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Ashway: Joe Thomas, Sr. finally gets his chance.
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Forsyth County News

I’m thankful this week for people like Joe Thomas, Sr.

You may have heard about Thomas recently. He’s the 55-year-old who got to play college football over the weekend.

After finally being cleared academically by the NCAA, and working out on South Carolina State’s practice squad for four years, Thomas got his big chance Saturday. He took a handoff, veered off left tackle, and gained 3 yards. He got three more carries in the fourth quarter.

“It was the happiest day of my life!” Thomas told Gene Sapakoff of the Charleston Post and Courier.  “Something I always wanted to do was play college football. I got to play today. I thank South Carolina State University and the whole coaching staff.

“I felt like a hero! I’ve been waiting for this chance for 36 years. Thank God it happened today.”

Thomas certainly didn’t lead the Bulldogs to their 32-0 victory over Savannah State. But he was the one being carried off the field by his teammates.

Senior Day, you bet.

“We think the world of him,” fullback Dondre Brown told Sapakoff. “I’m glad it finally went his way. I’m just so happy he got his carries, and I’m really glad we got a win with those carries.”

Things haven’t always gone Joe Thomas’ way. According to David Gardner’s profile in si.com last week, Thomas was the fourth of 12 children born to sharecroppers. His earliest memories are of playing in the fields while the family farmed.

He also remembers earaches and having a hearing disability, along with the accompanying speech impediment. His merciless older brothers called him “dummy.”

“I was so lonely back then,” Thomas told Gardner. “I felt like no one in my family liked me, and it was hard to make friends at school.”

Thomas began using his fists to quiet the taunts of classmates. Then he began to play peewee football. He soon discovered he could earn respect and friendship on the football field.

And, at 17, a doctor finally cleared his ear canals. 

“Suddenly, I could hear 200 percent better,” Thomas told Gardner.

He became a star on Blackville High’s football team. In 1979, he finished second on the team in tackles. In the last game, he finally got to run with the ball. He scored five touchdowns.

“What I was doing in South Carolina was the same thing that Herschel Walker was doing in Georgia,” he told Gardner.

Turns out, that bit of exaggeration has been the fuel that drove Thomas back to college football at his advanced age. His senior year, Blackville went undefeated, but lost to rival Williston in the state semifinals. 

“I only got one play at running back,” Thomas told Gardner. “If I had run the ball more, we would have won, and we would have won the state championship.”

A visit with Thomas’s high school coach, Tim Moore, produced the stats for the season. Thomas averaged 12 carries per game, and 9.67 yards per carry. In his final game, he had 13 carries for 69 yards. But his fourth quarter fumble led to Williston’s winning score.

Thomas’ son, Joe, Jr., plays linebacker for the Green Bay Packers. He takes his father’s liberties with the truth in stride. 

“None of that matters,” Joe, Jr. told Gardner. “My father raised me to be the person and the player I am. I don’t know how good he is or was as a football player, but I know the kind of man he is. That’s good enough.”

After making a career of running several businesses and training Joe, Jr., the recession wrecked Joe, Sr.’s construction business. So, he decided to finally attend college. Then he had the idea of playing football with his son.

“At first, I thought it would be really weird,” Joe, Jr. told Gardner. “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.”

A series of mishaps kept them from playing together. In 2013, Joe, Sr. was in a car accident, and then tore his ACL and MCL. Joe, Jr. graduated in 2014, the same year Joe, Sr. needed sciatic surgery.

But for the past two seasons, Joe, Sr. has been out there practicing, hoping for his moment. Then the NCAA clearance came down, and with it, opportunity.

“I’m a little worried,” Joe, Jr. told espn.com Friday night. “I know his body might be a little fragile. I’m going to try to get the coach not to run him on one of those stretch plays. I’m going to try to get him to run straight downhill.

“I never thought you’d see a 55-year-old running back. I’m just proud of him. He made up his mind to do something, and stuck to it.”

That’s the lesson Joe, Sr. hopes will stick.

“I always said, ‘Never give up on your dreams. Keep driving forward, and don’t listen to other people,’” he told espn.com. “It’s a great day for me, but I must admit, I didn’t think my situation would generate so much attention and so much positive response.”