MIAMI — "It should be easy for you. You're in the music business," Buccaneers defensive line coach Brentson Buckner says to Chad Thomas 10 minutes into the workout. The former Hurricanes defensive end is standing next to a neon yellow agility ladder on the University of Miami's practice fields.
Buckner asks Thomas to do a reverse karaoke drill, something he hasn't done since high school. He must tap his right foot inside the ladder, then cross his left leg behind him and tap the opposite side of the ladder. It's a difficult drill.
He nails it on the first try.
"It's just rhythm," Thomas says after zig-zagging his way through the ladder, displaying his agility and hip mobility.
And it's just become part of the predraft process for Thomas, who's been asked about his music career constantly in workouts and meetings with NFL teams.
The 22-year-old already has an impressive resume, producing tracks for artists like Rick Ross, Kodak Black and City Girls; being sampled by DJ Khaled and Drake; and recently dropping a five-track EP, Lil Tape. He can read and write music and has the ability to play nine different instruments (piano, organ, drums, guitar, bass guitar, trombone, clarytone, tuba and trumpet).
Projected as a Day 2 pick by B/R draft analyst Matt Miller, Thomas will soon become a professional football player—something his parents never imagined while supporting his passion for the sport—but is also creating his own wave at the intersection of South Florida's subculture: hip-hop.
Which is why the conversation around his future in football always transitions into the one question he hates: How much do you love football?
"You ask me that question, I feel like you trying me," Thomas says after his workout with the Bucs while sitting on a couch at his cousin's smoke shop in Liberty City, the predominantly African American neighborhood five miles north of downtown Miami in which Thomas grew up.
NFL teams are uncomfortable when a football player pursues off-the-field interests, maybe none more so than hip-hop. Even if Thomas' musical talents are more virtuoso than just another athlete trying to be a rapper, the lifestyle is viewed as a distraction. It causes decision-makers to question whether a player wants to be a rapper or a football player.
If they only knew what it took to get to this point, this wouldn't be a question.
"Anybody can do something and make a million dollars without hitting they head, breaking their bones or losing their life on the football field," says Thomas, who suffered a concussion at Miami and broke his hand in high school. "I love football so much that I'm willing to sacrifice my body for it."
Thomas loves football so much that he spent his last year at Miami fighting NCAA eligibility rules to play. As he was set to begin spring football for his final collegiate season, Rick Ross informed him on FaceTime that one of his beats would be showcased on "Apple of My Eye," the opening track on Ross' album Rather You Than Me, featuring Raphael Saadiq. Ross, a Miami native, has known Thomas since high school.
Soon after the release of the song, Thomas says he was contacted by Miami's office of NCAA compliance demanding documentation of income he earned in this profession before he entered college and of payments he had received from music during college.
Although he wasn't held out of any offseason practices or workouts, Thomas says he was told his eligibility hung in the balance. "They kept reminding me, 'Boy if we had a game this Saturday, you won't be playing,'" Thomas says.
He cooperated with the compliance office to remain eligible without profiting off his likeness. He used "Major Nine" as his rap name, a nickname that started as "Nine-Nine" in high school because of his jersey number but evolved in college. He used his Twitter account solely to promote his music and couldn't post his songs on streaming sites for profit. He says he was prohibited from tweeting about Miami or posting pictures wearing Miami attire on that account.
"They were trying to take away my love, football. You can't take that away from me. If somebody takes football away from me right now, Imma find my way back around it. Imma be coaching, doing something."
(The NCAA declined to comment on Thomas' situation, and messages to Miami seeking verification of Thomas' portrayal of his interactions with the compliance office were unreturned.)
Thomas expressed his frustration on "Do Not Disturb" last summer for his mixtape For Sale and then didn't release any music for the rest of the season. He channeled the anger on the field, developing into a leader on a team that went 10-3 and played in the Orange Bowl. He finished the season with 5.5 sacks and tied for a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss.
Constantly drowning in my thoughts this a deep sea
I'm writing letters just to ask if I could use my name
Fake smiles and head nods just to play the game
"They robbing us," Thomas says of the NCAA. "You walk by stores and they got your number in there—some of them even got your name on the back of it—and you can't get no money from them. They feel like they giving us a free education like that's all we need. People still got families at home, and they're struggling. We gotta use those college checks to help our [moms] out and stuff."
Thomas will soon secure his NFL bag and help financially provide for his parents, who didn't expect their son to make it to the league given the extremely slim odds. They were reluctant to let him play in the first place. His mother, Stefanie Jones (who Thomas calls "Shawty Red" when she's listening to his music and giving her opinion before it drops), isn't a football fan and didn't want her son to get hurt.
Thomas started playing at around five years old but stopped soon after due to a heart murmur. He says it doesn't affect him anymore and that there wasn't an issue during his physical at the NFL combine.
Jones' uncle, Roger Finnie, played 11 NFL seasons during the 1970s with very little to show for it after he retired. Jones and Thomas' dad, Chad Sr., didn't want that for their only child. They envisioned Thomas pursuing a career in his first love, music.
Thomas has had rhythm ever since he was three years old, when he took piano lessons from his grandmother and became obsessed with Mystikal's "Here I Go," a song that still speaks to Thomas when Mystikal repeats, "I know y'all n---as ain't f--king with me cause I can't f--k with my damn self!"
