He's arguably the best college lineman in the country. He's already been named a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, he's a competitor for the Outland Trophy and is close to a sure thing to be an All-American first-teamer come December. NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. has him placed comfortably inside 2007's projected top-five selections and has openly discussed him as potentially the top pick in April.
Yet, Joe Thomas refuses to embrace any of this. In fact, if you met him when his jersey was off, you'd have no clue after a few minutes of friendly conversation that you were in the presence of Sports Illustrated's cover boy for their preseason "Big Man on Campus" feature (well, besides by his 6-foot-8, 313-pound frame).
"Joe's one of the most level-headed guys I know," Badgers' center Marcus Coleman said. "If you didn't know him, you would never expect he was an All-American football player.
"He's just one of us, just a normal college guy."
A normal college guy? Shouldn't somebody who's getting all this publicity be more proud of his accomplishments? How is Thomas so well-grounded, so genuine, so … so … humble?
"He's just a friend, he's just Joe," right tackle Eric Vandenheuvel said. "[His status] is kind of cool when you think about it, but being around him so much, he's a friend of yours, you don't really realize it, he's just Joe."
"He's a great leader, just a great guy, great player, it's good to learn from him," added right guard Kraig Urbik, the other returning starter on offense from 2005 besides Thomas and UW quarterback John Stocco. "Nothing goes to his head, he's very humble, he's just a good player."
"Joe is just another coach," left guard Andy Kemp said. "He's a great leader, he'll help anyone out, especially the o-line; when we have any problems, anything like that, Joe will talk it over and we'll get it figured out."
The praise for Thomas, a Brookfield Central graduate, doesn't end with his linemates under position coach Bob Palcic.
"Joe's an example of the type of football player that you want on your football team," Palcic said. "If you looked up in the dictionary 'football player,' Joe Thomas' picture should be there.
"Joe didn't get to where he is by doing things half-heartedly," Palcic continued. "He's first-class as a person, he's first-class as a student and he's first-class as an athlete."
Thomas has had an up-and-down year, both on the field and off it, but said he feels he is playing as well as he ever has in a cardinal and white uniform.
"I've been watching games, getting ready for the opponent the next week, and you watch yourself," Thomas said. "[I'm] far better, it's not really even close from how I was last year to how I am right now."
"Joe's a student of the game, he's very intelligent, he's very athletic," said Palcic, who has coached a number of NFL Pro Bowlers in his career. "He reminds me very much of Tony Biscelli and Jonathan Ogden, two of the great college players I had while I was coaching at the University of Southern California and at UCLA. He's of that caliber."
Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema has echoed those sentiments throughout the season.
"There are things that Joe brings to the table that I think set him apart," Bielema said. "I find it interesting to hear commentaries talk about who's going to win the Heisman or what person is going to be the one that takes the grandest prize of them all. And I think the definition that anybody kind of gets out of it is the Heisman is supposed to go to the person that performs at the highest level and brings his team to a higher level of success because of what he does, and Joe Thomas may be the biggest factor for our success on the offensive line."
Bielema quickly made it understood that while he's not serious about suggesting his star offensive tackle should be awarded college football's highest honor, he absolutely believes Thomas stands toe-to-toe with any other lineman in the nation.
"I'm not pushing him for the Heisman, but any other award an offensive lineman should and can [win], he should be in the thick of it."
Playing through adversity
Everybody's human, nobody gets special treatment all the time. Two events in 2006 have showed Thomas that very, very bad things can happen to very good people, even those who seem to have everything going for them.
In the Capital One Bowl Jan. 2, the Badgers' upset victory over No. 7 Auburn was bittersweet for Thomas. He hadn't yet made a decision as to entering the impending NFL Draft or not — even as a junior, he was projected to go somewhere in the first round — but the choice was disappointingly made for him when he tore his right ACL filling in on the defensive line, taking away any opportunity at an eligibility for the 2006 Draft.
"Going through the whole process, you're always wondering if you are going to be able to getting back to playing the way you did, feeling normal," Thomas said. "When that happens, it's a really good feeling."
The blow has been softened a bit by Wisconsin's 7-1 start to the 2006 campaign, when there were doubts as to whether Thomas would be at 100 percent for the season and even more doubts in the Badgers' ability to win games in Bielema's first year as a head coach.
"I'm enjoying my senior year more than any other year I've had so far," Thomas said. "That's what your senior year's all about, I love playing with the guys that are all around me."
Thomas' terrific senior year has come with one very, very large hole. Though he recovered fully from the injury, it's hard to think Thomas will ever get over the loss of one of his best friends from high school, Luke Homan, a UW-La Crosse student who drowned in the Mississippi River three weeks ago.
