Put me in coach, I’m ready to play!
That’s something Joe Thomas Sr. thought for decades.
On Saturday afternoon, in a win against Savannah State, the 55-year-old South Carolina State tailback heard his number called and he gladly took to the field and made college football history.
The former Blackville High School standout carried the ball for a three-yard gain, becoming the oldest college football player to play a down in an NCAA Division I game.
He finished with four carries for minus-1 yard. But even a negative total on the stat sheet couldn’t take away from the moment Thomas admits he had longed to see for 36 years.
“That was very satisfying; I was so excited,” he said. “I was glad to get to play and make history.
“It’s a very good feeling. Maybe the hole (in the offensive line) should have been a little wider. But everything went well and I was glad that Coach (Buddy) Pough gave me the opportunity. The licks didn’t hurt me or anything, and the next day I wasn’t sore.”
Before the game started, Thomas Sr. was among the 11 Bulldogs seniors recognized in a Senior Day ceremony. His wife, Sarah, was on the field with him, and his 80-year-old mother, Ruth, was in attendance.
After the game, Thomas was carried off the field by teammates nearly a third his age, and he was presented with a game ball. The lifelong dream had become reality.
But it’s a reality that nearly didn’t happen. A low grade in one of his engineering classes kept Thomas from being eligible to play for most of the season. And before that, there were multiple drawbacks that kept him off the field.
“I didn’t go to college for many years because I didn’t want to fail,” Thomas said. “Nobody likes to fail. But then I saw some people who had been in college, and they didn’t seem too smart.
“So that gave me confidence and I took a chance. You’ve got time to study on days between classes and everything. College has been kind of easy for me, compared to high school. When I was younger, I couldn’t hear that well. Now I can hear and pay attention and learn.”
Having walked onto the same team he had encouraged his son (Thomas Jr..) to walk onto, it looked for a while like Thomas Sr. would never get the chance to play college football. The chance for father and son to make history together came and went.
Thomas Sr. was in a car wreck caused by a drunk driver in 2013, tearing both an ACL and MCL in a knee. That same year, he filed for bankruptcy.
Thomas Jr. graduated from S.C. State in 2014, went undrafted, but landed a contract with his current team — the Green Bay Packers.
Son and father never got to even practice together at S.C. State. Then, in 2014, Thomas Sr. had surgery on a strained sciatic nerve in his right leg. At one point, his doctor wouldn’t clear him to play. So Thomas Sr. found a new doctor who would clear him.
In 2015, he practiced regularly, but only on special teams. In 2016, his dream finally became reality.
Thomas Sr.’s friends and family know that he doesn’t back off from a challenge. He has proven as much in recent years — leaving his home in Blackville long before daylight to arrive at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium for practices, going from there to classes that take him into the afternoon, and driving from class to various locations in Columbia where he does interior construction and painting. At night, he drives back home, gets three or four hours sleep, then gets up and does it all over again.
“I know a lot of people with my schedule would have just given up on something; but that’s just not me,” Thomas Sr. said. “I felt pretty confident that all of this would work out. My dream came true, and that’s all that matters to me.
"Once the season ends, it will be finishing up my engineering degree and moving on with life.”
Since Saturday’s record-setting runs, the calls haven’t stopped coming for Thomas to do interviews and tell his story. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t allowed to be in the preseason team photo because he wasn’t eligible at the time, and who hadn’t been tackled all season long until a conference game.
CNN had him on for a live interview after Saturday; ESPN sent a College GameDay crew to an early-morning Bulldogs practice this week; and even a rival football program in the HBCU ranks has requested that Thomas Sr. come tell his inspirational story on their campus.
So a college football player who has never traveled to an away game and has only played in one game is now both a celebrity and spokesperson for his university and his age group.
S.C. State head football coach Buddy Pough recognizes that Thomas has given hope to those of all ages who still have a dream of accomplishing something important to them.
“I’ve had some calls from even some of my ex-teammates wanting to come out and play again,” Pough said. “I’ve gotten all kinds of calls from guys who I don’t even know.
“It’s given some inspiration to the 50-and-above crowd that it ain’t ever over til it’s over. That might be the most exciting part in the whole deal, having given a whole new generation of prospects a chance to think that they might have the possibility of getting out there and getting it done.”
People told Thomas that he could get hurt playing football. He told them he could get hurt in another car wreck or while working his job. But football was a dream and a love that he wasn’t ready to leave in the past.
This Saturday, at home against Bethune-Cookman, the senior-most Bulldog could get more playing time in the final game of his senior season.
“I’m already getting excited,” Thomas Sr. said on Tuesday. “Hope I get to play a little bit.
“I’d like to play defense before I go, but special teams is fine with me too. As long as I’m out there and part of the team, I’m happy. I got my blessing and this has been a great time in my life.”