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Old School (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday April 17, 2007 10:10AM; Updated: Tuesday April 17, 2007 10:10AM
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Thomas gets effusive praise from NFL scouts as well as fiancee Nelson (left), a former Badgers basketball player.
Thomas gets effusive praise from NFL scouts as well as fiancee Nelson (left), a former Badgers basketball player.
Peter Read Miller/SI

There may not be a better college hangout in America than State Street Brats in Madison, where Thomas recently was enjoying one of the best bratwursts money can buy, with an order of cheese curds on the side. Nelson was seated next to Thomas, giving him the goo-goo eyes. "Why," he wondered aloud, just before biting into his brat, "would I have wanted to leave here for anywhere else this winter?"

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

This year five of the 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 to training centers shortly after the college football season, and all are expected 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 fishing with his father, Eric, sitting in a boat in Lake Michigan on draft day, 875 miles from Radio City.

"Coho salmon, Chinook salmon, rainbow trout," says Thomas, 22. "Some of my best memories are of fishing with my dad, and I'd rather spend a nice Saturday morning 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 important day. It's what I do after draft day that's important."

"Oh, I love that," says Lions coach Rod Marinelli, after Thomas's comment is relayed to him. "When you're looking for a guy you'll pick at the very top of the draft, you're looking not just for pluses but also for holes. And I don't see any in Joe Thomas."


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