GREEN BAY — While Packers linebacker Joe Thomas Jr. was en route to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, his father was making history at South Carolina State.
At 55 years old, Joe Thomas Sr. is believed to be the oldest player to ever participate in an NCAA Division I football game after gaining three yards on a carry during the first quarter of the Bulldogs’ 32-0 win over Savannah State on Saturday.
A senior running back, Thomas Sr. enrolled at the school at 51 years old after getting permission from his son, who was a senior linebacker at South Carolina State at the time.
Thomas Sr. has practiced on the Bulldogs’ scout team over the past four years, while working towards a degree in engineering. It wasn’t until Saturday, however, that he finally got a chance to play in an actual game.
Thomas Jr., who’s in Washington for Sunday’s game against the Redskins, said the coaching staff texted him earlier this week to inform him that his father likely would play.
While Thomas Jr. was slightly nervous about the prospects of his dad playing against men less than half his age, the Packers’ second-year linebacker also was incredibly proud.
“I know when I was in school, it was kind of weird,” Thomas said. “Because once my teammates found out, they said he was about to come up for my spot. That was pretty crazy. I’m just proud of him. He made his mind up to do something, and he stuck to it.”
Sports Illustrated profiled Joe Thomas Sr. earlier this week, chronicling his life and the events leading up to his decision to seek a college degree and walk onto the Bulldogs’ football team.
Thomas Sr. played football at Blackville-Hilda High School but didn’t go to college. Instead, he owned a construction business and operated a training facility before the recession hit in 2008.
That’s when he started thinking about finally going to school. After enrolling, Thomas Sr. took it one step further and decided to revive his athletic career.
Thomas Jr. said his father always kept in good shape. He remembers one time in high school – he also attended Blackville-Hilda – when his dad actually beat him in a foot race, though Joe Jr. jokes that it wouldn’t be a contest today.
Thomas Sr. ended up carrying the ball four times for the Bulldogs on Saturday. Afterward, he told reporters that “it was the happiest day of my life.”
Joe Jr. has a big day ahead of him on Sunday in Washington. He’s slated to make only his second NFL start with Jake Ryan ruled out with an ankle injury.
Still, you can bet he was smiling when his father fulfilled a lifelong dream on Saturday.
“He’s a tough guy, man,” said Thomas Jr. of his dad. “He don’t really talk about anything being hard. Everything to him is easy in his head. He complains about guys being too soft and things like that.”