DETROIT—Playing in the NFL as an undrafted free agent is an uphill climb, but Noel Thomas Jr. is on the right track.

After surprisingly not being selected in the 2017 draft, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound wide receiver from UCONN signed with the Detroit Lions.

Despite impressing coaches in the preseason, Thomas was waived when teams had to reach the mandatory 53-man roster limit. While his status as a player was on waivers, his confidence never did.

“He’s got a never say die attitude, he’s a glass half full guy,” said Thomas’ father, Noel Sr. “Even this experience, I haven’t seen him once drop his head or lose confidence. When he was originally sent home from the Lions for a couple days, he was still supremely confident at home on the couch, he said, ‘I’m not done.’ He thought he would still have an opportunity to continue playing, and that says a lot about his character; if it was me, I probably wouldn’t have handled it so well.”

It turns out Thomas Jr.’s confidence in himself was well placed. Once clearing waivers, the Lions signed him to their practice squad, where he will have an opportunity as a rookie to learn what NFL life is about and make a push for a roster spot on the Lions or another team.

Thomas played for his father at St. Luke’s—a private school in New Canaan—before heading to UCONN. When Thomas Sr. watches his son play, he still does so as both a coach and father.

“It’s more as a father at this point, but it’s always as a coach as well,” Thomas Sr. said. “I don’t share the coaching points like I used to. Both sides are always going to be there, but it’s more as a dad now.”

At UCONN, Thomas set the single-season receptions record in 2016 with 100 catches for 1,179 yards. Thomas finished his career with 183 catches (fourth in school history) for 2,235 yards (eighth).

Thomas was awarded the Walter Camp Foundation Connecticut Player of the Year in 2016, which recognizes the top collegiate player from the state.

While being on the practice squad is certainly no guarantee for the future, the elder Thomas has seen what his son can do with the cards he’s dealt, and expects him to make the most of his situation going forward.”

“It means a lot because he’s able to keep his dream alive,” Thomas Sr. said. “In life, that’s all we can really ask for. I’m really appreciative and humbled by his resilience as well, and still taking advantage of every opportunity.”

aparelli@bcnnew.com @reportedbytheAP