PEABODY — Sean Stellato still remembers the first time he met Johnathan Thomas. Stellato, a NFLPA Certified Agent, was invited to speak to Thomas’ Pop Warner team at Higgins Middle School in 2008. Little did they know that 11 years later they’d work together as Thomas begins the newest chapter of his football career.
Thomas, with Stellato as his agent, signed a professional contract with the Cincinnati Bengals last Saturday as an undrafted free agent.
“It really didn’t hit me when I was on the phone with Jemal Singleton, their running backs coach,” said Thomas, a Peabody native. “I ended the phone call and went back into the living room to tell my family. They were all clapping and they were happy. I called my girlfriend and she was crying on the phone. I was calm and I was excited that everything was coming together.
“I was shocked because I hadn’t heard from Cincinnati after Pro Day,” he said. “That wasn’t one of the teams I was expecting to get a call from.”
Thomas, a running back, was a four-year letterman for Jim O’Leary at St. John’s Prep. He rushed for 1,182 yards and 18 touchdowns during his junior season and was on pace for similar success as a senior (762 rushing yards, eight touchdowns in four games) before a knee injury cut his 2013 campaign short. Thomas carried the Eagles to the Division 1 state championship in 2012.
He visited St. John’s campus this week.
“It’s awesome to go back and talk to the young guys,” said Thomas, 23. “It seems like yesterday I was walking in their footsteps. Just being able to give advice and encouragement for those guys, it’s helpful for them and it’s great for me. It’s better to give than receive. I always want to give back in any way possible.”
Thomas played Division I football at Penn State, where he saw action in 29 games over four seasons. He was recruited to Penn State by current Houston Texans head coach and fellow St. John’s graduate Bill O’Brien. This past season, Thomas rushed for 87 yards and one touchdown on seven carries, and returned kick-offs.
“Cincinnati’s getting one of the biggest diamonds in the rough in the draft,” said Stellato, a Salem native. “If you stack him up against any running back I’d say he’d land in the top percentile. What makes it better with Johnny is he has very little wear and tear on his body. I have no doubt his best football is in front of him.
“The (AFC North) division is smash-mouth football and I think he’ll fit in well.
“Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991. I think he’ll get a lot of opportunities there. In terms of comprehending the playbook, I think he’ll do well. At the end of the day there’s a track record with running backs at Penn State. He can be a first, second or third down back, he has soft hands out of the backfield, and he can play a role in special teams.”
Academics have always been a priority for Thomas. He earned two degrees at Penn State (sociology 2017, criminology 2018).
“I had no choice but to take my academics seriously,” Thomas said. “My mother’s a doctor and she always hammered academics with me. I thank her for that. Having my degrees will help me in the long run. My brother’s an orthopedic surgeon doing his residency at Harvard now. I was never doctor-smart. If I put my mind to it, I can do it. It was never my path. I use my God-given knowledge, my work ethic, the things I learned from sports to help me be a better person.”
When it was time to choose an agent, Thomas saw a natural fit with Stellato by his side. They also crossed paths during Thomas’ freshman season (2010) at St. John’s.
“I’ve known Sean for many years,” Thomas said. “When I was in Pop Warner I used to do speed training with him. When I went to St. John’s he was one of the coaches there. After that year he got into the agent business. We always kept in touch after that. Choosing him as an agent was a no-brainer. Knowing I can trust him, it was just the perfect fit for me. He’s done an unbelievable job thus far.”
Thomas first caught Cincinnati’s eye at his Pro Day in March, when he ran a 4.40 40-yard dash. The Bengals, who finished 6-10 last season, hired Zac Taylor as their new head coach during the offseason.
“They have a new coaching staff coming in and that’s going to be an awesome opportunity for me,” Thomas said. “With the new coaching staff I believe that gives me a good opportunity to go in there and prove myself just like everybody else has to prove themselves to a new coaching staff.”
Thomas will report to the Bengals next week for rookie mini-camp.
“There are a lot of late round picks and guys that don’t get drafted in the hidden and then everyone asks, ‘wait, where did this guy come from?'” Stellato said. “I think that’s the situation we’ll see with Johnny. Growing up in this area, I’ve waited a long time to represent an area kid. I’m glad to represent someone that shares the same core values. I have no doubt he’s going to play on Sundays and be successful at the next level.”
Harold Rivera can be reached at email@example.com.