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Thomas' return brings renewal

He pranced around the end zone after each of his three touchdowns against Denver with the exuberance of a man who had never scored in the NFL. A week later, the showboat antics that became common at the Orange Bowl in the early 1990s were again in full effect inside the Georgia Dome.

Six seasons after becoming the University of Miami's all-time leading receiver, the Dolphins' Lamar Thomas was back.

Really, the Hurricanes standout had not gone anywhere, but that was the problem. His career had stood on the launching pad since 1993, fueled with potential but bogged down by personal problems and ineffective play.

Instead of a countdown, Thomas had been counted out. Some Dolphins observers doubted he would make the roster in 1998. Even after surviving the final cut, Thomas was the lightning rod on a receiving corps labeled by the Miami Herald as the worst in the NFL.

Lamar, you have a problem.

But Thomas blasted off this season and his rocket reached stardom Dec. 21. In a Monday night game Miami coach Jimmy Johnson called one of the biggest victories in franchise history, Thomas provided the most memorable pictures, giving the ball to family members in the stands each time he scored in the 31-21 victory over the Broncos.

Sunday, Thomas put an exclamation point on each of his four receptions against Atlanta. He mocked the Falcons' Dirty Bird dance, stuck the ball into a camera lens and handed it to a Falcons assistant coach.

Miami tight end Troy Drayton says he has not seen that swagger from Thomas since the receiver was an All-American in 1992. Missing for most of Thomas' career, including the first three seasons with the Bucs, has been the chutzpah that had annoyed opponents and inspired big plays since he was a three-sport star at Gainesville Buchholz.

Yet as the Dolphins enter today's wild-card game against Buffalo, all the assets have returned for Thomas thanks to maturity, family and self-assuredness.

"I lost some confidence in Tampa," said Thomas, a third-round draft choice who had only 25 catches with Tampa Bay. "Sometimes I questioned my ability. When you have coaches, an organization and players who don't believe in you, it's hard to believe in yourself. I've always fed off of having coaches who believe in me."

Johnson added receivers coach Robert Ford, a former Dallas assistant, to his staff this season, and Ford believed. Miami's top three receivers, Thomas, O.J. McDuffie and Oronde Gadsden, have been interchangeable, showing Thomas there is no hesitancy to call on him. Thomas calls Ford a gift from heaven.

"He's extremely talented," Ford said. "He's a guy whose skills are different but they're play-making skills and as long as you believe in Lamar and he knows you believe in him _ his motor runs by his feelings _ he's something special."

Thomas' teammates in Tampa Bay might not recognize the man who is third among Miami receivers with 43 receptions for 603 yards and five touchdowns. He still has the easy smile, thin 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame and spindly legs, but the changes in his approach have given him a new identity.

Thomas stays after practice every day to catch extra passes. He takes videotape home every week to study opponents, and in his locker is a spiral-bound notebook filled with information he has jotted down during team meetings this season.

The change was typified by a conversation Thomas had with former Miami receivers coach and current quarterbacks coach Larry Seiple on Thursday.

"I was trying to explain to him about certain coverages and I said, "Do you think I would be able to tell you that last year?' And he said, "Hell no,' " Thomas laughed.

"I think he's become a true professional," Johnson said. "I think sometimes guys come from college and they don't realize it's a job. It takes some longer to learn it than others, but I think Lamar has grown a lot in a lot of different areas."

Thomas' room for improvement was as vast as a Hollywood mansion when he was released by the Bucs in 1996. Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy somberly dismissed a teary-eyed Thomas a week after he was charged with battery on his fiance, Ebony Cooksey, and amid revelations he considered suicide in 1995.

Now Thomas has resolved differences with Cooksey _ a picture of the couple hangs in his locker _ and they are parents to an energetic 22-month-old son. Chandler Thomas was born on Lamar's 27th birthday, Feb. 12, and Lamar said he has a birthday gift for life.

"To mature on the football field is a great thing, but to be able to try and mature in life, especially when you're a father, is more important," Thomas said. "The most important thing for me is developing and trying to become a better person, especially for my little boy."

Team officials said Thomas is one of the most active and reliable players when it comes to community service, and not just at large events where cameras are present to enhance his image. Thomas said that on and off the field, he tries to set an example for his son.

His other inspiration is his grandmother, Eris Thomas. She was one of the three relatives to get a ball from Thomas at the Denver game, and the woman who helped raise Lamar still has an influence.

"They're my beginning and my end," Thomas said. "My grandmother was there in the beginning of my life. My grandmother and my grandfather did everything they could for me. They were my world.

"Now my son, he's my end. I want to be there for him everything my grandfather did for me, I want to be able to do it for him. I want to be able to hug him, to kiss him, to tell him when he falls down, "I love you son.' "

Infused with a new approach, Thomas wants to help his young team go beyond last season, when it lost a wild-card game to New England.

"The atmosphere is 50 times more intense than a high school playoff game, maybe 25 percent more intense than a college bowl game," Thomas said. "It's like playing a national championship game each week. It's like playing one of your heated rivals each week.

"Hopefully, we learned something from it _ that feeling of having to clean out your locker was no fun."

Bills (10-6) at Dolphins (10-6)

LINE: Dolphins by 2{.

WHERE: Pro Player Stadium.

ANNOUNCERS: Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason.

PLAYOFF IMPACT: The winner plays at Denver next week if Jacksonville beats New England on Sunday. If the Patriots win, the winner plays at Giants Stadium against the Jets.

KEY INJURIES: Bills _ DE Phil Hansen (knee), CB Thomas Smith (knee) are out. G Ruben Brown (pectoral), WR Quinn Early (head) are questionable. Dolphins _ LB Larry Izzo, DE Jason Taylor (clavicle) are out.

DOLPHINS NOTES: In its first 10 games, Miami averaged 113 yards rushing and had seven games with more than 100 yards. Then the offensive line was hit with injuries and Miami averaged only 66 yards in its final six games. Now T Richmond Webb and G Kevin Donnalley are expected to play, and coach Jimmy Johnson is hoping for a rushing revival. The Dolphins also have an improved passing attack with QB Dan Marino averaging 285 yards in the past six games, 69 yards more than his season average. Miamiwas 7-1 at Pro Player, and it allowed 10.3 points and 222.9 yards per game at home.

BILLS NOTES: The Bills' reversal from 6-10 to 10-6 was the AFC's biggest turnaround in 1998, and QB Doug Flutie was the reason. With Rob Johnson starting, Buffalo lost to Miami 13-7 in September at Pro Player. With Flutie, the Bills won 30-24 at home. The Bills gained more than 300 yards in their last seven games, their longest streak since Games 9 through 15 in 1992. The Bills have won one of 16 games on grass since 1995. They lost three of four this season.

HOOPER'S PICK: Dolphins 20, Bills 19

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