NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Ten years ago this weekend after a lame-duck season in Houston and another marooned in Memphis, the Tennessee Oilers — not yet the Titans — finally debuted in Nashville.
Their welcome to the Music City was ruined by a Washington Redskins rookie free agent from tiny Missouri Southern.
The unknown James Thrash, who had signed less than a month earlier after being cut by Philadelphia, returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown to put the Redskins ahead, brought another back 36 yards and added three catches for 63 yards, including a 35-yarder that set up a field goal.
That performance — and his 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown the previous week at Tampa Bay — earned the longest of long shots with a job behind such receivers as Henry Ellard, Michael Westbrook, Alvin Harper, Leslie Shepherd and Albert Connell.
Ten years later, all those wideouts are long retired, but the 32-year-old Thrash remains a Redskin — after a three-year stint with the Eagles that ended with a trade back to Washington in 2004.
“If I hadn’t returned those two touchdowns back-to-back, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made the team,” Thrash said before the Redskins kicked off their 2007 preseason last night in Nashville. “I have a place in my heart for every rookie free agent. I know the odds are stacked against them. I tell them that if you show that you can play, drafted or undrafted you have a chance to make the team.”
Thrash is behind fellow veterans Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd on Washington’s depth chart, but there’s no question that he’ll make the team even though he caught just 12 passes last year and 14 in 2005.
“James is having a very good camp,” receivers coach Stan Hixon said. “I don’t know how, but he looks a little bit faster. He had a good scrimmage and he was good in OTAs. James is going to make some plays for us that everybody’s going to say, ‘That was James Thrash?’ But he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”
Thrash, known for a furious work ethic that is the opposite of his mild manner, said he trained even harder this offseason.
“I definitely feel really good,” Thrash said. “I really focused on preparing my body for the long run. Knowing [second-year associate head coach Al Saunders’] offense better helps, too. You remember how I came in the league. That work ethic has always stuck with me. I always feel like I have to make the team even when I was starting in Philadelphia. Although I didn’t get as much playing time on offense as I had in the past last year, my role on special teams [he ranked second with 26 tackles in 2006] has always been there. That’s an important role for this team.”
Coach Joe Gibbs can’t say enough about Thrash.
“James does so many things on special teams,” Gibbs said. “I honestly believe that if he was a starter and could stay rested on offense, he could have a great year as a receiver. He”s one of the best trained athletes on our team.”
You’ve got a friend
Redskins assistant head coach Gregg Williams has been coaching for 28 years, 18 in the NFL. He has worked with many coaches. But Titans coach Jeff Fisher is his best friend in the business. Williams hails from the Missouri countryside and Fisher is a Southern Californian, but they bonded during their seven years together with the Oilers/Titans.
“It’s crazy that a kid from L.A. and a kid from rural Missouri ever really became good friends because we’re opposites in a lot of ways,” said Williams, 49 as is Fisher. “The things that we have in common are that we enjoy coaching, we enjoy our families — his kids and my kids are really close — and we enjoy the hunting, fishing, those kinds of things.”