This is the first in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006-2020. From 1946-2005, the first 60 of Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.
(Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas played 11 seasons in the National Football League (2007-2017) – all with the Cleveland Browns. Considered one of the best linemen in college and NFL history, Thomas went to the Pro Bowl 10 times before retiring following the 2017 season. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2019.)
By Gene Duffey, Author
Wisconsin was rolling again during the 2006 football season. The Badgers, after a loss at Michigan, had ripped Indiana 52-17 on the road.
Offensive tackle Joe Thomas, who would win the Outland Trophy that year, and his teammates were in a good mood returning to Madison. He shared a house with two other players, cornerback Ben Strickland and deep snapper Steve Johnson.
The trio had been teammates in high school at Brookfield, Wis., about an hour away. The fourth member of their group, Luke Homan, had gone to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he played basketball for two years, then transferred to Wisconsin-La Crosse.
It was the last weekend of September. There had been an Oktoberfest party in La Crosse and the three Wisconsin players received word that Homan was missing.
“Nobody had heard from him,” said Thomas. “We went up there Sunday morning and spent the whole day looking for him.”
By Sunday night the police brought in the dogs to search for Homan. They traced his scent to the river.
“It kind of hit you,” said Thomas. The three buddies would never see their close friend again. Monday morning police divers found Homan’s body in the river.
Homan and Thomas lived only five minutes apart in Brookfield. They attended different schools but began playing on the same basketball team in third grade. Homan’s father was their coach.
“Losing such a good friend at such a young age was tough,” said Thomas. “I’d never gone through tragedy in my life. (Luke) was an only child. I was close with his parents.”
The funeral was Thursday. Wisconsin’s coaches understood how hard Homan’s death hit Thomas. They allowed their All-American left tackle to practice only one day that week in preparing for the game with Northwestern.
Saturday provided Thomas with a little relief. For a few hours he was able to focus on football. Wisconsin won, 41-9. The games the rest of the season allowed him to keep everything together.
“It was a great way to get your mind off (Homan’s death) and refocus,” said Thomas.
Virtually everything else went right for Joe Thomas in 2006. Wisconsin never lost again after the Michigan game, concluding the season 12-1 by beating Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl.
Thomas dominated the Big Ten opponents who lined up across from him.
“There is not going to be another Joe Thomas, so you better appreciate him while you’ve got him,” said Paul Chryst, then Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator and now its head coach. “To never have to worry about that side (of the line).”
Getting ready for that senior year took some extra effort by Thomas. He suffered a torn ACL in a bowl victory over Auburn at the end of his junior year – playing defense!
Wisconsin lost two defensive ends before the bowl and desperately needed help at the position. Thomas volunteered.
He had played defensive end in high school and actually started there as a true freshman in the Music City Bowl, also against Auburn. Now, two years later, he was back on the defensive side of the ball.
“I practiced about 10 plays every day on defense,” he said. “It came natural. It was so much fun during one-on-one pass rushes, going against my offensive linemates.”
The Badgers used Thomas on offense and defense in the bowl game.
“I had some good plays and was really getting excited about playing defense again,” he said. “About the sixth play (on defense) I was pursuing Kenny Irons. I had to stop and kind of veer. I felt my knee go a way my knee never went before.”
Thomas was done for the day. But Wisconsin won 24-10.
A doctor told him it was probably a torn ACL in the right knee. He watched the rest of the game propped up against a big trunk with ice on the knee. “I tried to cheer on my teammates,” he said. “Eric VandenHeuvel (a true freshman) came in and played great for me.”
Thomas underwent surgery Jan. 19 and rehabbed 2 ½-3 hours a day. He had competed for the track team, throwing the shot and discus, his first two years at Wisconsin. He missed both track season and spring practice that year, working his knee back into shape.
“It was long, but wasn’t that hard,” he said of the rehab process. “I treated it like practices. There were a few tough days. In the middle I was kind of frustrated.”
“There were a lot of unknowns,” Chryst said of Thomas’ injury. “He had to go through a lot of rehabbing. Nothing Joe does surprises you.”
When fall camp started in August, Thomas was ready to play, although he usually sat out the afternoon workout during two-a-days. “I was full go in the scrimmages,” he said.
Thomas inherited some of his football talent from his father, Eric, who had played in high school but had his career ended by a knee injury.
Joe first tried organized football in seventh grade, starting out as a fullback. He moved to defensive end and tight end for eighth grade.
He never played offensive tackle until his senior year at Central High in Brookfield.
“The natural position for me was always defensive end,” he said. “I was good at defense from the beginning. It took me a while to learn offense. I got a lot of passes at tight end.”
Although he hadn’t yet found a home at offensive tackle, everyone from USC to Miami began recruiting Thomas his junior year. “By (then) I knew football was going to be my ticket,” he said.
Coaches liked his athleticism. Thomas also played basketball in high school and became an all-state selection.
“He was a high profile recruit,” said Chryst. “You knew he was a heck of a basketball player, phenomenal in track. But to achieve what he did (in football), I don’t think you put that on any kid.”
Thomas took official visits to Virginia Tech, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as Wisconsin. He made two unofficial visits to Notre Dame.
“At the beginning I was sold on going away to college,” he said.
When decision time neared, Thomas figured it would be Wisconsin or Notre Dame. He had grown up a Badgers fan.
The Wisconsin coaches believed that Thomas could be an outstanding offensive tackle. But they weren’t going to lose him based on position.
“We want you to come here and want you to play tight end, defensive end, offensive tackle, wherever you want to play,” they told him. Thomas was like the gorilla who turns into a house pet. He can sleep anywhere he wants.
