The Senior Running Back: At 55 years old, Joe Thomas Sr. is trying to make college football history
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — An hour before sunrise, the first player pushes open the doors of the locker room and bounds into the bright lights of the stadium. It's half past six in the morning, and this is South Carolina State's final full practice before its Homecoming game. For the next 10 minutes, players stream out to a playlist booming from speakers set on top of a laundry bin. Trainers top off water jugs and wheel them to the benches. Cheerleaders wearily sway on the opposite side of the field. The head coach, Buddy Pough, spins in on a bicycle and begins issuing orders to assistants.
Joe Thomas Sr. strides out to join the team. He's the only player without even a single accessory: no leggings, no wristbands, no gloves, just team-issued blue-and-white striped shorts, his No. 47 jersey and an unadorned helmet. With the pads bulking his chest and the helmet guarding the wisp of grey at the peak of his hairline, he hardly seems 55 years old.
Midway through practice, he slips a yellow scout team sleeve over his helmet and jogs onto the field to rehearse kickoff return coverage. He's been at this for the better part of four seasons, enduring bleary-eyed predawn practices designed for players 35 years younger and in peak physical condition, with one goal in mind: To get in a game and make history as the oldest man ever to play Division I football. Detractors be damned: Joe was born to a sharecropper and raised a Green Bay Packer. He could barely hear until 17 and still graduated high school. And no one will be able to convince him that he can't compete until he takes the field and tries for himself. "I believe that if the coaches looked past my age and just let me play football," he says, "I'd steal someone's position."
Age isn't the only way time that is taunting him: South Carolina State has only two games left this season, and because he's a senior, he's running out of opportunities.
Joe doesn't get a carry in practice. For at least another week, history will have to wait.
Joe wheels his white mid-'90s Mercedes SL420 to the engineering building. He opens his door and lets out a full-body yawn, stretching his arms toward the sky, and then points me toward the building. I flew here to visit this small MEAC school in southern South Carolina with a struggling football team because a friend, months earlier, had told me a story: A middle-aged man who'd tried but failed to play college football with his son but was still determined to see the field at age 55. I'd come expecting to find a feel-good Rudy-type tale. Instead, what I found was a story that was far more complicated.
Joe has changed from his pads into a red South Carolina State polo and windbreakers. Playing football has always been his dream, though the reason he enrolled in college four years ago, at age 51, was to be able to get a stable job—and to prove to himself that it is never too late in life to start over. As we near the entrance, he jogs in front of me to open the door. Joe has been awake for four hours, an hour longer than he slept last night, but even for his least favorite class—Applied Electricity II, which he failed last semester—he still arrives early and appears eager.
As a child, Joe dreaded school. Before kindergarten, he passed the days in a white man's fields, where his mother and father farmed cotton and cucumbers and watermelons. He is the fourth of his parents' 12 children. His mother, Ruby, would give birth and be back in the field two or three days later. His father, Willie Thomas, nicknamed "Slick Willie," had two children with other women while married to Ruby. When there was no work, he'd disappear into drunkenness for days at a time. For Joe, life in the fields—where he felt powerful and productive even if the work was repetitive—was simpler.
At dusk, when the family walked back home, Joe was the slowest and would often fall behind. Instead of running to catch up, he'd drop to his butt on the unpaved road and scream and throw dirt and twigs into the air until someone returned to collect him and carry him home. Before bed, he'd complain of earaches, and his mother would pour Castor oil into his canals to soothe the pain. The world around him hushed to a whisper.
At home, his parents would whip him with an electrical cord when he didn't listen, not realizing that he couldn't. His brothers nicknamed him "Dummy." At school, he sat in the front row; if he strained, he could hear the teacher. He would copy his neighbor's homework each morning before class to keep his grades up. To study for tests, he'd scribble each paragraph of the assigned chapter three times in his notebook. He developed a speech impediment and would duck out of class before being called on to read aloud. "I was so lonely back then," Joe says. "I felt like no one in my family liked me, and it was so hard to make friends at school."
