Thirty-Six Years in the Making
That was the play. My play.
I’m supposed to line up to the left of the quarterback, take the handoff, counter-step, and then if there’s a hole that opens up I’m supposed to hit it hard.
So that’s what I was planning to do when I got the ball during the first quarter of our game against Savannah State this past season. No big thing.
It was my first carry in 36 years.
The last time I took the field and ran the ball was during my senior year of high school. That was in 1980. Back when I could run the 40 in 4.35 or 4.36. I’m 55 now, but, you know, I can still motor — maybe 4.4 or 4.5. So when I got that handoff against Savannah, with my team, South Carolina State, up 6–0, I was looking to make some noise.
Right before the snap, I was a little nervous. I’m not ashamed to admit that. Thirty-six years is a long time. I was bound to have some butterflies at first.
I’m 55 now, but, you know, I can still motor. Joe Thomas Sr.
Then, before I knew it, I had the ball in my hands.
It felt so good. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced. But it only lasted a split second, because right away I saw that something was wrong. There was no hole for me to run through.
I had to think fast. I decided I needed to break the run to the outside. It looked good for a moment. Then, all of a sudden, one of the linebackers came off his block, and before I really even saw him he was right up on me. Everything seemed like it was going in slow motion to me at that point … but that guy came up on me fast. Real fast.
I tried to kind of lower my shoulders and run him over. But he took me to the ground and that was that.
Three yards is what they tell me I got on that run. Not bad, I guess. But nothing special.
What really bugs me is that I know I could’ve gotten more on that carry — even without a hole to run through. I have some nerve damage in my lower back, and down one of my legs from a car accident that happened a year ago. And the last thing I need right now is to have those injuries act up again, so I didn’t really push it as hard as I could have. Plus, I didn’t get very many reps in practice this season because of where I was on the depth chart.
If it wasn’t for those two things, I could’ve gotten past that guy no problem. That’s for sure. In high school, I used to stiff-arm guys and push them into the grass like it was nothing. With just a little more practice time, I feel like I would’ve been able to do that when the linebacker got up one me.
And then I would’ve been gone. End zone. For sure.
For a while there, it looked like it wasn’t going to happen for me — that I’d never get into a college football game at the Division I level.
Originally I had really wanted to play on the same team as my son, Joe Thomas Jr., who was a linebacker at South Carolina State when I first enrolled there, and who now plays for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL. But it seemed like everything just kind of went wrong. First I had trouble getting medical clearance to play. Then I battled some injuries. In my son’s final year with the team, I got in a different car accident that tore up my knee and forced me to miss the season. So we weren’t able to be on the same field together. Our plan never came to pass.
That was tough, but while all that was happening I never for a second thought about quitting. My mind was made up that I was going to play at the D-I level, despite the fact that no one had ever done it at my age. All I needed was a shot. And if South Carolina State wasn’t going to play me, I wasn’t about to just pack it in. I told myself I was going to keep at this no matter what — until the very last game of my career, if that’s what it took.
It almost got to that, too.
It turns out it only took me until the next to last game of my college football career before I got on the field and carried the ball — not the last game.
I’ll never forget that Friday afternoon in November when the coaches came up to me and told me they were going to play me on Saturday — which, yeah, just so happened to be Senior Day at South Carolina State.
I tried to keep it cool, but I honestly couldn’t believe it was really going to happen. I was kind of shocked, actually, and I immediately felt nervous.
My teammates were all so excited for me, though, and that sort of helped calm my nerves. Throughout all four years, the other players on the team have been beyond wonderful — they’ve shown me respect at every turn. They always treated me so nice, like I was one of them … just another guy on the team. And I treated them all like they were my own kids. So when they heard I was going to get my shot, they were all smiles. I wasn’t surprised by that response, but it felt really good to know those guys were happy for me.
When I got home from practice, I told my wife, and I called up my mom and my oldest sister to tell them, too.
I remember I had trouble getting rest that Friday night. It took me two or three hours before I was able to finally fall asleep. I just kept thinking about breaking into the open and sprinting down the field. I could see it so clearly in my mind, over and over again, every time I closed my eyes.
My wife was my high school sweetheart, and she spread the word about my game to a bunch of our classmates. She called a whole ton of people.
None of those folks were able to make it, unfortunately. But my family was there to see me play. It was my mom, my wife, my daughter, my two brothers, and my three sisters. I think one of my nieces was there, too. We had a big ol’ crew in the stands. It was all people who know me, and know what I can do.
They’ve been with me since way back. So they also know how far I’ve come.
Growing up, I couldn’t hear very well.
I worked on gigantic farms with my parents from a young age, and in the years before they put me to work, I went with them to the fields while they harvested crops. Even back then, I remember not being able to understand what people were looking to tell me. Some of my very first memories are of being confused and trying to make sense of the world.
