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There’s a simple storyline in the tale of the short, surprising college football career of Joe Thomas, Sr. It has to do with the fulfillment of a dream Thomas had sustained for 36 years.
But that simple storyline is complicated by that most malleable of human characteristics: memory.
We’ll start with the simple part. The peak experience in Joe’s story occurred on Saturday, Nov. 19. Playing for South Carolina State in a game they’d win 32-0, Joe took a handoff and rushed for three yards.
Joe Thomas had waited four years carry the ball for S.C. State, but when he commented on his achievement, Joe kept it simple.
"Well, I was nervous. Butterflies. But after the first carry, I felt good," Thomas said. "I was happy. Very happy."
Perhaps the story should have ended after that first carry. Three more handoffs that day brought Thomas’ stat line to -1 yard rushing, which must have felt anti-climactic at best, and sort of isn’t "rushing" at all. But no matter, at the age of 55, Joe Thomas had become the oldest player ever to compete in a Div. I football game.
"I don’t give up very easy. Something I'd always wanted to do. A dream come true, even though I’m 55, but I feel 25," he said.
Joe Thomas, Sr.'s Journey
Joe’s teammates were proud of what he’d accomplished. After the game, they lifted him on to their shoulders and bore him from the field. Joe tried not to get any more carried away than was necessary.
"I’m kind of a calm guy. I don’t get excited — jump in the air like a lot of ballplayers do. I just play the game," Thomas said. "Something I’ve always loved, something I’ve always wanted to do."
In pursuing that dream, Thomas was exceptionally persistent. He’d always wanted to attend nearby South Carolina State, which had recruited his football-playing son. He enrolled in 2012, after his various business interests had tanked.
Joe thought maybe a college degree would change his luck. And he thought he’d give college football a try. The thoughts didn’t necessarily come in that order. But the athletic director felt as if Joe Sr. in uniform might be good press for the college and went along with the dream.
Anyway, Joe Thomas walked on to the same team for which his son, Joe Jr., was playing. The younger Thomas would eventually make it to the NFL. He plays for the Green Bay Packers. Joe Sr. played on at the college level. Or practiced, at least.
Joe’s initial efforts did not impress SC State head coach Buddy Pough. “His evaluation of himself is different than our evaluation of him,” Coach Pough told Sports Illustrated’s David Gardner.
Pough wasn’t the first coach to come to that conclusion.
The High School Career Of Joe Thomas, Sr.
"In 1980, I was principal of the Blackville Elementary School and football coach and athletic director at Blackville-Hilda High School," said Tim Moore. "And I guess I’d have been 34 years of age in 1980."
Which means that now Moore is 70. He's practicing law these days in Barnwell, South Carolina, and he sees Joe Thomas around town from time to time. He used to work out in the gym Thomas used to run, in fact. Moore was, of course, aware of his former player’s adventure on the football field two weeks ago.
"I was hoping he wasn’t going to get hurt," Moore said, laughing. "Older bodies just don’t take those licks. Those kids out there now are really big, really fast and really strong."
With the clarity common to lots of coaches, Tim Moore recalls the men who played for him when they were boys, Joe Thomas among them.
"He was quiet. Didn’t say a lot. He was determined," Moore said. "He wasn’t very big. He weighed 165 or so pounds, and we actually played him that year at defensive guard and running back on offense."
“Running back on offense.” Joe Thomas remembers that, too. And practically ever since he graduated from high school 36 years ago, he’s been telling anyone who would listen that if Coach Moore had let him carry the ball more often in that state semifinal game in 1980, Blackville would have prevailed.
"I don’t give up very easy. Something I'd always wanted to do. A dream come true, even though I’m 55, but I feel 25"Joe Thomas, Sr.
That story might have held up if Joe Thomas hadn’t become a celebrity in November, when speculation began that he might actually play. But when you’re about to become the oldest D-I football player ever, people pay attention for a while, and they do things like look up your old high school coach, which, at the instigation of Sports Illustrated, eventually led to a sort of reunion in Tim Moore’s law office.
Checking The Records
"Well, we spent a couple hours talking, and Joe had a couple of different memories about things, how they occurred, and he said, well, if I’d let him run the ball more, we would have won the game," Moore said. "And Joe didn’t remember that he had fumbled the ball right at the end of the game and gave the other team the ball deep in our territory, and they scored a touchdown and beat us, 13-8."
According to Joe's memory of that semifinal game in 1980, he was never given the opportunity to carry the ball after the first quarter. Unhappily for Joe Thomas, Tim Moore is a self-acknowledged pack rat. He saves everything, including the records of each game he coached, and he knows what happened. But Moore understands how it is with some athletes: The older they get, the better they were.
"You know, I’ve recently had all my games that I coached transferred over from film to DVDs so you can look at 'em on the computer, and I actually ended up with a couple of my high school games, when I was playing in high school back in the early '60s," Moore said. "And another old coach told me, 'Well, you know, that film just ran slower back in those days.'"
Memory’s sometimes good to us that way, whether or not we’re athletes.
When I spoke with Joe Thomas, he said he’d always wanted to play college football. And he assumed it would happen when he got out of high school 36 years ago.
According to Tim Moore, coaches back in 1980 didn’t see Thomas as a prospect. They were looking for bigger, faster running backs whose grades wouldn’t be an issue.
But at the age of 55, Joe Thomas, Sr. got the last laugh, didn’t he? He walked on at South Carolina State, and he hung in there through injuries and three seasons on the bench. And when he got the ball, he didn’t score, but he didn’t fumble. And if, 20 years from now, he’s telling people he ran 94 yards as the clock ran out to win that game ... well, who’s gonna say it ain’t so?
This segment aired on December 3, 2016.
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