Old School

While draft hype consumes NFL nation, Wisconsin's Joe Thomas is chilling in Madison, hitting the books and the brats and waiting for life to get even better
April 22, 2007

There may not be abetter off-campus house in America than the one that Wisconsin senior tackleJoe Thomas shares with five teammates in Madison. Miller Lite tap in thekitchen, poker room in the basement, John Belushi poster on the TV room walland--everyone's favorite--padded red bra hanging from the antlers of asix-point trophy buck. "I was just doing laundry one day, and it snuck itsway into my clothes," Badgers defensive back Ben Strickland saysmischievously while watching Pardon the Interruption from the depths of arecliner. In Thomas's room upstairs, his laptop rests on homemade legs: fourrolls of toilet paper. In the backyard there's a hot tub, a hammock and acouch. The best in late-night college carryout is within stumbling distance onMadison's busy streets.

There may not be abetter school in America to study real estate and urban land economics thanWisconsin. Thomas carries a 3.5 grade point average in the undergraduateprogram, which is ranked second nationally by U.S. News & World Report, andeven with the NFL draft looming, he has a full course load this semester:Finance 300, real estate finance, business law, real estate development. Whosays a guy can't be Jonathan Ogden and Donald Trump in the same lifetime?

There may not be abetter campus workout facility for a leading NFL prospect than the Badgers'weight room. No distractions, Green Day playing over the sound system, spotteralways at the ready. Strength and conditioning coach John Dettmann designed aregimen that the 6'6", 313-pound Thomas has been following four afternoonsa week in preparation not for the NFL scouting combine or a private workout butfor his first NFL minicamp, in May.

There may not be abetter fiancée in America than Annie Nelson. A mix of Jennie Finch, AndreaKremer and Miss Bassmaster, she's a fetching former Badgers basketball playerwho just finished her first season as a radio commentator for her old team andwho grew up fishing with her dad in northwest Wisconsin. "I never wanted todate a football player, and I spent the first couple of weeks hanging out withJoe trying to find something wrong with him," says Nelson, who'll graduatein May with degrees in economics and broadcasting. "But I couldn't. He'sjust ... perfect."

There may not be abetter college hangout in America than State Street Brats in Madison, whereThomas recently was enjoying one of the best bratwursts money can buy, with anorder of cheese curds on the side. Nelson was seated next to Thomas, giving himthe goo-goo eyes. "Why," he wondered aloud, just before biting into hisbrat, "would I have wanted to leave here for anywhere else thiswinter?"

Good question.It's typical of most top prospects to leave school after the fall semester andhead to a training facility in Florida or Arizona that specializes in preparingplayers for the combine and the draft. Workouts are specifically designed toboost 40 times and bench-press reps, and every calorie is counted. Then, in theweek leading to the draft, a half-dozen guys who are expected to be among thefirst picked are flown to New York City, where they're wined and dined, fittedfor designer suits and set up for photo ops. On draft day they sit nervouslywith their families at the draft venue (Radio City Music Hall again this year),television cameras documenting every bead of sweat as they await theirfate.

This year five ofthe six prospects invited to New York--Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams,Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson, Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson,Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and LSU QB JaMarcus Russell--migrated totraining centers shortly after the college football season, and all areexpected to attend the draft on April 28. Thomas, who could go as high as No.2, to the Detroit Lions, not only stayed in school but also plans to be fishingwith his father, Eric, sitting in a boat in Lake Michigan on draft day, 875miles from Radio City.

"Coho salmon,Chinook salmon, rainbow trout," says Thomas, 22. "Some of my bestmemories are of fishing with my dad, and I'd rather spend a nice Saturdaymorning doing that than sitting in New York waiting to see what happens to me.I'm not a big fan of the limelight. Plus, to me, draft day's not the importantday. It's what I do after draft day that's important."

"Oh, I lovethat," says Lions coach Rod Marinelli, after Thomas's comment is relayed tohim. "When you're looking for a guy you'll pick at the very top of thedraft, you're looking not just for pluses but also for holes. And I don't seeany in Joe Thomas."

To get anunderstanding of Joe Thomas the person, consider these two events in his life:the C he got in eighth-grade algebra and the torn knee ligament he suffered ina bowl game 15 months ago.

Thomas grew up abanker's son in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, the oldest of Eric andSally Thomas's three children. The parents believed team sports, fishing andhunting were important--Joe played travel soccer, basketball and baseball inaddition to youth football--but only if the kids' chores and homework got done."I'd get fined if I left home without making my bed in the morning,"Thomas says. That C in algebra earned him a three-month grounding; except forschool and sports he was homebound. "No dances, no going out withfriends," he says. "I thought my parents were the worst people in theworld, of course."

"Joe has anexcellent math brain," says his father, "and we wanted to make sure itdidn't go to waste." The next term Joe aced every quiz and test, and whenhe brought home an A on his report card, the shackles came off. "A veryvaluable lesson," says Joe, who still adheres to it.