When he turned nine, his parents put him to work in the fields and with his father logging. He grew stronger and faster and learned that while his words couldn't rescue him when he was teased, his fists could form a stinging reply. By fifth grade, when he was diagnosed with a hearing disorder, he had become the bully. His parents' divorce that year left him even more isolated and angry. In ninth grade, he beat a boy so mercilessly he thought he killed him and sprinted straight from school into his sheets and stayed still all night awaiting police sirens that never came.
In Joe's mind, the world kept finding fresh ways to slight him, but he chose to fight. He was born poor and didn't like walking to school, so he'd take the broken bicycles the wealthier kids abandoned, fix them and keep them. He was driven to doctors across the state for years, but none could find a cure for his hearing, so he would steady himself in front of a mirror most nights and stick a hair clamp down his canals to clean them out. He was placed into a vocational program at his high school, so he set out to become the best damn carpenter and bricklayer he could. He played peewee football but never saw the field at tailback, so he switched to defense and started lifting weights and muscled his way into the rotation.
On the football field, he discovered that determination could overcome nearly any deficiency, even deafness. He began to see that friendships could be based on mutual admiration rather than intimidation. He learned, most importantly, that he could have an identity.
When he was 17 a doctor looked into Joe's ears and saw the build-up he'd accumulated from all those years of thrashing around in a dirt road. He procured a tool that Joe remembers looking like a squirt gun and out gushed decades-old gunk. "Suddenly, I could hear at least 200% better," Joe says.
The world was open to him again. And as his anger faded, his popularity grew. He got up the courage to ask out a girl named Sarah, who would become his wife. And in 1979, as a junior, he finished second on the Blackville High School football team in tackles. He put so much weight on his 5' 10" frame that kids around school took to calling him Hulk. In the final game of the season, he finally got a chance to run the ball. He finished with five touchdowns, so many that the cannon Blackville fired after each score ran out of powder and the opposing coach asked the referees to run the clock continuously in the second half so that he could get home early and hunt deer the next morning before church.
As a senior, Joe believed he would become a star. He continued to play both ways but started at fullback and was the team's second-leading rusher. He insists, to this day, that he was the second best back in the state, that he would have been even more dominant—that he could have made it in college football—had his coach played him more. "What I was doing in South Carolina," he says, without a hint of hyperbole, "was the same thing that Herschel Walker was doing in Georgia."
In the 1980 season, the Hawks marched undefeated into the state playoff semifinals, where they faced their archrivals at Williston, a high school 10 miles west. For decades, Joe has been telling the story of this game. In the long weekend I spend with Joe, he brings it up a dozen times at least. And he always lingers on one point—his coach, Tim Moore, didn't play him enough. "I only got one play at running back," Joe says. "I got the ball and was tackled on the hand off, and we lost the game. If I had run the ball more, we would have won, and we would have won the state championship."
That night, Joe and I decide to drive to see Moore. I pick Joe up at his house in Blackville, a town that has more churches than restaurants and that has seen its population decline by nearly a third since the turn of the century. We navigate winding a winding route, where the shuttered warehouses and struggling farms that shoulder the road tell the story of Barnwell County, an area of South Carolina that seems to have missed all the booms but found all the bottoms.
As we drive, Joe tells me that after high school, he tried to make it as a boxer in Atlanta, but wound up right back in Barnwell County, working on an assembly line and then as a correctional officer at a nearby prison. It was there that a friend introduced him to professional wrestling. He developed a character—The Bone Crusher—and for the next several years spent his weekends DDT-ing and headbutting his opponents into submission. When his mother saw him perform for the first time, she thought the show was real and threw a chair in the ring when two opponents clotheslined Joe with a metal chain after he'd already won.
Wrestling filled some of the void that football left in his belly, but it also provided some of the same slights—he couldn't stomach losing to skinny guys he could clobber in unscripted bouts. After he and Sarah had their third child, Elijah, who was born prematurely and had mental disabilities, Joe quit. He began opening small businesses, everything from landscaping to chartering buses, but settled on construction. He took pride in his ability to build a profitable company that employed 10 people without even knowing how to turn on a computer, but nothing in it could ever match the feeling of running onto a high school football field surrounded by thousands of people, farmers who'd driven from an hour away and workers who'd walked their from their factory, paychecks in hand, looking to sucker someone into a bet. He'd dream those nights back to life in his 20s and 30s, taking handoff after handoff and trotting for touchdown after touchdown, laughing at opponents in his wake. Then he'd wake up a day older. . . .
