HERNDON, Va. -- "It was a whole lot smaller," Johnny Thomas said. "It scared me to death."
For almost four months his shattered knee had been in a cast and the atrophy of idleness had rendered his left calf puny beside the sinewy right one.
It is two years, almost to the day, since Thomas got downfield before the punt did and tried to brake his uncommon speed. "Total reconstruction, the doctors said," Thomas recalled. "Could career-ending."
The knee came apart at the 20-yard line on the south end of Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix, where Thomas, 26, will try to resume his Washington Redskins career on Sunday night.
"I think he can still play cornerback," defensive secondary coach Emmitt Thomas said after the young man worked out Tuesday. "He ran a low 4.3."
A witness said Thomas ran a sub-4.3 seconds in the critical 40-yard test. Thomas thought he heard them say 4.27, which would be down around Darrell Green time.
"Darrell was teaching me techniques, from the player's standpoint," Thomas said, recalling that autumn of '88. "Emmitt and Richie [defense coach Petitbon] were working with me." And everybody was liking him, as an athlete and as a person. "He'll give us great speed, and an enthusiastic attitude," said special teams coach Wayne Sevier, who didn't know Thomas before this week. "He seems to be a really positive kid."
A less positive kid might have been discouraged by Thomas' odyssey of the past 18 months. He was out of his cast, working hard on rehabilitation, when NFL management reduced the off-season rosters to 37 players. The Redskins wanted to keep Thomas, but couldn't protect him.
Dan Henning, new head coach of the Chargers, had been a Redskins assistant and knew what Thomas might be able to do. San Diego drafted him.
"He wasn't ready to play," Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer said. "He needed more rehab work. Keoki [Kamau, Tyer's former assistant] tried to get him ready in San Diego."
Ready or not, Thomas played, for a while. "A lot of defense, the first half of the season," Thomas said. "And then they just stopped playing me. No special teams, no nothing."
Ultimately, on the Wednesday before the last game of the season, Henning broke the news "as nice as he could," Thomas said. Thomas already understood "the certain situation" Henning was trying to explain.
"He said there were guys they wanted to bring up," Thomas said. "I knew Dan liked me, but things just didn't click with the defensive coaches."
Henning, like Joe Gibbs, was an offensive player (a quarterback) and has been an offensive coach, college and pro, ever since, for 22 years. In such situations the delegated defense becomes an entity in itself. "I don't think Dan had much authority over them," Thomas said.
There was another factor. The word gets around about an injury like Thomas', which was spectacular. He was one of the "release men" designated to go downfield as the Redskins' Tom Barnhardt boomed a 55-yard punt, with five-second "hang time" TTC toward Phoenix returner Vai Sikahema. Thomas slipped past the two Cardinals assigned to restrain him and, with his speed, got to Sikahema before the football did.
"It must have been coming down right over me," Thomas recalled. He tried to stop and the left knee wouldn't take it.
"He must have worked very hard to get back," Emmitt Thomas said yesterday. "Most people thought it was a career-ending injury."
Some people keep thinking so, the visual evidence notwithstanding. People around Redskin Park heard about Thomas' renewed speed this week and said: "That's straight ahead; let's see what he can do laterally."
Thomas at San Diego, with Kansas City (where he was cut after preseason training this year), and perhaps with Washington, is in the situation of the jockey who has had a bad fall off a horse. "He probably can still ride," trainers say. "I'll ride him -- after he's won for somebody else."
The Redskins may be Thomas' somebody else and he was "ecstatic" when they called. "I felt like I was coming back home," he said. "There's a whole lot of new faces here, but there's a lot of old faces too."