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Travis Thomas: The long and winding road

Chris Khorey | Thursday, November 15, 2007

It had been a good day for Travis Thomas.

He had scored three touchdowns already and his team, which had struggled so much in falling to a 1-7 record, had a chance to pull out a victory.

Notre Dame was trailing was 46-44 to Navy in triple overtime and Thomas had just bulled, slipped and dived his way into the end zone to bring the Irish to within two points.

And now coach Charlie Weis was calling his number again.

Thomas lined up behind fullback Asaph Schwapp, took the hand off from quarterback Evan Sharpley and immediately found himself face to face with three Midshipmen defenders.

Thomas couldn’t escape them and was tackled well short of the goal line. The Irish lost.

The emotional roller coaster that Thomas went through that day was a microcosm of the running back’s career at Notre Dame – a career that included starting opportunities and position changes, touchdowns and fumbles, big wins and heartbreaking losses.

But Irish coach Charlie Weis said Thomas has never let anything get him down, even something as frustrating as the loss to Navy.

“I don’t think Travis is going to sit there and take the blame on his shoulders,” Weis said. “He ran the ball as hard as you could run it.”

Through it all, Thomas has been the consummate teammate. He said that that has always been his attitude – even going back to his elementary school days.

“I’ve done the same thing for my whole football career, going back to Little League, Pop Warner, high school,” Thomas said.

Thomas’ career at Notre Dame began in 2003, but with future pros Julius Jones and Ryan Grant ahead of him at running back, he didn’t see any action as a freshman under coach Tyrone Willingham.

“Coach told me there would be a great opportunity to play, but that was before we knew Julius was coming back for his fifth year,” Thomas said.

Jones, who had missed all of the 2002 season due to academic trouble, returned to the Irish that year and rushed for 1,268 yards. Meanwhile, Thomas red-shirted.

Although he didn’t get to play, Thomas said he was happy Jones returned. He said he learned a lot from the older player.

“One of the things I learned from him is to continuously work hard, whether in good times or bad,” Thomas said.

The next year, Grant was injured in fall practice, and Thomas got his first opportunity at playing time.

It didn’t go well.

In Notre Dame’s season opener against BYU, Thomas carried the ball six times, gaining only two yards. He also fumbled twice.

“Obviously, it wasn’t my best performance,” he said.

The next week against Michigan, freshman Darius Walker ran for 115 yards. Thomas found himself buried on the depth chart again. He finished 2004 with only 25 carries and 25 yards.

The problem, Thomas said, was that he struggled adapting to the speed of the college game.

“It was a learning experience for me,” he said. “I needed to learn to be a college back.”

The next year, Charlie Weis took over for Willingham as coach and gave Thomas another shot.

“When Coach Weis came in, he gave everyone a clean slate,” Thomas said. “I tried to work hard and make a good impression.”

Then a junior, Thomas was Notre Dame’s second-leading rusher, gaining 248 yards and scoring five touchdowns in his new role as the “power back” for the Irish.

Thomas also had one of the most memorable moments of his career in 2005 – early in the showdown between No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 1 USC, he scored a 16-yard touchdown to tie the score at 7-7.

But after that season, Thomas’ career took another twist. Weis asked him to switch to linebacker to help shore up the team’s porous defense.

Thomas at first was reluctant.

“I was pretty shocked when he asked me,” he said. “I thought about it, I didn’t make the decision right away. I had had a pretty decent spring game, and I thought things were going to go well on offense the next season.”

But in a move that showed his team-first attitude, Thomas agreed to make the switch and ended up starting at outside linebacker.

“I thought it would be a good decision to show my athleticism,” Thomas said. “Looking back, I think I learned a lot more about the game.”

Partially because of that attitude, Weis made Thomas a captain for the 2006 season.

Thomas’ year on defense was a mixed bag. He made 35 tackles, but the effort came for a unit that gave up more than 23 points per game, including 44 and 41 to USC and LSU, respectively, in the last two games of the season.

“I was undersized,” Thomas said. “But one of the things I used to my advantage was my speed.”

Thomas also got to carry the ball that year. He played running back in short yardage situations, gaining 81 yards on 13 carries and scoring two touchdowns.

Thomas said that playing both ways required him to be “in the best shape of my life.”

“We ran a lot more than we had in the past,” he said. “It really paid off. I could do a lot of things and not be too tired.”

Against Penn State that year, Weis called his number on a fake punt, and Thomas took it 43 yards. He scored on a helmet-crunching, one-yard plunge a few plays later.

The special teams play represented another element of Thomas’ team-first attitude. Since the beginning of his career, he has always been more than willing to do the thankless jobs of wedge busting, punt protection and kick-return blocking.

“Whatever hat I need to wear, I’ll do it,” he said.

After Walker left for the NFL last winter, Thomas was in contention to be the starting running back in this, his fifth season. But all did not go as planned.

Thomas started the season opener, but when he lost seven yards on six carries in a 33-3 loss to Georgia Tech, he found himself on the bench.

But even as he watched loss after loss from the sidelines, Thomas remained a leader, taking his position as a second-year captain seriously.

“It’s been difficult,” he said. “But I think it’s helped our character. I think it’s made us better people.”

Against Navy, Thomas’ roller coaster ride seemed on the upswing again. He scored three touchdowns on his first three carries against the Midshipmen. And while he couldn’t get into the end zone on the two-point conversion, Weis said no one on the team has blamed Thomas for the loss.

“I’m sure if the line of scrimmage was going the other way,” Weis said, “I think Travis would have gotten in the end zone.”

Thomas said he wants to pursue football after the season ends, but after that, he wants to get into management consulting and eventually own a consulting firm.

“I want to be my own boss eventually,” he said.

Whether it’s in football or not, Thomas said he will use the lessons he’s learned as an Irish football player for the rest of his life.

“We made it through a record of 1-9,” he said. “Nothing in life is going to be easy. There’s going to be a lot of hard times. But if you’ve been though something like this, it will help you with a lot of other things.”