At Wisconsin,Sharon McCabe, a senior lecturer in real estate and urban land economics, hashad Thomas in two of her classes. "Believe me, this is no slough-off majorhe's in," she says. "You've got to work hard to succeed. He got A's inboth classes, and he never once asked for an extension on any papers orprojects because of football."

While atBrookfield (Wis.) Central High, Thomas played tight end, tackle, defensive endand punter, but after seeing spot duty at TE and DE as a Badgers freshman, hewas moved to left tackle for good as a sophomore. He started his last 38college games there, allowing five sacks. Late in the 2005 season, however,Wisconsin lost two defensive ends to knee injuries, and Thomas volunteered toplay on the defensive line in the Capital One Bowl against Auburn. In the thirdquarter he went in on defense. On his second series, in pursuit of a sweep tothe opposite side, he planted his right leg to change direction and ripped theanterior cruciate ligament.

"I never onceregretted volunteering to play defense, even when I was on the ground thinking,That could be my last football play ever," he says. "I said before thatgame I wanted to do anything to help our team win, and I wanted to have fun. Iaccomplished both goals. We won [24--10], I got to play defense, and I think Ihelped the team win. The decision I made was best for the team, so it was bestfor me."

Says Wisconsinoffensive line coach Bob Palcic, "He doesn't just say things like that. Hemeans them."

That leads to anunderstanding of Joe Thomas the player. Last season he came back strong fromthe ACL tear, winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interioroffensive or defensive lineman after allowing one sack and one quarterbackpressure in 13 games. The report from NFL scouts on Thomas: very athletic; awide stance and quick feet keep lithe pass rushers from beating him wide; goodat using hands to knock pass rushers off-balance; can get overpowered by a bullrush once or twice a game but stays low and uses leverage well; a good runblocker overall. At the combine in February he ranked at or near the top amonglinemen in every relevant category.

"I'll stake myreputation on it: Joe's going to be an excellent left tackle for as long hewants to be," says Palcic, who coached for 12 years in the NFL. "Icoached [Baltimore Ravens All-Pro] Jonathan Ogden and [former JacksonvilleJaguars standout] Tony Boselli in college years ago, and Joe's going to beevery bit the player they've been. I don't see a weakness in him."

SI asked fivecoaches with picks in the top 10--all of whom had evaluated Thomas ontape--whether they thought he'd be an above-average NFL left tackle. All saidyes. The Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, drafting fifth, said Thomas "isa natural. His stance, his hands, his feet, his athletic ability ... he'll bean outstanding left tackle." Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, holding the10th pick, called Thomas "a slam-dunk top left tackle for 10years."

Of course, noprospect is risk-free. Three years ago Iowa's Robert Gallery--same position,same conference, same stand-up kind of kid as Thomas--was the second pick inthe draft, but he has struggled at three spots on the Oakland Raiders'offensive line. "Robert Gallery is not Joe Thomas," says Kansas CityChiefs defensive end Tamba Hali, a Penn State product who played against bothtackles. "Thomas is quicker and more athletic. He can move and get hishands on the rushers before they get around the corner. I think he'll be ableto do that at the pro level, and that's the most important thing for atackle."

Back at StateStreet Brats, Thomas is discussing what motivates him. "Fear of failure. Itdrives me to work the way I work. I learned from my parents that hard work isits own reward. Hard work makes me happy. That's why actually getting draftedand getting the contract--those aren't the big things to me. The first minicampis important, and learning the offense, wherever I'll be, isimportant."

"You know whatJoe loves?" Annie Nelson says. "Being prepared."

"The firstgame last season [against Bowling Green]," Thomas says, "I'm coming offthe ACL injury, and I give up a sack. I was embarrassed. Totally embarrassed.That pissed me off so much I couldn't stand it. And after that game I wassooooo pissed off. I was determined not to give up a sack the rest of the year,and I didn't. To me the left tackle and cornerback positions in football aredifferent from the other positions. You can play well 69 of 70 plays, but ifyou give up a sack or a big reception on one play, you're not doing your job.You need to be perfect."

But in the NFL,Thomas is told, he will face players who are quicker, stronger and trickierthan those he dominated in college. He can't expect to be perfect in the pros."You can try," Thomas says. "My goal, every year, will be to allowzero sacks and zero pressures. You should never set a goal of less thanperfect."

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"I'm not a big fan of the limelight," saysThomas. "Draft day is not the

important day. It's what I do AFTER THE DRAFT that'simportant."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERLOTS TO LIKE Thomas gets effusive praise from NFL scouts as well as fiancée Nelson (left), a former Badgers basketball player. PHOTOJC Ridley/WireImage.com[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWINGING IT Joe and Annie enjoy the simple pleasures, and come draft day you might find he's hung out the GONE FISHIN' sign.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)