NEWARK - Their bond began to take shape over a simple game of catch -- quarterback to receiver, tossing the football back and forth.
With each passing day, Peyton Manning grew more and more impressed with the tight end he barely knew. The newly signed Broncos quarterback took note of Julius Thomas' physique during that 2012 offseason, envisioning the ways Thomas could help Denver's offense.
"I remember the first time throwing to him -- his size jumps out to you,'' Manning said this week, referring to those throwing sessions during his rehabilitation from neck surgery. "This is a 6-5 tight end with broad shoulders, and he could really run.''
And then the unexpected happened: The following week, Thomas underwent surgery to repair ligaments in his ankle.
For a second straight year, his season was cut short because of an injury in the offseason. And that's the last thing the 2011 fourth-round pick needed. After catching just one pass for 5 yards in nine games in 2011 and 2012, Thomas issued a promise to his teammates.
"I showed up in April,'' he said, "and I told all the guys: 'Every day in practice is Sunday to me.' I spent too many Sundays watching football. I'm going to come out here and treat it like a game because I need to show Peyton, I need to show everybody on our team that I'm healthy, I'm ready to go.''
And he was right.
Thomas, who caught two of Manning's seven TD passes in Week 1, had a breakout season, hauling in 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns -- a club record for tight ends -- and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
The 250-pound Thomas is confident his size and pass-catching ability will present matchup issues for the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. "I'm going to give it everything I have,'' said Thomas, whose father, George, was an H-back in the early 1980s at University of the Pacific, where Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was his offensive coordinator.
"I think my skill set can give me some opportunities to do some good things,'' added Thomas, who played basketball for four years at Portland State and football for only one season. "But I'm just going to look to make plays. That's what I remind myself during the game and before the game. When the ball comes your way, take advantage of it. You never know what kind of role you're going to have in that game.''
Thomas was a raw talent coming out of college, and fans were anxious to see the Broncos develop that potential.
"That was kind of tough because there was all this excitement about me joining the team early on in my training camp and my rookie season, and then to get hurt -- a lot of people who were around Denver and came to practice saw what I could bring to the game.''
But questions remained.
" 'Is this guy going to be a bust? Is this guy going to continue to do the things we've seen?' But I think there's always going to be that -- even after this year, it'll be 'Can he do it next year?' '' Thomas said. "It feels great to be able to go out there and play well. But every year you've got to continue to show that you're going to show up.''
Manning didn't know during those early throwing sessions that Thomas would emerge as a trusted weapon within his high-speed offense.
But he had a feeling.
"What I saw early on I was impressed with,'' Manning said. "It was exciting to get him back this year, and he has just bought in. He has committed himself every day.
" . . . I always like that, being an older player, when a young player truly wants to be a great player. I think he does. If he keeps that up, he will be for a long time. He is a big part of why we are here this week.''