"Ain't nobody messing with me because I don't even know how great I am until you put me under pressure, and I just go to work," Thomas says.
At the same age, Thomas played the drums at two church services on the weekends. On Sundays, when his grandmother cooked family meals after service, Thomas would grab a couple of old pots and make his own drum set on the floor, switching out the pots to get the sounds he wanted to replicate the songs he played at church.
After his grandmother died from cancer when he was five, Thomas continued to learn the piano on his own. He later would add the trombone, bass and acoustic guitar to his repertoire. At age 11, he was accepted in the Norland Middle School band, where they played songs by South Florida rappers like Grind Mode and Piccolo. It was the one class where Thomas and his friends gave their undivided attention because, "We was gonna play something gangsta."
Thomas started exploring DJ equipment during trips to the music store with his dad because of his love of hip-hop, and when he was in seventh grade, Chad Sr. bought him a Roland MC-808 drum machine for his birthday to allow him to make beats with live instrumentation.
"He's an actual musician, which is what I thought he would be," says Chad Sr., who envisioned Thomas becoming a band teacher who would play side gigs at events like weddings.
Still, his son kept asking if he could start playing football again.
After seven years of saying "no" since that heart murmur, Chad Sr. finally agreed and signed him up to play—without telling his mother—as a reward for his performance in the classroom. Hovering around 160 pounds at 12 years old, Thomas played on both sides of the trenches against kids older than him, some by three years.
In a state where toddlers sign up for football immediately after their first steps, Thomas lacked experience. He was extremely raw. But he loved it. And his parents supported his passion.
"You can't walk on the street and just hit nobody," Thomas says. "I like fighting. I ain't gonna lie. I like fighting, but I'm too old for that. So I go on the field and know I can legally hit somebody and smash 'em and the worst I get is a flag or kicked out the field—that's cool with me. I ain't trippin' about that."
In high school, Thomas learned how to balance football and music. His father enrolled him at New World School of the Arts, a public magnet high school known for its performing arts, and he played football at Miami Jackson, where his father worked. Thomas would ride the bus to Miami Jackson, where he was often late to practice. And all this as a third-stringer.
It wasn't until his junior year that Thomas gained buzz in both fields. He transferred to Booker T. Washington, where legendary head coach Tim "Ice" Harris began developing him into a 5-star defensive end prospect.
After a victory over Miami Carol City, Thomas' phone blew up. But it wasn't about the game; it was about his music. He had just started making music again after a brief hiatus, and local artist Lil Dred jumped on the remix to one of his tracks, "No Shone."
"I felt like I was the man," Thomas says. "I'm doing football and music, and I'm doing good at both. Ain't nobody doing that."
His platform continued to grow as he stayed home to play for the Hurricanes, developing into a full-time starter during his junior season and snagging 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. At the end of the season, Thomas made the saxophone-laced beat for Ross in his bedroom.
"N---as who play football love football, and they love something else," says DJ Sam Sneak, who is Ross' official DJ. "A lot of the times it's just not in entertainment. With Chad, it's music. Music is like his second love next to football. You can't tell him he's not going to do it. You tell him that, and he's going to show you he's going to do it."
Thomas' lyrics and production are fueled by his environment in Liberty City, where the sounds of police sirens, helicopters and dirtbikes are common at any given point near his cousin's smoke shop—a place where Thomas resides when he's not working out or at home. "Where we sitting at right now, there could be about 100 traps around us," he says of the lower-income community. "It's just poverty. That's just what it is."
Liberty City has birthed rappers like Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, Trick Daddy and Trina, as well as athletes like Chad Johnson, Santana Moss, Teddy Bridgewater and Devonta Freeman. Moonlight, which won an Oscar for Best Motion Picture, was set in Liberty City. Director Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote the film, are both from there too.
Thomas puts on for his city by making beats for local rappers, including one for the Ball Greezy song "Dats My Bae," which has over 3.5 million views on YouTube. Just after he gave the beat to Greezy, Sneak reached out to ask if he still had it. Rihanna was interested. But it was too late. He'd already sold it.
Thomas was so mad, he didn't make music for a week.
"If I would've sold it to the person it was supposed to go to, yeah, they would've really questioned me about football," Thomas says.
He's expected to have another beat on Rick Ross' upcoming album, Port of Miami 2: Born To Kill, which will feature A Boogie wit da Hoodie (who leaked the beat on his episode of Netflix's Rapture docuseries) and Denzel Curry. Sneak, who wore Thomas' college jersey during Grammy weekend this year, says the record is a "banger."
"My n---a is gonna win a Grammy," says Sneak. "I'm telling you right now. He's gonna win a Grammy."
When Ross' album drops after Thomas is drafted, it will probably cause another wave of questions about whether he cares about football. There's "one or two percent" of Thomas' mind that reminds him the NFL can also stand for "Not For Long," with the average career lasting about three years. But he considers it one of the greatest temporary jobs ever, and he wants it to last as long as possible.
The music will always be there for Thomas, who has displayed over the last decade he's capable of dropping it or picking it up when he sees fit. But don't get it twisted: Football is his priority, as it always has been, whether NFL teams are able to wrap their heads around that or not.
"They'll never understand somebody doing something and being great at two things that require a lot of mental ability, a lot of strenuous hours," Thomas says. "They'll never understand that because it ain't easy to them. But it's easy to me."