A multi-sport star along with Thomas, UW cornerback Ben Strickland and UW long snapper Steve Johnson, Homan was extremely close with the three current Badgers throughout their years at Brookfield Central. Homan, who went on to play basketball at UW-Milwaukee for two seasons before transferring to La Crosse, was pronounced dead Oct. 2 in the river.
The three friends of Homan were able to return to Madison five days later to play Northwestern, but Thomas said he "had never thought so little about the game." Nonetheless, Thomas helped propel running back P.J. Hill to a season-high 249 yards.
"A number of people who come up to me and said that they've gone through similar situations, [it was] so helpful and it was unbelievable the feeling, they were all behind me, Ben and Steve," Thomas said after the game. "They were going to do everything they could to help us."
Thomas and Strickland saw to it that Homan's parents, who attended the game less than a week after the tragedy, received a game ball from the Badgers.
"We all rallied around his family, it just showed how strong our group of friends was and how much people care about each other," Strickland said. "Sometimes there are things bigger than football; it's life, it's friendships, it's relationships."
Vandenheuvel says that somehow, some way, Thomas has found a way to become an even better player through his heartache, caused by a devastating loss in the midst of his senior year in college.
"I think those things have inspired him even, to come back through adversity and become even a better player than was the last year," Vandenheuvel said.
True to his roots and the "Four Musketeers"
Rick Synold has been associated with Brookfield Central High School football since 1978, when he started out as a running backs coach. He became the Lancers' head coach in 1988 and stayed on until 2004.
When he signed on with Wisconsin, Thomas became the first Lancer to earn a Division I scholarship in 25 years, according to Synold. Despite the vast number of players he has coached in nearly 30 years, Synold — now the head coach at Del Barton Catholic High School in New Jersey — speaks of Thomas, Strickland and Johnson as if they left yesterday, and not when they graduated in 2003.
"He stops by school all the time, he's lifting, it's good for the kids to see that," Synold said in a phone interview. "I saw him at a Badger game with Benny Strickland, and all those guys up there, and they go out up there, they haven't forgotten us and it makes me feel good."
It may surprise Badger fans to know Thomas didn't always have the hulking, imposing body he uses now to throw Big Ten defensive ends around the field. His freshman year, Thomas was a lanky 6-foot-3, 140 pounds — "a little puppy," as Synold called him.
Synold recalled his favorite memory of Thomas, when during his senior year a teammate brought in a tape of skinny little Joe attempting to run on the field in a youth-level game.
"We were having a pre-game meal, before we went out for the state competition, and somebody brought in a video highlight of Joe in fifth or sixth grade," Synold laughed. "Just watching him try to run out on the field, he tripped, and it was the biggest laugh we had as a team in I don't know how long."
Despite Thomas' formerly slender self, Synold says his versatile athlete — Thomas played offensive line, defensive line, tight end and even a little running back — had the athleticism, as well as the proper grounding from his parents, to go far.
"I don't think anybody would have him as a top-five pick [in the NFL Draft], but because of his athleticism, whatever he did, he was very fluid at it for somebody his size," Synold said. "With Joe, it's family first, and that's always been that way. It's an extended thing, it comes down from the grandparents also, they're very, very close."
Synold said he remembers Thomas, Strickland, Johnson and Homan well as another tightly-knit group, this one at the top of each major team at Brookfield Central.
"The Four Musketeers, you don't get that in high school, not only even in high school anymore, multi-sport athletes," Synold said. "They didn't have any rest during the school year, they were just involved, they were four-sport people."
Johnson said Thomas was taught to be respectful from his parents and extended parents, but it was Synold who helped teach Thomas a proper work ethic, which Thomas picked up completely at Wisconsin.
"Joe always had great athletic talent, but he was a little lazy," Johnson said. "It wasn't until high school, especially junior and senior year that he really became really serious. You know he always had the talent to do it, but [it wasn't until college] where I think that's when he realized that he could do something with it. Everybody dreams about it as a kid, but when it becomes a reality, that's when he became focused on it."
Thomas credits Synold for helping with the recruiting circus surrounding him four years ago, with Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Stanford, USC and other top programs courting him intensely.
"He was a great coach for us, he was kind of the guy who taught me about working hard and dedicating myself to the team," Thomas said. "I appreciate what he has done for all three of us, and he was a great advocate of me when I was getting recruited. He really did a great job of exposing us nationally to coaches and trying to get us scholarship offers."
Getting away from it all
It's obvious that Thomas is not in love with his mirror. The guy wasn't groomed to soak up the spotlight, to thrive when in it and pout without it.
The place where Synold believes Thomas feels most comfortable seems appropriate enough for the star tackle.
"Joe's very happy probably in a boat fishing, with a plaid shirt on," Synold said. "I think that's where he likes to be. That's his favorite spot, he is just down to earth.
"That's Joe, he's very sincere about that because it's him."
