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Joe Thomas building career with Dallas Cowboys, legacy at S.C. State

The Bulldogs have a legacy of great defensive players

NEW YORK — By most accounts, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Joe Thomas is a success. Only a small percentage of players make it into the NFL each year. At the age of 25, he’s already played for two teams, including the Green Bay Packers. At every turn of his career, Thomas says, he was overlooked and underestimated.

Thomas came from a small high school and endured an injury throughout his college career, which made him be viewed as a “red flag” for NFL recruiters. He also struggled with injuries throughout his professional career. He also is from South Carolina State, a historically black university (HBCU) that doesn’t get the media or scouting attention that a Power 5 school might.

But it was his time at S.C. State where he says he fell in love with football, and got the skills he needed to play at the next level.

“In all honesty, I really didn’t expect to make it this far,” Thomas said. “It was more so of God’s plan than my plan. The more I played at S.C. State, the more I fell in love with the game of football.”

Thomas has every right to this what’s-next attitude, because he has overcome setbacks in his career. From South Carolina State University to the NFL, Thomas is an example of grit and determination to make it.

Coming out of small Blackville-Hilda High School in Blackville, South Carolina, Thomas was not heavily recruited. His graduating class was only about 65 students. To play for South Carolina State, he had to be a walk-on.

“He was an NFL-type player,” S.C. State head coach Buddy Pough said as he reflected on Thomas’ time in college.

“He came in as a RB out of high school and although he became a linebacker, he thought he was a RB. So he came here and he wanted to be a RB and after about a year or so he finally came to the realization that he wasn’t in the best position,” said Pough. “But he played behind some really good players here for a while, and I guess by the end of his sophomore year he started to get more and more play and he eventually got to be a great player.”

Thomas didn’t believe that attending S.C. State, an HBCU in Orangeburg, would increase his chances of going to the NFL. Yet, the Bulldogs, coached by Pough, are known for producing NFL defensive players. Darius Leonard, a four-year starter, is a second-year Indianapolis Colts linebacker and was the NFL defensive rookie of the year last season. Javon Hargrave currently plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and S.C. State has two Pro Football Hall of Famers who were defensive stars: Harry Carson and Deacon Jones.

“In all honesty, I really didn’t expect to make it this far. It was more so of God’s plan than my plan. The more I played at S.C. State, the more I fell in love with the game of football.” — Joe Thomas

“He kind of reminds me of Darius Leonard and guys who played prior to him,” said Pough. “He also reminds me of Justin Durant because they have a similar body style and abilities.”

Thomas came to S.C. State as all-state running back. As a senior, he rushed for 1,976 yards and 31 touchdowns and was named Division 1A South Carolina Player of the Year. After playing some as a freshman, he kept working and improved his performance significantly in his sophomore year. He eventually earned a scholarship and began to seriously consider pursuing a spot in the NFL. He was the team’s defensive MVP at the end of that season. In his first career start against Central Michigan in 2011, he had 10 tackles and his first career interception.

“I noticed that I was probably one of the best players on the team without even trying hard,” Thomas said. “I was just naturally a God-given athlete. After that, my confidence grew and I felt I could probably build from that flow.”

In his junior year, he started the first six games at middle linebacker, but had to sit out the rest of the season because of an injury.

As a senior in 2013, Thomas would be tested physically and mentally. The season started well. He was part of the top-ranked defense in the FCS I-AA. He helped the Bulldogs earn their 15th conference championship, winning 17-3 against Norfolk State. That same year, Thomas received Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year and All-conference honors.

He finished his college career with 41 games (30 starts), 271 tackles, 11.5 sacks, and four interceptions.

The hardest part of his career, he recalled, was when he ruptured his left bicep in the game against Norfolk State.

“I was thinking that it was all over for me because I had to have surgery and all that,” he said. “Plus, I couldn’t go to any all-star games or anything like that to promote my name. Just that whole process and going through that was probably the hardest time for me mentally, you know, preparing for the NFL.”

Thomas relied on his faith to get him through that time.

“It was just faith,” he said. “Faith and hard work, that’s what’s got me this far, and just blocking out all of the negative thoughts as soon as they occur in my mind and just trying to stay positive and keeping my head down and working, believing that it’s a plan for me.”