Track still factored into the equation.
He competed in the shot put and discus his first two years at Wisconsin, part of the deal when he was recruited. “I missed quite a few spring practices and meetings,” said Thomas. But he finished second in the in the shot at the Big Ten Indoor and Outdoor Meets as a sophomore.
“Joe’s extremely bright,” said Chryst. “He could see through a lot of the recruiting BS. He wanted to compete in track and football. (Coach Barry) Alvarez and the track coach worked out a schedule for him ahead of time (so that he could play both sports). Joe knew it was a good fit for him.”
Thomas began his college career working out as an offensive tackle.
He practiced there most of his freshman year. He played a little that season, occasionally pulling a No. 82 jersey over his regular No. 72 so that he could line up as a second tight end in Wisconsin’s Jumbo Offense.
“He never redshirted,” said Bret Bielema, who became the Wisconsin head coach for Thomas’ senior season. “He was a natural guy.”
Starting defensive end Darius Jones was injured in the last game of the regular season in 2003, Thomas’ freshman year. The Badgers backups weren’t very big and they needed help on the defensive line to face Auburn in the Music City Bowl. Thomas moved to the other side of the ball.
“In high school I was a really good at defensive end,” he said. “I went over for a practice and was kind of an instant hit.”
Thomas started the bowl game and made seven tackles, but the Badgers couldn’t stop Auburn running backs Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams. Wisconsin lost, 28-14.
He returned to offense in the spring and started at left tackle in the opener of his sophomore year against Central Florida.
“I was the rookie,” he said. “Dan Buenning was the left guard and he was my mentor. ‘Don’t worry kid, I’ll tell you what to do,’ ” Buenning told him.
“I did play pretty well,” Thomas said of the opener, a 34-6 Wisconsin victory. “I didn’t make any big mistakes or give up any sacks.”
Soon the coaches realized they had somebody special at left tackle.
“People said it, but I don’t know if I believed it,” said Thomas. “I never believed the hype.”
Wisconsin fielded an outstanding front four at the time, led by defensive end Erasmus James, a finalist for the 2004 Lombardi Trophy. All four of the defensive linemen went on to the NFL. “I got to practice against those guys every day and it really elevated my game,” said Thomas.
The Badgers finished the season 9-2 and faced Georgia in the Outback Bowl. Thomas lined up against David Pollack, the Bulldogs’ All-American defensive end.
“I knew all the awards he was up for that year,” said Thomas. “I really made it a point to study him. I played outstanding. By the end of the (first) half they moved him to the other side because I was handling him.”
Georgia won, but Thomas was anything but a loser.
He started every game at left tackle as a junior in 2005. He was told before the bowl game that he would probably be one of the top 10 players taken in NFL Draft, if he considered leaving college a year early.
“His junior year you knew he was an elite athlete,” said Chryst. “He was obviously gifted, but he was a hard worker with competitive desire. He’s ultra competitive. He wanted to be the best, and not in a bragadocchia way. He critiques himself.”
Luckily for the Badgers he decided to stay. Wisconsin recruited another offensive tackle from Cottage Grove, Wis. that year. Gabe Carimi redshirted in Thomas’ senior year, studied the All-American and followed him at left tackle in 2007.
Carimi went on to win the Outland Trophy in 2010.
Coach Barry Alvarez announced before the 2005 season, which was Thomas’ junior year, that this would be his final season coaching the Badgers before becoming the school’s full-time athletic director. What bothered Thomas most was that after the season, Wisconsin’s offensive line coach, Jim Huber, announced that he would be leaving too, to become an assistant with the Minnesota Vikings.
“I was really sad about it,” said Thomas. “If I hadn’t hurt my knee, this might have affected my decision to (apply for the draft). I didn’t have the option of going to the NFL at that point. You never know how you’re going to get along with the new coach.”
Bob Palcic came from the New Orleans Saints to replace Huber and coach the offensive line. He had coached 1995 Outland Trophy winner Jonathan Ogden at UCLA.
“It ended up working out great,” said Thomas. “We kept the same offensive coordinator and a lot of the same blocking schemes.”
Bret Bielema, Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator, was promoted to coach, succeeding Alvarez.
“The thing I loved about Joe is he came to compete every day,” said Bielema. “He’s very intelligent. A very gifted person. When Joe spoke people listened. There’s only one Joe Thomas.”
Thomas admitted to being a little tentative beginning his senior year because of the torn ACL from the bowl game.
“I kind of fought with (the mental part) the first couple of games because you don’t trust your knee,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence in the knee.”
Wisconsin faced Michigan in its Big Ten opener at Ann Arbor. The Wolverines, who featured three outstanding defensive ends, including 2006 Lombardi Award winner LaMarr Woodley, won, 27-13. But Thomas regained confidence in his knee.
“I didn’t think about it (after that),” he said. “I wasn’t worried about anyone falling on it.”
The Michigan game was Wisconsin’s only loss of the season.
Ohio State, which wasn’t on Wisconsin’s schedule that year, went undefeated in the regular season before losing to Florida in the national championship game.
“I don’t think anybody thought we’d go 12-1,” said Thomas. “I think most of the season we did get underrated. We had the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country in our conference.”
The Badgers were matched against Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando. They weren’t afraid of playing another SEC team after beating Auburn the year before.
“We had heard how great Arkansas was,” said Thomas. “It was the same situation the year before. Auburn definitely overlooked us.”
No one overlooked Joe Thomas when he became the No. 3 pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns.