Back in his playing days with the University of Wisconsin football team, Joe Thomas used to look forward to checking out the Crazylegs Classic, encouraging the participants in his role as a spectator.
“I was always aware of it and enjoyed going down there to see the festivities when I could,” Thomas said. “We used to go when I was a student-athlete and cheer people on and give them water.”
Thomas will have a similar but considerably more formal role Saturday when he serves as grand marshal for the 38th annual Crazylegs Classic.
Thomas, a unanimous All-American offensive tackle at UW in 2006 and a 10-time NFL Pro Bowl player with the Cleveland Browns, admits he’s not quite sure of his exact duties as grand marshal. But he will perform them with enthusiasm, as long as they can be done from the lead car or from the sidelines.
“I’m going to be there for morale support, cheering people on, getting people excited for the race,” he said. “Hopefully, they don’t expect me to do any running because I won’t be able to help with that.
“I ran the mile run when I was in grade school and high school, but that was about it. Being in football and sports we ran sprints and things like that, so that was fine and dandy. Now my knees are pretty much shot. I can’t really run anymore and even if I wanted to be able to compete I wouldn’t be able to make it very far without collapsing.”
Thomas and his wife Annie (Nelson), a former UW women’s basketball team member, returned to Madison following his retirement from the Browns after the 2017 season. That was their plan all along as they wanted to raise their family, which has grown to four children, in Madison.
But even through their 11 years in Cleveland, the Thomases always maintained their ties to UW as much as possible.
“I’m very proud of being a Badger,” said Thomas, who also excelled in the shot put and discus with the UW track and field team. “Both my wife and I loved our time at Wisconsin and obviously that’s a big reason why we moved back. Keeping that connection and staying involved with the university is real important to us. Doing stuff like this is a lot of fun, first of all, but also I think it’s a good way to stay connected and give back any way we can.”
Thomas, who didn’t miss a snap — an NFL-record span of 10,363 consecutive plays — until suffering a torn triceps in his final season, is still feeling his way around in retirement. He was in the running for a couple of high-profile television analyst roles last year that ultimately went to others, but he’s had no problem keeping busy.
He’s been working with the NFL Network and ESPN Radio, co-hosts a popular podcast, the ThomaHawk Show, and has partnered with Mission BBQ, a growing chain of restaurants that plans to open two stores in the Madison area in the next year.
“I definitely feel overcommitted already but I think that’s mainly because I’ve spent a great deal of time with the kids and the family and making sure to reconnect there,” Thomas said. “I’m actually going to try to back off a little bit in year two of retirement. I do feel a little less strained in retirement.
“That was one of the great things about the first year of being retired, having my fall where I could watch Badger games on Saturdays and being able to watch a little more football than I usually do. And I got to spend those beautiful Wisconsin weekends with the family and reconnecting with friends. Definitely a lot of that going on, which was cool because it’s all stuff I missed out on when I was playing.”
One thing Thomas hasn’t done in retirement is lose any more games, an all too common experience in his career with the Browns. Despite his individual brilliance — he allowed just 30 sacks in 6,680 pass blocking plays and is considered a lock first-ballot selection for the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Thomas experienced just one winning season, his first, and the Browns had a 48-128 during his career.
While he would have preferred a career marked by postseason contests and Super Bowls, he did come away with some helpful lessons from all the adversity.
“I would say the big thing for me was that you control what you are able to control in life and you can’t worry about things that are out of your control,” he said. “It’s human nature to worry about everything, especially if something’s not going well, but it will drive you nuts. So focus on the things you have an impact on, try to do them to the best of your ability and just have the ability mentally to let go of stuff you don’t have control over.”
Thomas has gained considerable attention for a different kind of losing in the past year, as he lost about 50 pounds from his playing weight of 312 pounds. That transformation has been the subject of much discussion and numerous stories. While it’s not the most comfortable topic for him, he understands that it can be inspirational for others trying to lose weight.
“I’m not a person that loves talking about myself all the time, especially when it comes to stuff like that,” he said. “But it has been really neat and has kept me talking about it a little bit because so many people have come up to me and they want to know, how’d you do it, how’d you lose the weight?
“I just try to give people good tips that helped me along the way. I know there’s a lot of people who want to lose weight and they don’t know how to do it, so it’s been fun and I’ve enjoyed talking with people about it.”
New Crazylegs course
For the first time in its history, the Crazylegs Classic won’t start on the Capitol Square. Instead, the field of more than 10,000 participants will start on Library Mall at the intersection of State Street and North Lake Street.
The 2-mile walk will begin at 9:50 a.m., with the 8K run starting at 10:10 a.m. for wheelchair competitors and 10:15 a.m. for runners.
Everyone will finish up as usual at Camp Randall Stadium, with walkers entering from the north end zone and runners coming in from the south end zone.
Live music at Camp Randall will be provided by the band Universal Sound and the UW Marching Band will perform one last time under the direction of Mike Leckrone.