Every group of friends has sat down on a neighborhood bench, on a field, or under a basket at least once in their sports-playing childhood and dreamt of playing professional sports.
But most of them don’t actually do it.
Most of them can’t get together like Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas, Chargers left tackle Jamaree Salyer and Colts running back Deon Jackson did earlier this year and say, ‘we did it.’
“This past offseason we had dinner, we sat down, and sometimes you’re so focused on the next day and getting better, you don’t take a second to just sit back and think about how far we’ve come,” Thomas said Thursday of the three former Pace Academy (Ga.) teammates. “We were talking about this way back in high school, playing in the league. It’s cool to see your friends, people you grew up with, have success.”
Jackson and Salyer exchanged and signed each other’s jerseys after last week’s 20-3 Chargers Monday Night Football win in Indianapolis. So Jackson knows at least one thing he’s taking home from Sunday’s Colts visit to MetLife Stadium to face the Giants, when he and Thomas will step onto a football field as foes for the first time.
“Andrew’s gonna have to come off with his jersey. I need that,” Jackson said on the phone Friday with a laugh. “This is something we dreamed of. Two weeks in a row to play against friends from high school is crazy.”
Their paths from Atlanta’s Pace Academy have varied since winning the Georgia 2015 Class AA state championship game in Thomas’ and Jackson’s junior year.
Thomas, 23, was the Giants’ fourth overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Georgia. Jackson, 23, was an undrafted Colts signing in 2021 out of Duke, where he had played with Daniel Jones.
Salyer, 22, Thomas’ friend since middle school who followed him to both Pace and Georgia, was a Chargers sixth-round pick this past spring. But they’ve all found a place in this year’s NFL.
Thomas has been a Pro Bowl-level left tackle, even though he got snubbed in the voting.
“We always knew he was that caliber of player,” Salyer said of Thomas on the phone Friday. “He’s someone to look up to. I always have and still do.”
Salyer has helped the Chargers clinch a playoff berth protecting Justin Herbert’s blind side in place of injured starter Rashawn Slater.
“Jamaree comes to work every day with the mindset that he is gonna do whatever he can to reach his goals,” Thomas said. “Obviously I feel like he should have been drafted higher.”
Jackson has been an opportunistic dual-threat runner and pass-catcher out of Indy’s backfield.
“He’s a great player, really good with the ball in his hands, always ran routes and caught the ball really naturally,” Jones, the Giants’ quarterback, said of his former Blue Devils teammate. “He’s a great dude, a great friend and a good teammate.”
Nothing came easy to these young men, though. That’s what is so special about their story.
Kevin Johnson, Pace Academy’s Brooklyn-born offensive line coach, woke at 3:30 a.m. daily to put Salyer and Thomas through 6:15 a.m. workouts.
“I told them to take care of your books and play ball, and I’d help them with everything else,” Johnson said on the phone Friday.
Johnson, who was also offensive coordinator at the time, honed their techniques, took them to camps, and even made Thomas quit baseball to limit his extracurriculars to football and music. He took the players on recruiting trips, too.
“Coach Kev called it ‘the blueprint,” Salyer said of Johnson’s structure.
Jackson, a receiver and defensive back at the time, was working out three times a day as a high school sophomore, plus lifting weights and going to practice daily, in addition to extra field work.
“People don’t understand how much work we put into this,” he said. “When people were out partying and doing this and that, we were working.”
Johnson’s line for Jackson was always: “Don’t miss the bus.” In other words, even though he was talented, be on time and do the work and do things the right way.
“Don’t miss the bus is real,” Jackson said with a laugh Friday. “That’s something he was preaching to me. Now it’s playing out pretty much exactly how we planned. Coach Kev had us on a plan. We stuck to the blueprint.”
They saw the returns of their hard work well before the NFL, like in Thomas’ freshman year at Georgia when Salyer was still back at Pace in his senior season.
“I’ve never told this story before,” Johnson said. “Part of the reason Georgia recruited Andrew hard was because they wanted Jamaree. Georgia didn’t intend for Andrew to be ready to play. But then in the second week of camp I get a call from [then-Georgia offensive line coach] Sam Pittman.
“He says, ‘What are you doing up there at Pace Academy?’ Andrew is probably our third or second best offensive lineman on the team. We’re gonna start him at guard,” Johnson recalls. “I told him he could put him at guard. Andrew just wants to play. Then the next week he called again and said, ‘Coach, he’s out playing everybody. We’re putting him at right tackle the first game.”
The rest is history, and the Pace crew remains fiercely loyal. Johnson is still offended by Thomas getting “snubbed in the Pro Bowl” voting.
“Knowing him, he took it personally,” he said of Thomas. “I know I took it personally. But that just puts more fuel on the fire.” Jackson wrote
Salyer said Jackson told him “he’s proud of me” last week on the field as they traded jerseys.
“Running out of the tunnel on Monday Night Football was a big moment for me,” Salyer said.
Thomas said he’s “excited” for Jackson, “a very gifted athlete” who “worked hard and always did extra.”
And Jackson raved about Jones, his former Duke teammate, whom he last saw this summer at the wedding of Chiefs tight end Noah Gray, their college teammate.
“All these years he’s been in New York I told people don’t sleep on him, he’s like that!” Jackson said. “I’ve seen it with my own two eyes, just wait. And seeing the success he’s had this year I’m happy. He deserves all the praise and recognition he’s getting.”
Thomas admitted he had been hoping that he and Salyer — who have “played together all the way up” since they were 12 years old at Chapel Hill Middle School in Dekalb County — would end up on the same NFL team, too.
“I was hoping to [keep playing with him] when he came to the league just to go and finish it, but it didn’t work out like that,” he said with a smile. “Maybe we still got some time, who knows.”
In the meantime, he’ll settle for meeting his good friend Jackson at the 50-yard line on Sunday afternoon and appreciating all over again what Johnson described as a “special” achievement.
“It’s a lot of years in the making,” Jackson said. “It’ll be surreal.”
GIANTS GAME STATUSES
Doubtful: CB Adoree Jackson (knee). Questionable: OLB Azeez Ojulari (ankle)
Giants coach Brian Daboll said of safety Xavier McKinney: “Probably not this week.”
Leonard Williams (neck) remained limited Friday but came off the final injury report and will play
COLTS GAME STATUSES
Out: CB Kenny Moore II (ankle), WR Ashton Dulin (concussion), TE Kylen Granson (ankle).