Words would sound muffled to me, and sometimes I wouldn’t be able to hear anything at all. At school, kids would pick on me all the time because I pronounced my words different than everyone else. But when you have trouble hearing, it’s not easy saying words exactly how everyone else does.
I remember I was so scared to talk to girls when I was little. I had to get other kids to do me a favor and tell the little girls what I wanted to say to them. I felt like if I approached them they would laugh at me or make fun of me because of how I pronounced certain things.
At one point when I was 10 or so, I learned how to lip read and that helped me out a lot. It didn’t stop the teasing, but it meant that I could at least understand what people were saying most of the time. That really saved me. And it allowed me to make it through school.
All the while, though, people just thought I was stupid — teachers, other students, people in the community, family members … everyone. They just figured I was dumb. And, again and again, they told me all the things I’d never be able to accomplish in life.
One thing you have to know about me is that I’ve been underestimated almost from birth. And by the time I was old enough to understand that, I had learned that if I was going to amount to anything at all in this world, if I was going to accomplish anything, I was going to have to be my own No. 1 cheerleader. Since no one else believed in me, I needed to believe in myself enough to make up for everyone else. Otherwise, I’d just live down to everybody’s expectations.
So, you know, I have a long history of convincing myself that I can do something everybody around me thinks is impossible — of willing myself to overcome the odds. That’s basically the story of my childhood.
When I was in high school, things started to take a turn for the better when I saw some doctors who looked into my ears and told me the holes were all clogged up. It turns out that when I was running around on those farms as a young kid, my ears just filled up with dirt and grime. No one really knew about it, though, until those doctors had a look. Before I knew it, they stuck some tubes in there, and I heard some really loud noises, and then they looked at me and asked, “So how’s that?”
Almost instantly, it was like a whole new world for me.
I could finally hear what people were saying, and I was able to show everyone that I wasn’t stupid — that if I could understand what you were telling me, I had no problem doing whatever was being asked.
The doubters didn’t disappear after that, and lots of people still thought I’d never succeed in life. But after those tubes cleaned out my ears, it got so much easier to make everyone regret passing judgment on me.
When I joined the team at SC State four years ago, I started having these really vivid dreams about running the ball in a college football game. I’d go to sleep and dream that I was on the field playing again — just running free, and there’s a whole mess of guys trying to catch me.
I’d jolt awake in the middle of the night all full of energy, ready to suit up.
In those dreams, I always score touchdowns. Every time. And I just kind of figured that’s how things would happen if I ever got back on the field again. So that first run didn’t quite go as planned. I knew that I’d have a few more shots at carrying the ball that game, though, so I was still optimistic.
Then my next three runs ended up worse than that first one, not better.
Each time, the hole closed as soon as I got the ball. It was almost like the defense knew where I was going. And you know what? That was another thing: All four of my runs were the exact same play.
After time expired, a couple of my teammates came up to me and carried me off the field. I felt like a hero, and that’s a new one for me. I’ve never felt like a hero before. Joe Thomas Sr.
Braves Even. Braves Even. Braves Even. Braves Even.
My play — the only one the coaches had me run. They didn’t even give me a playbook. That one play was all I had. After two times, I’m pretty sure the other side was on to us. So there wasn’t much I could do. I was hoping that I could’ve gotten at least two steps on those guys so that I could get to the end zone with my speed, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
I ended the game, and my college career, with a total of minus-one yards rushing on four carries.
To be honest, the more I think about that game, it didn’t really live up to my expectations, because I wanted to break one and go for a long distance. I mean, I’m not complaining. I’m happy overall. It feels great to know that I’m the oldest person ever to have played in a Division I college football game. I’ve accomplished something in life. And I did prove a lot of people wrong.
I just really wish I could’ve broken a long one, you know?
Looking back on everything that’s happened during the past four years, it seems like such a long wait for that small number of plays. But I guess the good thing is that a bunch of stuff has happened since the Savannah State game that has kind of allowed me to extend my moment in the sun for a little while.
After time expired, a couple of my teammates came up to me and carried me off the field. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was really special. I felt like a hero, and that’s a new one for me.
I’ve felt like a lot of different things in my life, but I’ve never felt like a hero before.
Then, that next day, my son called me. Before I got my shot, he was worried about what play the team was going to call for me. He didn’t want me getting hurt. I kept telling him at the time that I was going to be alright, so eventually he just trusted his dad. And when he got me on the phone, he was so happy for me. You could hear it in his voice. He told me he was proud.
He also told me it looked like I was going kind of slow, though.