We arrive after 7 p.m. to meet Moore, who is sturdy, whip-smart and still practicing law at 70. On his walls are pictures of his son, who played tight end at Princeton, and of players he coached who went on to play college and pro football. He seems overjoyed to see Joe and reminisce about his eight-year run as the head coach of Blackville High School. Eventually, Joe brings up that 1980 game against Williston.
"Ah yes. Well, we woulda won that game if somebody hadn't fumbled in the fourth quarter," Tim says and winks at Joe.
"I don't think I fumbled that game," Joe says. "If I did it had to be during the first half."
Tim lifts a finger in the air and walks out of his office into the hallway. He returns a moment later with a manila envelope. From it, he removes the 1980 football program, a team picture, stats for the season, the hand-drawn gameplan he gave to players every Monday and a play-by-play of each game that season. He shows us Joe's season statistics—he was the second-leading rusher, he averaged 9.67 yards a carry and he ran it about 12 times a game.
Tim leafs through the papers until he finds the Williston game. "Ah yes," he says. "Here it is."
Behind Tim's desk, Joe nudges me to indicate he believes Tim has found evidence in his favor.
"Fourth quarter . . . 41 [Joe's number], five-yard carry, fumble . . . recovered by Williston," Tim says. "They get the ball back and score, making it 13–8. We get the ball back once more but there's not enough time left for a drive. End of game."
Joe disputes once more but Tim turns the box score over to him, showing that Joe had 13 carries for 69 yards and one fumble. After a few more minutes of pleasant conversation, Joe and I get back into my car. As soon as the doors shut, he says, "Something was still off about that game." It becomes clear that this game has fueled him for decades; that 36 years later the perceived slight still guides him forward.
The following night, Joe takes me to Williston High for its annual matchup with Blackville. About a thousand people show up, and Joe seems to know every one of them. He smiles and shakes hands, always armed with a question about a recently born grandbaby or a sick mother-in-law. He spends most of the night with former teammates and rivals. Very few wear their years as well as Joe. Most were stunned when Joe told them he was trying to play college football, but they understand the temptation to relive the past.
"I joke with people now that as soon as I touched the ball in high school, the refs would signal for a touchdown," says Jeff Toban, who started at tailback for Williston in 1980. "The older you get, the better you were. You don't remember what happened anymore. You just remember what you think happened."
It's easy for me to understand how these memories warp over time. At least once a season—if not far more frequently—these men gather to resurrect the glory days. Tell a story enough times and it becomes true among you. There is one unbelievable fact about that 1980 game, though, that everyone agrees on. After the loss, Joe found every Williston player he could and told them to remember his name: "You're going to be seeing it again," Joe told them.
Ten years later, Sarah gave birth to a son. Eighteen years after that, Joe Thomas Sr. sat in the stands and watched Joe Thomas Jr. help Blackville beat Williston 21–0.
On Saturday afternoon, I meet Joe at South Carolina State's Homecoming game. Joe doesn't travel to away games, and he is awaiting an NCAA waiver to clear him academically so he can dress when the Bulldogs are at home. I find him leaning against the fence at field level and scanning the sidelines for Joe Jr., who has returned for a weekend after winning a Thursday Night Football game against the Bears in Green Bay. They spot each other and Joe Jr. begins the long trip around the field to join us. Maybe the most remarkable thing about Joe Sr. is how he raised his son. He brought up a boy in a town where the median income is $25,000 and helped him become a wealthy man. Joe Sr. gave his son the strength to see through his lack of scholarship offers and still struggle and sweat his way into the NFL.
When Joe Jr. was 9, his father enrolled him in peewee football and began to train him like a professional. They'd rise before first light to lift weights, to drag a weighted sled across the front yard, to run sprints. Joe Sr. even designed special weighted boots to help his son gain strength in his calves when he wasn't actively exercising. "The way he trained his boy," jokes Al Sept, Joe Jr.'s peewee coach, "some people would consider that child abuse."
"I wouldn't be where I am today without my father," Joe Jr. says.
