The road hasn’t ever been smooth.
So for Robert Thomas, this close to its end and the on-ramp to the dream of Sundays in the NFL, it shouldn’t be surprising.
From his senior year as the All-Phoenix Defensive Player of the Year out of Muskogee High School to a backroad trip to major college football at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, then to the University of Arkansas and three different head football coaches, defensive coordinators and line coaches, it’s been a road filled with distractions and detours.
Through it all, he stood in mid-October as one of the best things on a Razorback team that was itself struggling to reclaim a spot among the SEC elite. He was well on his way to his best college season at the time, having made 31 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema considered Thomas one of the Razorbacks’ emotional leaders, someone he’d turn to when a teammate struggled —be it in class, socially, etc. — to help him help them.
He was a team captain.
And then, it all came crashing on him in an Oct. 12 game against South Carolina when he suffered a broken tibia. It ended his Arkansas career but through yet another round of perseverance, the NFL freeway route is still open
Well into his fourth month of rehab, Thomas is healthy again. It’s now a matter of getting into football shape for the NFL combine Feb. 22-25.
“I can run straight forward pretty good, I cut pretty good," he said. “I can do pretty much anything. It’s just a matter of getting back to where I was.”
Just a little matter, you might say. Because he’s weathered so much already.
He remembers the “growing up” he did having to go through the JUCO route rather than head to Fayetteville, Ark., his original destination following his senior year at Muskogee. He remembers the frustration of watching the program slip after Bobby Petrino’s departure in a sea of controversy involving a relationship that had crossed the line from infidelity into workplace favoritism. The four-game losing streak under interim coach John L. Smith and losses to Louisiana Monroe and Rutgers. Back-to-back losing seasons for a program that had seemingly turned the corner as a consistent SEC contender.
And yet he made such an impression on Bielema — who left the same post at the University of Wisconsin for UA — that after his injury, his coach came to him with the suggestion that Thomas give him a list of guys who would wear his No. 98 each game the rest of the 2013 season.
Thomas, his cup already full of emotion, cried.
“It was right after my surgery and I was still like in the shock of being injured and it brightened my whole day up,” Thomas said. “He wanted me to give him the list but he wanted to make sure they had earned it that week during practice.
“Coach B was, man, that’s one of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t get more time with him. He’s a player’s coach who believed in us and we in him. He helped me see that there’s a reason for everything and looking back, this has all made me stronger personally and around our locker room, it made a lot of us a better family.”
The first player to wear his jersey was Byran Jones, his mainstay along the defensive front and himself an NFL prospect.
“He was like a brother. Right after the surgery, he was in seeing me and explaining like, this is minor, you’re going to be all right. Our dreams are still there,” Thomas said.
Jones’ encouragement has been surpassed only by that of Thomas’ wife, the former Kayla Huitt, also a Muskogee High grad. The two were wed December 2012. They’ve dated since high school and just Wednesday, learned the baby she’s carrying due in July will be a junior 98.
“The early days were tough,” she said of his rehab process, noting especially the period where he was in a wheelchair. She’d taken a leave from school to be with him through the seven- to eight-hour sessions.
“One day we got home and he just started crying, he really did and it was like he was doubting himself. The pain was bad and he was trying to follow everything and he didn’t see his improvement. I sat down and said ‘you’ve got to be tough. You’re getting better and better every day.’ I’d been with him and I could see it. It’s why we’re married. You’re there for each other in these times.”
“She’s kept me level,” Robert Thomas said.
It’s likely Thomas won’t run his 40-yard dash and other lower body drills at the combine. There will be time for that, perhaps at Arkansas’ Pro Day on March 5 or in the weeks leading up to the May 8-10 draft. He will, however, do the bench press and interviews.
It’s likely the latter will get people to talk. He’s got the leadership thing down pat.
“I know my board work, any questions they can throw at me,” he said.
Fully healthy, his knack for being a disruptive force, his size (325 pounds) and his athleticism makes him flexible for either an anchor spot in a 3-4 defense or a 3-technique in the 4-3 scheme.
Ben Allbright, a scout and consultant based in Denver, said Thursday that Thomas could see his stock rise to a mid-level, round 4 or 5 with a fast finish.
“You see the strength, the violent hands and the size he needs. The question is whether he’s stiff in the hip or if he can get natural leverage against the pass rush. His health will say a lot about that. You want to know whether he’s quick off the snap or not or a natural bender.”
Thomas watched a fellow Muskogee defensive tackle in Stacy McGee make it through his own set of obstacles, most of them off-the-field, and as a sixth-round draft pick played in all but one game for the Oakland Raiders last season.
“We’ve talked and he’s shown what you can overcome,” Thomas said.
“I want to get drafted but all I need is a chance and if I get that chance, I’m happy with it.”
Steady does it: Grounded by love, ex-Rougher Thomas navigates a road of obstacles in search of a shot at the pros.
The road hasn’t ever been smooth.
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