Cowboys linebacker Joe Thomas blocks a punt and recovers it for a touchdown during the preseason game between the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 24 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire

In 2014, the Green Bay Packers signed him as an undrafted free agent and placed him on the injured reserve list with a knee injury. Several months later, he was released after reaching an injury settlement with the Packers. Sixty days later, he was signed to the Packers’ practice squad, where he spent the rest of his rookie season.

In January 2015, Thomas signed a contract with the Packers, but in September, the Packers waived him and the Dallas Cowboys practice squad picked him up 72 hours later. By the end of the month, the Packers added him to their active roster.

In 2016, Thomas appeared in 16 games at inside linebacker. He recorded his first NFL interception against quarterback Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first week of the regular season.

“That was probably my favorite memory playing in the NFL,” Thomas said, “receiving my first interception.”

Thomas re-signed with the Packers in March 2017. And one year later, he signed a two-year deal with the Cowboys.

“Playing with the Cowboys has been just great,” he said. “It’s America’s team and I’ve had the opportunity to get exposure. It’s a great honor to play for this squad, man. The legacy I want to leave is a great, hardworking individual that’s gonna leave it all for his teammates, that’s accountable for his actions.”

Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott says Thomas is already living up to that legacy.

“Joe’s locker is right next to mine,” Prescott said. “He’s somebody — I mean, local media can tell you — me and him are always joking. He’s a great guy. He’s somebody that’s an awesome competitor. I love playing against him at practice and getting better. He’s a great teammate.”

Thomas’ first impression of Prescott was a little different.

“That’s my brother and he’s a dominant player. I love playing with him.” — Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith

“I thought he was cocky at first,” said Thomas. “But he’s a humble guy, down-to-earth, a great leader. A lot on his shoulders but he handles it well.”

Said Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith: “That’s my brother and he’s a dominant player. I love playing with him.”

Thomas also wants to show S.C. State football players they can be successful, too.

“They don’t think they can make it to the next level like that because they come from such a small school and they don’t think they get looked at like that by scouts. I feel like when I played there and I did everything I did, it caused guys behind me to do the same thing,” Thomas said. “For them to follow in my footsteps, like, all them that came behind me, I felt like a big brother doing that.”

BJ Davis, a redshirt freshman linebacker for the Bulldogs, said Thomas is a testament that people from small places can accomplish big things.

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“I have never met him before, but I do look up to him because he came from these same stomping grounds at S.C. State,” Davis said. “He’s one of the people that paved the way for players like me … I also want to go to the NFL, so I’m just trying to continue to work hard and be the best player I can be.”

In the meantime, Davis is grateful for his experience at South Carolina State.

“The experience, it’s great. I love the atmosphere. It’s, like, crazy, because, at first, I really didn’t think I was going to college, and now I’m here,” said Davis. “So it’s overwhelming and exciting to play football here.”

Thomas agreed: Playing football at an HBCU is an experience like no other.

“The atmosphere. The fan atmosphere. It’s just something about it, man, the energy about it. It’s just an energy that really can’t be explained. It humbles you a lot, and I think that’s needed, because if you’re not humble, then you will get humbled.”

That said, Thomas said attending an HBCU should be a choice, not an obligation for elite black athletes.

“I don’t think they have an obligation to, but I think a lot more should choose HBCUs,” Thomas said. “You can’t fault black athletes for choosing a bigger school, because you don’t know their situation financially. However, other times, I feel like I have seen that more are going to go to HBCUs and I feel like it’s eventually going to be a trend.”

Thomas wants to continue making an impact on the lives of young people by running his football camp at South Carolina State. And he hopes to write a book one day. More than that, he aims to be a good role model for his daughter, 10-month-old Zara Joelle.

“Once she was born, everything I do now is for her,” Thomas said. “Not even football, just for her sake, I hope I can leave a legacy for her.”

East is a former Rhoden Fellow (2019-2020) and a senior multimedia journalism student at North Carolina A&T. She is from North Carolina (“the 336” to be specific). She is the creator of On-Screen w/ East Laureen, a visual podcast where she interviews various people within the sports & entertainment industry.