Thomas' star shines twice as strong

Standout left tackle pulls off successful double on UW track team, setting records in each sport

Life as a student-athlete rarely slows down for Joe Thomas. He would not have it any other way.

"It gets tiring and sometimes you wonder why you're doing it but in the long run I'm the kind of guy who always needs to be doing something," he said recently.

That is good. Thomas has not built many breaks into his schedule.

As his teammates on the Wisconsin football team rest up before the meaty portion of their spring practice schedule, Thomas is in Arizona, taking part in the Badger outdoor track team's spring break training session, which includes UW's first two outdoor meets of the year. Saturday, Thomas finished fourth in the shot put (57 feet, 3 ½ inches) at the Baldy Castillo Invitational in Tempe, Ariz.

The previous Saturday, Thomas and the Badgers wrapped up the indoor track season in style, placing third at the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., which tied the best finish in school history.

The following morning, Thomas' flight back to Madison touched down at about noon. By 1:30 p.m. he was at Camp Randall Stadium for football team meetings, preceding a two-hour spring practice, the team's first workout in pads.

The 6-foot-8, 305-pound starting left tackle felt a bit behind the curve that Sunday at the McClain Center.

"I had a little bit of a rough practice," he said.

Thomas' football teammates had practiced sans pads on Friday and Saturday. Thomas, meanwhile, was running on fumes, having slept about two hours before traveling for seven hours.

"I'm a guy who needs a lot of sleep," Thomas said. "I don't run well on short sleep. [My next practice] was a lot better."

Some may be surprised that Thomas has time to sleep at all. In only his second year on campus, Thomas' sixth sports season—two football, two indoor track and two outdoor track—is underway.

And Thomas has thrived. He did not score at the NCAA Indoor meet this year, but he set a school record and finished second in the shot put at the Big Ten Indoors, with a throw of 62 feet and ¼ inch. On the gridiron, in his first year as a starter, he was a consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten choice. In the classroom, Thomas earned first-team Academic All-District 5 honors in November, from the College Sports Information Directors of America.

It is quite a juggling act.

"I've been doing that for like seven years now," Thomas said. "If I wasn't doing that I just don't know what I would do with my time."

A few years from now, Thomas will likely be making a fine living as a left tackle in the National Football League. Track and field, though, also holds a special place in Thomas' heart.

"I really love doing track," he said.

Thomas hopes to translate that passion into a trip to Beijing, China, in 2008.

"I've always dreamed of going to the Olympics," Thomas said. "I know that football's my main thing but if things keep going well and I keep progressing, I'd love to give the Olympics a shot."

After only a year of college track experience, Thomas provisionally qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials last spring, but was not among the final invitees. He figures he would need to add about seven feet to his shot put to make the Olympic team three years from now.

"I think I'd have to get up to 69 feet," he said. "Everything's possible."

Following NCAA Outdoors this summer, Thomas hopes to compete in the U.S. Nationals. "I'd like to go out there and see what I can do," he said.

Thomas takes special pride in how well the Badgers performed in Fayetteville last week, and in the record he set in February.

"It's really cool to be part of that. If you put that in football terms, that's being the third best team in the country and going to a BCS bowl and winning," he said. "So that's pretty cool.

"And also, being able to set a school record. Just having your name on the books so, you know, 40 years down the line you can look back and tell your kids you really were somebody."

Somehow, it seems safe to assume Thomas would never have trouble convincing anyone he was or is somebody.

Thomas' name decorates the Badgers' football training records. Last spring, he set school records for a left tackle in the hang clean (360 pounds), vertical jump (32.5 inches) and the 40-yard dash (4.93 seconds). UW tests its football players in lifts and jumps after spring practices, but on the Badgers' recent underclassman timing day Thomas broke his own record in the 40, covering the distance in 4.87 seconds, and he also shattered the record in the pro agility run.

"I didn't have the pro agility record and I got that," he said. "I ran 4.38 and the pro agility record was 4.72."

4.38!?An offensive lineman?!

"I ran better than all the quarterbacks in the pro agility," Thomas said, somewhat sheepishly. He is not one to revel in talking himself up, but it is obvious he finds it a bit amusing that he is quicker than all the guys he is pass protecting for. "I was real happy with my pro agility. I think training's really been working well this offseason."

Thomas' name is also in the books as the only UW offensive lineman who has ever played for coach Barry Alvarez as a true freshman. Now a veteran of all of two seasons, and one as a starter, Thomas is the second-most experienced lineman of the 11 on UW's spring roster.

That reality leapt up in Thomas' psyche during his first few spring workouts, when he double shifted with the second team at left tackle, and lined up next to true freshman left guard Andy Kemp.

"It was funny just stepping in next to a guy who is a rookie, who is basically [in] his third or fourth practice, his second day in pads," Thomas said. "And he's asking me questions instead of me always having to ask the guys. It was a kind of a role reversal and that's pretty funny."

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