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Old School
PETER KING
April 23, 2007
While draft hype consumes NFL nation, Wisconsin's Joe Thomas is chilling in Madison, hitting the books and the brats and waiting for life to get even better
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April 23, 2007

Old School

While draft hype consumes NFL nation, Wisconsin's Joe Thomas is chilling in Madison, hitting the books and the brats and waiting for life to get even better

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There may not be a better off-campus house in America than the one that Wisconsin senior tackle Joe Thomas shares with five teammates in Madison. Miller Lite tap in the kitchen, poker room in the basement, John Belushi poster on the TV room wall and--everyone's favorite--padded red bra hanging from the antlers of a six-point trophy buck. "I was just doing laundry one day, and it snuck its way into my clothes," Badgers defensive back Ben Strickland says mischievously while watching Pardon the Interruption from the depths of a recliner. In Thomas's room upstairs, his laptop rests on homemade legs: four rolls of toilet paper. In the backyard there's a hot tub, a hammock and a couch. The best in late-night college carryout is within stumbling distance on Madison's busy streets.

There may not be a better school in America to study real estate and urban land economics than Wisconsin. Thomas carries a 3.5 grade point average in the undergraduate program, which is ranked second nationally by U.S. News & World Report, and even with the NFL draft looming, he has a full course load this semester: Finance 300, real estate finance, business law, real estate development. Who says a guy can't be Jonathan Ogden and Donald Trump in the same lifetime?

There may not be a better campus workout facility for a leading NFL prospect than the Badgers' weight room. No distractions, Green Day playing over the sound system, spotter always at the ready. Strength and conditioning coach John Dettmann designed a regimen that the 6'6", 313-pound Thomas has been following four afternoons a week in preparation not for the NFL scouting combine or a private workout but for his first NFL minicamp, in May.

There may not be a better fianc´┐Że in America than Annie Nelson. A mix of Jennie Finch, Andrea Kremer and Miss Bassmaster, she's a fetching former Badgers basketball player who just finished her first season as a radio commentator for her old team and who grew up fishing with her dad in northwest Wisconsin. "I never wanted to date a football player, and I spent the first couple of weeks hanging out with Joe trying to find something wrong with him," says Nelson, who'll graduate in May with degrees in economics and broadcasting. "But I couldn't. He's just ... perfect."

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."

To get an understanding of Joe Thomas the person, consider these two events in his life: the C he got in eighth-grade algebra and the torn knee ligament he suffered in a bowl game 15 months ago.

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