Joe Sr. watched his son follow in his footsteps, run for 18 touchdowns and 1,600 yards as a senior in 2008 . . . but lose in the state semifinal. One day that season, Joe Jr. was running sprints in the front yard when Joe Sr. came home from work, and he decided to challenge his father to a footrace. Joe Sr. didn't change out of his work clothes and boots. He didn't even drop down to a sprinter's starting stance. By the time Joe Jr. got going, his father was two strides ahead—and stayed there till the finish. "One of my more embarrassing moments," he says.
Joe Sr. helped his son make a highlight reel and used some connections to give him a shot as a walk on at South Carolina State. It was a good project for Joe Sr., as the Great Recession was gnawing Thomas Enterprise down to just him. He fell behind on his house payments, sold his rental properties to survive and couldn't find work that didn't demand a college degree. One day in spring 2012, he came home and asked Sarah to help him fill out a college application, then drove to Orangeburg to ask Joe Jr. if he'd be okay with his father joining him at college.
In the fall of 2012, his first semester, Joe Sr. asked to speak to coach Pough after watching one of Joe Jr.'s practices. Pough, who figured it would be a typical meeting with a concerned parent, was shocked when Joe Sr. asked to walk on to the team. "He was really enthusiastic about it," Joe Sr. says. "He thought it would be good publicity for the school."
"At first, I thought it would be really weird," Joe Jr. says. "When my teammates found out, they'd say things like, 'Your dad is coming for your spot.' But he's a grown man, and I wasn't going to get in the way of his dreams. I'm happy for him now."
Bad luck kept father and son from being college football's first-ever father-and-son teammates: Joe Sr. was in a car accident caused by a drunk driver and tore his ACL and MCL in 2013, the same year in which he had to file for bankruptcy. Joe Jr. graduated in 2014 and went undrafted but landed on the Packers' practice squad and then their 53-man roster. The father and son never practiced together. In 2014, Joe Sr. needed surgery on a strained sciatic nerve in his right leg. In 2015, he practiced regularly but only on special teams. Since he's on the scout team, he rarely practices in contact, and he hasn't seen a snap at tailback this year. "How am I supposed to prove myself," he asks, "if I don't get a real chance?"
On the field in front of us, South Carolina State cruises to a commanding 27–3 first-half lead. The Bulldogs, who have won five MEAC titles since 2008 but went 7–4 a season ago, are 3–3 and don't see too many lopsided scores like this in their favor. The end of a game like this one would be the perfect opportunity for Joe to sneak onto the field for a carry, but instead he slips out of the stadium midway through the fourth quarter, frustrated with another missed chance.
When the game finishes, I meet Pough in a cramped coaches' locker room adjacent to the players'. At 65, he's had both hips and a knee replaced. He sits down slowly, sighs, and says, "His evaluation of himself is different than our evaluation of him. We tried to make him a running back. We tried to make him a linebacker. Nothing has stuck. All that being said, I know it would mean the world to him and it would be special to our fans. If we get a possibility to put him on the field, we will."
Pough has reached the same conclusion that so many have with Joe: Maybe he is a serial exaggerator, but how do you stand in the way of a decent man chasing a dream?
I say farewell to Joe and as I weave through the crowd of tailgaters, who seem to outnumber those still in the stadium, I bump into Joe Jr. a final time. I tell him all that I've learned about his father as a football player—his fourth-quarter fumble, his chances with South Carolina State. Joe Jr. laughs and says he's always known his father told tall tales. "But none of that matters," he says. "My father raised me to be the person and the player I am. I don't know how good he is or he was as a football player, but I know the kind of man he is. That's good enough."
So many of us are incubated in the warm glow of American optimism, told that we can write for ourselves whatever future we want. Joe was not. He was shaped in the shadow of slavery, in the lonely silence of disability. He didn't discover that light until late in life, and when he did, he began to rewrite some of his own story, and now he was penning one final chapter.
Joe has been cleared to play, and on Saturday he dressed as South Carolina State took on Norfolk State. But the game was too close for the coaches to risk putting him on the field. Pough has designed a play for Joe, though, and he has pledged to put him in if the Bulldogs are up big. I asked Joe early on what he believed would happen if the time came and he found his feet on the field. "I just imagine myself running free," he says. And that would be a story worth telling.