As Palcic said, Thomas isn't just a top athlete and a great person. Holding down a 3.5 GPA — even through the pressures of a rigorous football season, rehabbing from the knee injury and concentrating on setting himself up for the onslaught of NFL scouts in the spring — Thomas has always placed an exceptionally high value on his academics.
"I never went into anything in college expecting to play in the NFL. I was just going to have to be working in the work force just like everyone else, and so I treated my schoolwork just like that," Thomas said. "Some people forget about their schoolwork and think that the NFL is the only thing they're going to do, and when you do that, you really put a lot of pressure on yourself to be good enough to play in the NFL. I never wanted to put that sort of pressure on myself, and I always wanted to have a great option for myself if football didn't work out for me."
Thomas is majoring in business with a focus on real estate and urban land economics; he interned this summer at Merrill Lynch in Madison. He has expressed a desire, whether during or after his NFL career, to try and work with real estate in some manner.
"I'm obviously really interested in it, and I love the classes that I've been in, I just love everything about it," Thomas says. "Even if I am able to have a successful career in the NFL, I'd still like to do real estate after that."
Strickland calls Thomas "the smart guy, the know-it-all," and believes Thomas will be just as successful in the business world as he can be in football.
"A lot of guys would just be blowing off class and being like, well, I'm going to be in the NFL, but he realizes that his education's important," said Strickland, who along with Thomas has won Academic all-Big Ten honors in the past. "I think that comes from his mom and dad too, harping on him to keep hitting the books."
Knowing Thomas, Strickland predicts that Thomas will prove Synold right and make every attempt to stay in the comfortable Midwest as long as he can.
"I've got my money on Joe buying a piece of land up north, that's the first thing he does when he gets his money, because he definitely has his sanctuary when he wants to get away," Strickland said. "He has his fishing and his hunting and all that. He's a big outdoorsman. It's a big priority to keep sane in his life."
Because of the injury sustained in January, Bielema and his staff prohibit Thomas from practicing with the Badgers every single day in order to keep him fresh for Saturdays. But according to several members on the coaching staff, No. 72 isn't out there on Tuesdays, his days off, screwing around, cracking jokes or messing with his teammates.
"He's not in the back messing around with the wide receivers or the tight ends," Bielema said. "He's right in there giving Danny Kaye, Andy Kemp, Urbik, Eric Vandenheuvel advice on how to do things better, and that to me kind of gives a true display of what he's all about."
Of all Joe Thomas' greatest qualities, his commitment to his fellow teammates stands out as a major trait. Even though he's much older than his linemates, Thomas consistently attends a weekly ritual, where the offensive line gets together at backup guard Kaye's house and watches Sunday Night Football, complete with pizza and video games.
"It's just been such a fun journey, especially seeing the way the guys have grown since we did have so many new guys," Thomas said. "Being an offensive lineman is a special thing and being part of that group is a special bond that you don't get at any other position."
Several players and coaches used the words "just one of the guys" when asked about how Thomas acts when he's around Camp Randall, the practice field, the weight room, on road trips and everywhere else.
"I don't think he likes all the recognition and everything, it's just not the way he was brought up," Johnson says. "He's had a really good family, [his success] never changed any relationship that we've ever had, any relationship with any of our friends."
Thomas' team-first mentality, according to Strickland, goes back as far as high school track at Brookfield Central.
"He won both shot and disc, and that was something he was focusing on a state record," Strickland recalled. "At the same time, he saw at the end of the meet that we were getting close and we had a chance to win the state for points, and I think that seeing that meant more to him than just his individual win.
"That speaks volumes to the guy he is, he's proud of what he does, but at the same time, he likes to share the joy with others too. It's carried over to his college career too."
"That's what it is to me, that's where you get the enjoyment out of sports is the camaraderie amongst your teammates and winning as a team," Thomas said. "It's not like anything else that you'll ever experience in your life."
Even the younger players, including scout team freshmen, have taken to Thomas' leadership and dignity as a top player.
"Joe's just a straight-up nice guy," freshman scout team cornerback Jay Valai said. "You see him on TV, he's [perceived as] a big superstar, but he's probably the most down-to-earth guy on the team this year, hands-down. If you didn't know Joe was this big-time superstar, it's because he's this big, nice guy."
Palcic said Thomas is a breath of fresh air, being the rare athlete who refuses to take the credit himself and is constantly dishing praise elsewhere.
"That's the way that it should be," Palcic said. "Let's be thankful for the gifts that we've all been given, and that's another great characteristic of Joe is that he's humble even though he realizes that he's in an elite group, being one of the very top football players in the country."
No matter how high he goes in the draft, or how revered he becomes in Madison and across Badger nation, Thomas is content to be remembered for nothing more than the effort he put into Wisconsin football.
"I just want to be known as somebody who works hard and gave everything he had for the program."
Well, as Vandenheuvel put it so accurately, that's just Joe.