FLOWERY BRANCH - Emmitt Thomas understands exactly what Brent Grimes is trying to accomplish with the Atlanta Falcons.
Both were undrafted college free agents who left small schools to become starting cornerbacks in the NFL.
On the surface, the similarities end there. But Thomas, who will be inducted this weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, believes that Grimes' route to the NFL compares favorably.
'Brent Grimes has overcome a lot of obstacles and has met significant changes on his way to the National Football League,' Thomas said Wednesday. 'He's a hard worker and he genuinely wants to get better every time he's out there on the field.'
Ask Thomas, and he will say that Grimes has persevered through two years as a practice squad player and a season in NFL Europe to prove that the league's draft isn't so significant if you have enough talent.
In 1966, Thomas left Bishop College, a historically black school near Dallas to sign with Kansas City. Three years later, his play at cornerback contributed largely to the Chiefs' Super Bowl win over Minnesota.
Thomas retired after the '78 season with 58 interceptions, a number that still ranks No. 9 on the NFL's career list.
Grimes, a former standout at NCAA Division II Shippensburg University, has worked the last two seasons under Thomas, a 28-year league assistant and three-time coordinator who took charge of Atlanta's secondary in 2002.
In the final two weeks of the Falcons' dismal 4-12 season last year, Thomas was the interim head coach when Grimes made his NFL debut. DeAngelo Hall was manning his usual spot on the left side of the secondary when right-side starter Chris Houston was injured and unable to stay on the field at Arizona.
Grimes' play impressed Thomas even though Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin beat the Atlanta secondary for 13 passes, 162 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Boldin became the first player in league history with 400 career receptions in his first 67 games.
Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner spent most of the game firing in the direction of Grimes, who was fortunate the Cardinals' other star wideout, Larry Fitzgerald, had to play with a sore groin.
'They are two Pro Bowl caliber-receivers,' Grimes said. 'It was a good experience to play against those types of players. I learned a lot from it.'
Considering how often Arizona threw at him, it was no surprise that Grimes ended his first game with a team-high 11 tackles. Regardless, Thomas liked how quickly the rookie closed in coverage and praised his calmness under fire.
Grimes will be under attack this year, and he must impress the coaching staff in preseason to keep his job. He welcomes the challenge, however, particularly since Thomas, new head coach Mike Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have entrusted him to take Hall's spot on the left side.
'Everything is exciting, but I have been dreaming about this my whole life,' Grimes said. 'I figured out that if I worked hard enough I would eventually get here. It is very exciting to start playing in the NFL, but it is not something that I never thought it would happen.'
Replacing Hall, whose defiance led Atlanta's front office to trade him to Oakland, is no easy task. But when the coaching staff was trying to decide who would take over on the left side, Grimes was favored over Houston, a second-round pick last year and a player with better credentials.
'Brent has some games under his belt, just not at this level,' Smith said. 'It's going to be a learning curve, but he's got a good skill set. He just has to focus every day and try to get better.'
The Falcons have already shuffled personnel in the secondary after losing Von Hutchins, who signed a four-year, $9 million contract as an unrestricted free agent three months ago, this week to a season-ending foot injury.
Hutchins' absence means that rookie Chevis Jackson, a third-round pick from LSU, has taken over the No. 1 nickel job.
Grimes is just trying to let all the information soak in. He's grateful to have veteran safeties like Lawyer Milloy and Erik Coleman. Both offer tips consistently.
Thomas gives plenty of pointers, too.
'When you ask them how you should play a coverage a certain way, they give great advice,' Grimes said. '(They understand) the ins and outs and answers what we need to know.'