Thomas grew up a
banker's son in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, the oldest of Eric and
Sally Thomas's three children. The parents believed team sports, fishing and
hunting were important--Joe played travel soccer, basketball and baseball in
addition to youth football--but only if the kids' chores and homework got done.
"I'd get fined if I left home without making my bed in the morning,"
Thomas says. That C in algebra earned him a three-month grounding; except for
school and sports he was homebound. "No dances, no going out with
friends," he says. "I thought my parents were the worst people in the
world, of course."
"Joe has an
excellent math brain," says his father, "and we wanted to make sure it
didn't go to waste." The next term Joe aced every quiz and test, and when
he brought home an A on his report card, the shackles came off. "A very
valuable lesson," says Joe, who still adheres to it.
Sharon McCabe, a senior lecturer in real estate and urban land economics, has
had Thomas in two of her classes. "Believe me, this is no slough-off major
he's in," she says. "You've got to work hard to succeed. He got A's in
both classes, and he never once asked for an extension on any papers or
projects because of football."
Brookfield ( Wis.) Central High, Thomas played tight end, tackle, defensive end
and punter, but after seeing spot duty at TE and DE as a Badgers freshman, he
was moved to left tackle for good as a sophomore. He started his last 38
college games there, allowing five sacks. Late in the 2005 season, however,
Wisconsin lost two defensive ends to knee injuries, and Thomas volunteered to
play on the defensive line in the Capital One Bowl against Auburn. In the third
quarter he went in on defense. On his second series, in pursuit of a sweep to
the opposite side, he planted his right leg to change direction and ripped the
anterior cruciate ligament.
"I never once
regretted volunteering to play defense, even when I was on the ground thinking,
That could be my last football play ever," he says. "I said before that
game I wanted to do anything to help our team win, and I wanted to have fun. I
accomplished both goals. We won [24--10], I got to play defense, and I think I
helped the team win. The decision I made was best for the team, so it was best
offensive line coach Bob Palcic, "He doesn't just say things like that. He
That leads to an
understanding of Joe Thomas the player. Last season he came back strong from
the ACL tear, winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior
offensive or defensive lineman after allowing one sack and one quarterback
pressure in 13 games. The report from NFL scouts on Thomas: very athletic; a
wide stance and quick feet keep lithe pass rushers from beating him wide; good
at using hands to knock pass rushers off-balance; can get overpowered by a bull
rush once or twice a game but stays low and uses leverage well; a good run
blocker overall. At the combine in February he ranked at or near the top among
linemen in every relevant category.
"I'll stake my
reputation on it: Joe's going to be an excellent left tackle for as long he
wants to be," says Palcic, who coached for 12 years in the NFL. "I
coached [ Baltimore Ravens All-Pro] Jonathan Ogden and [former Jacksonville
Jaguars standout] Tony Boselli in college years ago, and Joe's going to be
every bit the player they've been. I don't see a weakness in him."
SI asked five
coaches with picks in the top 10--all of whom had evaluated Thomas on
tape--whether they thought he'd be an above-average NFL left tackle. All said
yes. The Arizona Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, drafting fifth, said Thomas "is
a natural. His stance, his hands, his feet, his athletic ability ... he'll be
an outstanding left tackle." Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, holding the
10th pick, called Thomas "a slam-dunk top left tackle for 10
Of course, no
prospect is risk-free. Three years ago Iowa's Robert Gallery--same position,
same conference, same stand-up kind of kid as Thomas--was the second pick in
the draft, but he has struggled at three spots on the Oakland Raiders'
offensive line. " Robert Gallery is not Joe Thomas," says Kansas City
Chiefs defensive end Tamba Hali, a Penn State product who played against both
tackles. " Thomas is quicker and more athletic. He can move and get his
hands on the rushers before they get around the corner. I think he'll be able
to do that at the pro level, and that's the most important thing for a