He had seen a video of my runs and said I didn’t seem as fast as he thought I’d be. He wasn’t being mean or anything. And, you know, he was right. I can understand why he said that, because there wasn’t anyplace for me to run. I was moving kind of slow … because there was nowhere to go. I didn’t have much choice. So I just stuck my head in there and tried to go through some people. Take what you can get, you know?
He understood that. And I think he always knew I could do this. He never doubted that I’d see it through. Others though, even in my own community, had doubted me like nobody’s business.
During the past few years, I heard it all. “Give it up!” And, “You can’t play football at your age!” And, “They’re not going to let you on that football field: You’re too old!”
I never let that stuff get to me. Not even for a second. I know how old I am. And I knew that I was too old to be playing out there with those kids. But, you know what: I also know what I can do. I would always say to those people: “Just because you couldn’t do this doesn’t mean I can’t. Just because you’re out of shape, doesn’t mean I’m out of shape. I’m in great shape.”
In my mind, I’m kind of like Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker. And when I dream, I’m exactly like them … or even better. So that’s where I was coming from. I wasn’t about to let some old, out-of-shape folks tell me what I was capable of, believe me.
Of course, since I played in that game, some of the doubters have come back into the fold to congratulate me. A few have called to apologize. Others don’t say anything at all to me, though. I think they’re too proud to admit that they were wrong. I have a close friend who doubted me and told me straight up that I was never going to play college football. He was certain of it.
I’ve called that guy a couple of times recently, and he won’t even answer his phone. I don’t know what the deal is. I’ve called him three times, and he hasn’t called me back. So I’m not going to call him anymore. He’ll come around.
I don’t have time to be messing around and hunting people down. If folks want to be negative, so be it. But all that negative stuff … I just block it out. I hear it, but I don’t hear it, you know?
At the end of the day, I didn’t do this for congratulations, or to have people tell me that they were happy for me. And I didn’t do this because I wanted to break some record — I didn’t even know what the record was, or who held it before me. That was never what this was about.
I did this for myself. I did it because it’s something that I wanted to do, and when I want to do something, and have my mind set on it, good luck trying to stop me.
So I just let those people talk their talk. I walked the walk.
And now there’s not as much talking going on, because at the end of the day, I proved all the doubters wrong. I proved a whole mess of folks wrong.
One of the things that always makes me laugh about the response I’ve gotten since the Savannah State game is that people keep asking me if it hurt when I got tackled.
Some folks will even ask if I was in pain after those plays.
Honestly, I didn’t even feel the licks I took out there. Here’s something you gotta understand: I’m not your typical 55-year-old man. Everyone’s body ages differently. And I’m in pretty good shape. I lift weights. I stretch. I jog. And I run a lot of hills. I work out three days a week, and I eat healthy — lean proteins, lots of green vegetables, lots of fruits.
I don’t drink.
Never used drugs.
All that stuff plays a big part in being able to stay in good shape into your 50s. If you take care of your body, it’s going to take care of you. And I take care of my body.
So, no, the licks I took didn’t bother me at all. And I wasn’t sore after the game. Four carries isn’t going to make me sore. Not even close.
I came from good genes. My momma’s just like me. She’s pushing 80, and she’s still getting around real good. She played softball when she was in her 40s. She’ll still grab a ball and shoot some hoops. She’s a very strong lady. She’ll outwork any kid in her 20s.
That should tell you all you need to know. And I’ll say this much: If there’s anyone on the planet who wasn’t surprised that I was able to pull this off it’s my mom. She was up there in the stands cheering for me during that game, and afterward she let me know how happy she was that I had finally accomplished what I’d worked so hard for.
If it wasn’t for my mom, I would’ve never been able to get out there on that field with those kids, I know that much. She gave me everything I needed to get this done.
So what now? That’s another thing I hear a lot.
What do you want to do next? What’s your next challenge?
Well, the first thing I want to do is earn my degree and graduate from college. I’ve got one more semester left, 18 more credit hours, and then I’ll be all done. So I should graduate in May. After barely being able to hear as a kid growing up and not even knowing if I’d make it through high school, it’s going to be pretty cool to have made it all the way through college.
After that, though, the next big goal I have for myself is to accomplish something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.
I want to work for Vince McMahon!
Over the years, I did a little rasslin’ on the side, and it’s always been my second love after football. It’s a close second, too. I just love everything about that sport. And the WWE is even bigger than the NFL right now.
Plus, you know, we’re a lot alike, me and Vince, because he’s proven a ton of people wrong, too. He built up his company and did something everyone said he couldn’t do.
He didn’t pay attention to the doubters. He knew himself, and he knew that he could do anything he put his mind to.
Just like me.
So, yeah, Mr. McMahon, if you’re reading this, please give me a call. Maybe you could use a bodyguard, or someone to help out at the matches. I can do anything, really.
All I need is a shot.