Thursday, November 17, 2016

S.C. State: A 55-year-old man is trying to make college football history

ORANGEBURG, South Carolina — An hour before sunrise, the first player pushes open the doors of the locker room and bounds into the bright lights of the stadium. It's half past six in the morning, and this is South Carolina State's final full practice before its Homecoming game. For the next 10 minutes, players stream out to a playlist booming from speakers set on top of a laundry bin. Trainers top off water jugs and wheel them to the benches. Cheerleaders wearily sway on the opposite side of the field. The head coach, Buddy Pough, spins in on a bicycle and begins issuing orders to assistants.

Joe Thomas Sr. strides out to join the team. He's the only player without even a single accessory: no leggings, no wristbands, no gloves, just team-issued blue-and-white striped shorts, his No. 47 jersey and an unadorned helmet. With the pads bulking his chest and the helmet guarding the wisp of grey at the peak of his hairline, he hardly seems 55 years old.

Midway through practice, he slips a yellow scout team sleeve over his helmet and jogs onto the field to rehearse kickoff return coverage. He's been at this for the better part of four seasons, enduring bleary-eyed predawn practices designed for players 35 years younger and in peak physical condition, with one goal in mind: To get in a game and make history as the oldest man ever to play Division I football. Detractors be damned: Joe was born to a sharecropper and raised a Green Bay Packer. He could barely hear until 17 and still graduated high school. And no one will be able to convince him that he can't compete until he takes the field and tries for himself. "I believe that if the coaches looked past my age and just let me play football," he says, "I'd steal someone's position."

Age isn't the only way time that is taunting him: South Carolina State has only two games left this season, and because he's a senior, he's running out of opportunities.


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