of the key parties who during the first week of June organized and then recorded a well-publicized video message featuring them and a handful of other NFL stars from throughout the NFL, which fully and very adamantly supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

The video arranged by Thomas then ultimately led (and perhaps inspired) NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to then record his very own message which fully gave support to the players and basically served as a formal apology for how the league had previously handled players that had protested issues of Social Justice in the past.

Ironically, Goodell’s video failed to acknowledge controversial former San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick, who NFL fans of course know is the one player whose name is most famously-associated with those previous protests, but yet was never mentioned in particular.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ efforts received a huge amount of praise and were lauded by the media that not only covers the NFL, but the nation as a whole from both a political and cultural standpoint.

Since that time, with his record-breaking and unforgettable 2019 Season already being prominently on the minds of many interested observers. Thomas’ visibility throughout the public eye and Social Media has now reached started to reach unparalleled heights — a level that in due time, should serve to make him the Black and Gold’s next unofficial team ambassador — or if you prefer the term: the very next “face of the franchise”.

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

Perhaps it’s then a twist of fate so to speak, that recent events also may include what some might view as a symbolic but yet unspoken “passing of the torch” between Thomas and the 41-year old Brees; who the star wide receiver was actually critical of, not all that long ago.

That was also back initially in that very first week in June after the living legend and long-time Saints starting quarterback, made some controversial remarks during an interview with the website Yahoo Finance that were seen as insensitive in regard to NFL players potentially kneeling again during the National Anthem.

After Brees then subsequently apologized not long after those comments, Thomas and the rest of the Saints players on the roster forgave him and made it publicly known of their mutual desire to put the incident behind them and to learn from the experience, while moving forward and focusing on preparing for the upcoming 2020 NFL Season.

But then recently just within the past few days, both Brees and Thomas have given their thoughts on the overall current state of affairs on that specific matter in interviews on back-to-back mornings with local reporters, following their arrival for the team’s Training Camp last week.

Brees decided to comment further and clarify his stance on the continuing protests, and reiterated to reporters that while he will continue to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, that he will also still simultaneously “acknowledge and respect” those players who choose to kneel.

Photo Credit: New Orleans Saints on (Original Credit via Mark Zaleski)

“I acknowledge and respect anyone who chooses to kneel or any other form of peaceful protest to bring attention to social injustice and system racism that so many have endured and continue to endure in our country, and I always will support and advocate for black and brown communities in the fight for social justice”, Brees said.

Brees was very careful to point out that his initial comments were off-base and basically had missed making the mark that he had originally intended them to, and then emphasized the need for more awareness and understanding to be given to matters of Social Justice; such as the increased need for more vocal support and advocacy for Black communities.

In essentially what some might see as a direct response to Brees’ comments from the previous day before, yesterday morning Thomas in an interview on Zoom with those same local reporters, was asked about the significance of Brees’ comments and how it affected their own personal relationship between each other, now in its 5th year after Thomas was drafted in 2016 out of Ohio State University.

(REPORTER’S QUESTION:) Sean Payton said that happened in the offseason was in the offseason. Drew Brees said that he has spoken to Malcolm Jenkins and considers him a friend. Do you think that because you are going on year five with Drew, do you think you guys were able to talk things out, get on common ground and make sure you can focus on football because you guys have strong relationships. Based on how it all unfolded can you walk us through how things got to where they are now?

(Michael Thomas:) “We’re men, we just handle it as men. People are always going to have opinions and not believe in the same thing but you sit down and talk it out as men and don’t let it affect the team. We know we’re playing for a Super Bowl, to win a Super Bowl, that’s been the goal since I got here and still the goal”, Thomas said.

“Sometimes you might bump heads, but we’re family and have to be able to influence the younger generation that looks up to us and watches us. It’s not like this is some type of reality television show. The goal is to focus on doing whatever it takes to win a championship, focusing on a championship and accomplishing our goals.”

Thomas went on to comment on other topics such as the recent off-season addition of veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and how that might give him an opportunity to put up even bigger numbers statistically this upcoming season after last year’s incredible performance; as well as the likelihood of NFL games being played inside of empty stadiums without fans in attendance because of the on-going coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic.

But clearly the biggest “takeaway” if you will, is that his relationship with Brees seems to have remained largely unharmed by recent events, and perhaps an even better understanding and a deeper sense of appreciation and respect for one another, has been forged between them because of it all.

Photo Credit: Michael Thomas on Twitter (Original Credit via San Gardener)

Although it’s only speculation as to whether or not Brees has actually spoken to Thomas regarding what it means to have the responsibility of being the unofficial spokesman among the players, it’s clearly a role that Thomas will be more than capable of filling; and doing it rather well, at that.

While the Saints certainly have several more players who are vocal and routinely seen often in the public eye such as Cam Jordan, Alvin Kamara, Demario Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, and Terron Armstead to name just a few, it has to be thought at this point in time that because of his rapidly-rising fame, steady composure, and unrivaled passion for playing the sport; that no one other player might be more perfectly-suited for the role, than Thomas is.

Thomas undoubtedly possesses a quality that many of today’s pampered and overpaid professional athletes don’t always care to fully embrace; which is the burning desire to become the greatest and #1  player at his position in the entire NFL.

But that said: the Los Angeles, California native also has began to develop a knack for being a thoughtful individual who can use his public platform to not only advocate for issues that are near and dear to his heart on a personal basis; but to also be an effective and respected goodwill-ambassador for the entire organization as a whole.

It’s a role that to borrow a quote in a recently popular movie from several years ago, famously notes that “with great power, comes great responsibility.”

Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Saints, YouTube

Drew Brees has had that power and responsibility for the past 15 years.

But it would seem that power and responsibility is about to be passed on from one generation of a wildly-popular and future NFL Hall of Fame-caliber player wearing a Black and Gold uniform, to another.

That player is Michael Thomas — who very soon is about to become among the next generation of players from within the Saints organization — that’s viewed as the “face of the franchise”….

Barry Hirstius is a semi-retired journalist, who has worked previously as a sports editor and columnist. Barry is a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the Saints while attending their games as a young boy during the early 1970’s, uptown at the old Tulane Stadium. He is also the proud Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity. Follow him on Twitter: @BarryHirstius

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