Camp Randall 100: Joe Thomas

The Camp Randall 100 honors a prestigious group of 100 people who shaped the first century of Camp Randall Stadium. Wisconsin Athletics will reveal a new honoree every day from May 24 until the Badgers’ 2017 opening game on Sept. 1 against Utah State.


Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas

When all is said and done, Joe Thomas will be one of the most acclaimed players in Wisconsin football history.

He was a two-time first-team All-American at left tackle and is the first Badgers performer to win the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in the nation.

He was a first-round NFL draft pick of Cleveland and is putting together a Hall of Fame-worthy career in which he’s been chosen for the Pro Bowl for 10 consecutive seasons.

UW has long had a reputation for producing elite offensive linemen and Thomas, who played from 2003 to ’06, is among the very best.

He was the first true freshman to see action on the offensive line during the famed Barry Alvarez coaching era (1990 to 2005).

Thomas, from Brookfield, Wisconsin, was assigned the only one-on-one block on the UW offensive line 90 percent of the time over his final three seasons.

He played on Wisconsin teams that improved every year (7-6, 9-3, 10-3 and 12-1), set a program standard for wins in a single season as a senior and was a part of two squads that won a school-record-tying nine consecutive games (2004, ’06).

Thomas had close ties with three UW head coaches. He played three seasons for Alvarez and one with Alvarez’s successor, Bret Bielema. Thomas was recruited to Madison by Paul Chryst, the tight ends coach in 2002 and offensive coordinator in 2005 and ’06 who took over the program in 2015.

Thomas also had a front-row seat to the latest renovation of Camp Randall Stadium, which occurred from 2001 to ’05.

The odd thing about Joe Thomas’ favorite Camp Randall memory is that involves a game in which he played sparingly.

He was a true freshman reserve the night of Oct. 11, 2003. He estimates he played eight or 10 snaps as a blocking tight end during a 17-10 Big Ten Conference victory over previously-unbeaten Ohio State.

That’s the game where backup quarterback Matt Schabert connected with wide receiver Lee Evans for a 79-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to break a 10-10 tie against the defending national champions.

“The emotions and the feelings that I had, they always seem to come back when I talk about or think about that game,” Thomas said. “An incredible atmosphere.”

Thomas has vivid memories of the crowd, 79,793 strong, and its impact.

“When I decided to come to Wisconsin, it was the type of game that I dreamed of playing in. To be able to experience that and to experience a win like that in my first season was kind of surreal.”
– Joe Thomas

“To this day, one of the loudest atmospheres I’ve ever played in,” he said. “And certainly one of the most exciting and electric atmospheres.

“When I decided to come to Wisconsin, it was the type of game that I dreamed of playing in. To be able to experience that and to experience a win like that in my first season was kind of surreal.”


MADISON, WI - OCTOBER 14: Offensive lineman Joe Thomas #72 of the Wisconsin Badgers carries the Paul Bunyan Axe after beating the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium on October 14, 2006 in Madison, Wisconsin. The Badgers beat the Golden Gophers 48-12. (Photo by David Stluka)
Joe Thomas carries the Paul Bunyan Axe after Wisconsin beat the Minnesota Golden Gophers 48-12 at Camp Randall Stadium on October 14, 2006.


Thomas, listed at 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds, said his relatively brief exposure to the action that night was enlightening. One of his assignments on multiple plays was to block Ohio State defensive end Will Smith, a first-team All-American who would be chosen by New Orleans in the opening round of the NFL draft in 2004.

Thomas described Smith as “probably the best defensive end we had faced that year” and the challenge was memorable in a good way.

“I remember blocking him on one run play and doing a pretty good job,” Thomas said. “In my mind I pancaked him, but I don’t know if that clashes with reality.”

Thomas, one of six UW offensive linemen to be first-round NFL draft picks since 2000, chuckled.

“I did a pretty good job in that game when I had a chance to block him,” he said of Smith. “It was one of those moments where you realize, ‘Hey, I really might be able to play at this level if I’m able to handle a guy like that.”

The following season, the Badgers ventured to Columbus, Ohio, and handed Ohio State a 24-13 setback.

Thomas finished his college career 2-0 against the Buckeyes — who were ranked third and 18th, respectively — knowledge that comes in very handy for a guy now living and working in Ohio.

“Everybody out here’s an Ohio State fan, so it’s great being able to tell them that I have no ill will towards the Buckeyes because I never lost to them in my career,” he said. “It’s a good one-upper I always have in my back pocket.”



Another memorable encounter for Thomas at Camp Randall was the Big Ten opener in 2005 when a last-minute quarterback keeper by John Stocco produced a 23-20 victory over 14th-ranked Michigan.

Thomas and Stocco were among six senior starters who shared the team MVP award in 2006. The others were defensive end Joe Monty, linebacker Mark Zalewski, defensive back Joe Stellmacher and defensive back Roderick Rogers.

Thomas blocked for two 1,000-yard tailbacks — Brian Calhoun in 2005 and P.J. Hill in ’06 — while negotiating the transition from Alvarez to Bielema.

The fact Chryst recruited Thomas to Madison and later served as the UW offensive coordinator further strengthened the bond Thomas has with the Badgers.

“I think I have a really good connection to all three of those guys,” Thomas said. “It was pretty neat being a part of all three of those eras at Wisconsin.”

Thomas recalled his recruiting trip during the spring of 2002 when then-offensive line coach Jim Hueber described the ongoing renovation of Camp Randall.

Though hard to envision as an 18-year-old kid from Brookfield Central High School, Thomas came to appreciate the $109.5 million project that added suites, club seats and a new administrative layout to the facility.

“To see that process my first couple seasons,” Thomas said, “was pretty cool.”