METAIRIE, La. (AP) -Pierre Thomas, who watched the Bears nearly every fall on Sundays while growing up near Chicago, never made it to a game at Soldier Field.
This Sunday, he'll see his hometown Bears play in person, and he won't need a ticket - at least not for himself.
He may end up starting at running back for the visiting New Orleans Saints, with Reggie Bush (knee) and Aaron Stecker (toe) both sitting out practices with injuries this week.
``It's like a dream come true and a crazy moment at the same time, because just coming into my rookie year, I did not think things were going to go this way,'' said Thomas, who said more than 75 friends and relatives have asked him for tickets.
Thomas has gotten 10 tickets so far and said he can't really afford many more. He's an undrafted rookie, after all.
``I really did want to get a lot more, but hey - tickets - that's a lot of money,'' Thomas said. ``That's like a whole paycheck right there that's gone.''
Back in training camp, Thomas was a longshot to make the Saints' active roster. New Orleans came into the season with a couple of star running backs in Deuce McAllister and Bush, not to mention Stecker and fourth-round draft choice Antonio Pittman.
Thomas, who rushed for 2,545 yards and 20 touchdowns during his college career at Illinois, said he signed with the Saints knowing his odds of making the team were slim. Still, he wanted a chance to practice with a couple of top running backs so he could see how he compared and what he could learn.
He improved quickly, impressing coaches with a couple of strong performances in the preseason.
He had 11 carries for 90 yards and touchdowns of 6 and 19 yards in the Saints' fourth preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Then, in the final preseason game against the Dolphins, he was the Saints' rushing leader again, gaining 81 yards on 16 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown run.
The Saints ended up cutting Pittman, now with St. Louis, and keeping Thomas, who spent the early part of the season playing on special teams.
In Week 3, McAllister went out for the season with a knee injury moving Thomas to third string. As his playing time increased, he ended up in the highlights.
His first NFL touchdown came when he recovered a blocked punt in the end zone during the Saints' victory at Seattle in Week 6. The next week, he rushed for a slashing, tackle-breaking 24-yard touchdown in New Orleans' victory over Atlanta.
With Bush missing the past three games with a partially torn knee ligament, Thomas has backed up Stecker, who sprained his toe last Sunday in a loss to Philadelphia.
For the season, Thomas has 30 carries for 146 yards, an average of 4.9 yards per carry.
This week, he has practiced as the Saints' first-team running back as New Orleans (7-8), still alive for the final NFC wild-card playoff berth, prepares for the Bears.
``I've just been blessed and at the same time it's just kind of tragic the way I got in,'' Thomas said. ``It is a tough sport. You don't want to see anybody get hurt.''
Thomas pointed to the lockers of McAllister, Bush and Stecker, adding, ``I definitely did not want to see any of these guys get hurt because I learned a lot from them and I wanted to keep learning a lot. They've been helping me, teaching me on the side.''
As a rookie, one of Thomas' unofficial duties has included making runs to a nearby sandwich shop for fullback Mike Karney, who last week was selected as an NFC alternate for the Pro Bowl.
Now Karney, who spent most of his first four years in the NFL blocking for McAllister, Bush and Stecker, could end up leading Thomas into the Bears' tough defensive front.
``Pierre has shown potential all year long. He carries himself like a veteran, prepares himself like a veteran,'' Karney said. ``If he is the featured guy, we've got a little bond going. He's a good kid, a hard worker and I expect him to be ready on Sunday.''

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