More than 330 college football players of recent vintage will be attending the NFL Scouting Combine, which runs through next Tuesday. Many, such as Heisman runners-up Darren McFadden of Arkansas and Colt Brennan of Hawaii, are well-known. Others, such as place kicker Richard Longest of St. Xavier (Chicago), are simply well-named. Thomas, a two-year captain at Notre Dame, will not be joining them.
He was not invited.
Thomas, his 6-foot frame finely chiseled, is spending the entire winter training at the Northwestern University varsity athletic complex in Evanston, Ill. He trains daily under the tutelage of former Wildcats players Bob and Tom Christian (yes, Thomas has traded in the Holy Cross priests for the Christian brothers). Also training under the Christians are Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall and Southern Cal offensive tackle Sam Baker, both likely first-rounders.
Thomas was not invited to the combine. He was not invited to any postseason showcase bowls. His name will very likely not be called during the two days of the NFL Draft this April. He understands that as he trains daily, his entire focus being March 19th, which is "pro day" in South Bend.
"Obviously you want to get invited to the combine," says Thomas, 23. "That is considered the big stage, and you know you are highly thought of."
He is sanguine. Thomas earned his Notre Dame captaincy almost exclusively via his special teams performances. His reaction to the combine slight is just another example of his sacrificing himself for the good of the team. Only this time the name of the team is Travis Thomas.
"But you know, being invited to the combine or not being invited to the combine," he says, "I don't think that really matters to me."
It must. It has to. It should be his inspiration.
Ups and downs
How can someone who appeared on the cover of the 2006 Sports Illustrated college football preview issue be under the radar? Thomas, all business with his hands on his hips and his helmet strapped on, appeared alongside teammates Brady Quinn and Tom Zbikowski. True, the magazine wanted rock-and-roll receiver Jeff Samardzija to be the third amigo in that shot. Notre Dame, however, insisted that the three captains appear together or no one at all.
That photo is, pardon the pun, a telling snapshot of Thomas's star-crossed Notre Dame career. He started at running back in his very first game in an Irish uniform, a feat more remarkable considering that two other Irish backs from that season, Ryan Grant and Darius Walker, were NFL starters at the end of this year.
Thomas started that 2004 evening at Brigham Young in place of Grant, who was injured. He gained just two yards on six carries, though, in Notre Dame's 20-17 loss in Provo. The following Saturday the job was Walker's, as it would remain the next three years.
The seventh is Thomas, who scored on a 16-yard run to knot the score at 7-7 in the first quarter. His memory of the play is quite vivid.
"Oh man, my heart was just racing," says Thomas. "I remember the free safety coming in and diving at my ankle and just lifting my knees up to catapult to the end zone and tie the game 7-7. And that was a big moment."
It was the longest run from scrimmage -- excluding a 43-yard run on a fake punt vs. Penn State in 2006 -- of Thomas's career. Thomas was also the Irish ball carrier stuffed for no gain on the final play of last autumn's bottom-dredging 46-44 triple-overtime loss to Navy. Even though he had already scored three touchdowns that afternoon -- running the identical play, a zone-blocking dive -- that moment will likely be replayed in future years more than any one Thomas was involved with in South Bend.
And yet, forget for a moment the bench-press repetitions, shuttle runs and cone drills to which NFL scouts subject every NFL hopeful. No play that Thomas made on the field at Notre Dame should make as big an impression on NFL beef inspectors as to the decision he made following the 2005 season.
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