Jeff Thomason awoke and shook his wife.
"Hon," he said, "I had an incredible dream last night."
"You're not dreaming," his wife, Blake, said. "It's really happening."
Most days, Thomason worked 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., sitting at his desk, talking on the phone, meeting with subcontractors, going over the thousands of details involved in building and marketing a community of homes.
No one cheered him, but then again no one tackled him and he didn't have to throw any blocks. He had settled into a quieter life than he had known as a tight end in the NFL. He was learning, he said, "how hard it is to earn a buck in the real world."
Wednesday, a day when dreams and reality merged, Thomason donned a helmet in his first practice for the Super Bowl-bound Philadelphia Eagles -- 11 days before the game.
He wore No. 85 and took the roster spot of his good friend and former Eagles teammate Chad Lewis, who hurt his foot on his second touchdown catch in Philadelphia's 27-10 victory Sunday over Atlanta in the NFC title game.
Lewis called Monday, saying he wanted Thomason to play for him in the Super Bowl. After calls from other coaches and a quick workout, Thomason was an Eagle again.
He studied films Wednesday morning, ran drills in the afternoon, did interviews in between as photographers captured his incessant smile and the stars in his eyes, two years after he had played the last of his 10 NFL seasons.
He suddenly was cast in a Hollywood ending for a solid, if unspectacular, career he thought was over. Against all odds, a second Super Bowl ring was in his grasp. He couldn't stop beaming. His wife, his 9-year-old daughter Taylor, his co-workers, everyone he knew was "going crazy," he said, at this unexpected chance of a lifetime.
As a project manager in training for the housing developer Toll Brothers, Thomason was a desk man who donned a hard hat only when he walked the building site.
He could've gone soft doing that kind of work, but he chose instead to stay super fit training for triathlons -- for the sake of his health, his competitive juices and just in case one day a team called.
If that call came, he was ready, having competed in a half-dozen Olympic-sized triathlons -- shorter than the Ironman versions but still grueling with 1.5-kilometer swims, 40-kilometer bike rides and 10-kilometer runs.
But one season went by, then another, and he turned 35 on Dec. 30. By then, he and Blake had three children: Taylor, 3-year-old Lily, and 1-year-old Beau. Thomason had committed himself fully to a career as a real estate developer.
His office in Chesterfield, N.J., is unadorned by memorabilia from his NFL days -- three years at the end with Philadelphia, five with Green Bay before that, and two at the start with Cincinnati in 1992. There are no photos of his two Super Bowls with the Packers.
"Unless you know him well, you don't know that he played football," Toll Brothers co-worker Michael Assofsky says.
As badly as Thomason felt about the injury to Lewis, he leapt at the chance to make a one-game comeback in the Super Bowl. He loved his new day job, but he could hardly resist suiting up one more time.
"I think I'm still floating," Thomason said before the first practice.
Some great players go their whole careers and never get into a Super Bowl. Some rather ordinary players have been lucky enough to get to one in their first season.
Some work hard all year, pounding and getting pounded week after a week, only to miss the big game because of an injury. One man's misfortune being another's opportunity, some players slip fortuitously into the spotlight.
It happened two weeks ago to cornerback Hank Poteat, who had been taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh when he joined the New England Patriots. Out of the NFL since being released by Carolina in the preseason, Poteat took injured Ty Law's roster spot and played well as a reserve in two playoff games.
Thomason was a logical choice to fill in as a reserve for the Eagles. He played with them for three years, knew their offense well, and had trained under Andy Reid when he was an assistant to Mike Holmgren on the Packers.
Hero, goat or bystander in this Super Bowl, Thomason does not worry or wonder why.
"I'm just thrilled to have an opportunity," he said. "If I play two plays or 20 plays, I want to be in there and do whatever I can. The crazy thing is two weeks from today, I'll be back at a desk, thinking, 'What did I just go through?"'