To observe him now, Connor Thomas looks like the personification of what a model student athlete is.
The Montana State senior is closing in on his pre-medical school undergrad, a degree in cellular biology and neuroscience. Thomas has applied to medical schools across the West and has even considered the Uniformed Services University of Health Science in Bethesda, Maryland. Thomas knows he wants to be a surgeon but he’s not sure what sort yet. He carries a 3.6 grade-point average, certainly on the low end for medical school applicants but he remains optimistic. If medical school does not work out, he says me might try his hand at chiropractic work.
“He’s so naturally smart,” Montana State senior captain Taylor Sheridan, also a defensive tackle, said on Tuesday. “People will compare tests with him. They will spend hours studying and it seems like he just looks at it and it’s understood. He just understands everything. That’s how he is at football as well. He’s a logical thinker.”
On the football field, Thomas seems to have fulfilled the potential many saw from him as a standout three-sport athlete at Flathead High in Kalispell. Thomas has been a primary contributor on the interior of Montana State’s defensive line for the past two seasons, starting Montana State’s first two games this fall. He notched his first sack of the season, the second of his career, last week in Montana State’s 55-50 loss at Eastern Washington.
“More than anything, his success is because of the physical toughness he’s always shown and the brainpower, he’s able to mentally become tough,” MSU ninth-year defensive line coach Bo Beck said. “He doesn’t let things bother him.
“When you talk to him, there’s no way you think he’s a 4.0 future brain surgeon kid. He just comes off non-scholastic because he’s so cool and funny.”
The witty, intelligent Thomas provides comedic relief in Montana State’s defensive line room. Whether it is prodding a teammate or saying something self-deprecating about his famous fashion style, Thomas has embraced the role as the comedian among the defensive linemen, a spot previously occupied by cutups like Danny Ogden, Dustin O’Connell, Taylor Dees and Craig Ashworth.
“One of the things I worried about when Taylor Dees and Ashworth left was the room,” Sheridan said. “I would walk into the meeting room with those guys and cry laughing. I got so nervous when those guys left because I didn’t know who was going to be there. But Connor and I sit by each other at all the meetings and he just has me laughing my head off too.”
Last fall, with Montana State trapped on an airport runway inside an airplane for the majority of a day, most of the Bobcats complained of how hot the non-air conditioned quarters were. Thomas couldn’t help but cut the tension with a joke.
“I don’t know what everyone is complaining about here,” he said. “I got on my wife beater and my sandals. And I’m quite comfortable”
The 6-foot-3, 295-pound Thomas is easy to talk to, a cordial 22-year-old with lofty goals beyond athletics. As recently as January of 2013, many questioned whether welcoming Thomas back to the Bobcats was worth the risk.
After an all-state football, wrestling and track career as a Brave, Thomas signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Rob Ash and the Bobcats in February of 2011. In June of that same year Thomas, Flathead’s valedictorian and a standout athlete with perfect grades, was charged with two felony counts of distribution of dangerous drugs for an incident stemming at Flathead’s all-night graduation party.
According to court records, two 17-year-old boys identified Thomas as the person who made and sold brownies laced with marijuana for $15 a piece at the party. Six 17-year-olds and Thomas were sent home from the party with their parents after showing symptoms that included “confusion, hallucinations and garbled speech.”
Thomas instantly lost his scholarship offer from Montana State.
“Mainly, I didn’t care what happened to me, I just felt so bad for my family because they were so proud of me and to let them all down, it just sucked to see them think of me as a hero and all that happening and losing their trust,” said Thomas, a two-time Class AA state placer as a wrestler and the 2010 Class AA state shot put champion in track and field. “It was a journey to earn their trust back. They loved me through the whole thing and helped me a ton but I just felt so bad to let them down and make our family look bad.”
In the meantime, his older brother, Tyler was a talented yet controversial offensive guard previously of Oregon State looking for a new home after an incident of his own. Tyler Thomas was dismissed from the Oregon State team after police found him naked and intoxicated in a stranger’s home and had to use a stun gun to take him into custody. Officers responded to a call about a naked intruder early on an August Sunday morning in 2010. Officers ordered the 6-foot-5, 330-pound 19-year-old offensive guard to get on the ground. Thomas refused, instead dropping in a three-point stance and lunging toward the officers. He was arrested for criminal trespass, criminal mischief and resisting arrest.
In January of 2011, a month before Connor signed with the Bobcats, Ash announced Tyler was transferring to Montana State. Connor seemed to no longer be in MSU’s plans. In August, Tyler retired from football, sighting a loss of love for the game.
In Sept. of 2011, Connor Thomas pled guilty to both counts of distribution of dangerous drugs. He was charged as a juvenile and avoided jail time. Thomas was given formal probation until he reached the age of 21 and forced to pay a $1,000 fine with $750 suspended.
Thomas spent the 2011-12 academic year at Flathead Valley Community College. He earned perfect grades and enrolled at Montana State as a student in the fall of 2012. He contacted Ash and began to work on “an outline” to help himself earn a roster spot for the Bobcats. In January of 2013, Thomas finally joined the Bobcats, this time as a walk-on.
“I knew that he was a smart, intelligent young man and I knew that academics were important to him,” Ash said earlier this week. “I thought eventually that he would grow out of some of the youthful mistakes that he made and get some maturity. And I thought he had the innate ability both athletically and academically to be a success.”
Thomas played offensive line in the spring before switching to defensive tackle during fall camp. Sheridan said the older players in the defensive line room, guys like Brad Daly, Ashworth and Dees, “loved him right away”, something that is rare. Last season, Thomas notched 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack in spot duty behind Sheridan, Dees and senior Nate Bignell.
“I’m glad we took the risk on it because it’s paid dividends more for him than anything else because he’s one that has taken the free education to another level,” Beck said. “He’s going to be able to go to med school and afford it. I look forward to seeing what he does in his future.”
Throughout his journey, Thomas’ dedication to academics has not wavered. He focuses on not watching television and on making sure to get enough sleep every night. He took the MCAT last spring and is hoping to finish his final semester strong to boost his resume.
The journey has also taught him what he means to others in his life. It’s shown him people have always looked up to him. He has learned how quickly things can change with one poor decision.
“I think all of that made me a way better person to not take anything for granted because when I was in high school, I thought I was invincible,” Thomas said. “That made me grow up a lot and mature.
“I’ve tried to work my hardest on the field and in the classroom and I changed my old ways,” Thomas said. “I’m on the straight and narrow now (laughs). I just go to work, try to be accountable, responsible and someone you can count on.”
As Thomas endures his final college season, he’s certainly become someone his teammates count on, whether it is for a laugh or to eat up a double team. Thomas is one of 16 seniors on this year’s Bobcats, including 11 from Montana. He has become close with Bignell and Sheridan and the defensive tackle trio is emphasizing enjoying every moment as their final season plays out.
“I will always remember the guys on the team and the coaches giving me a second chance,” Thomas said. “I will remember all the time that people don’t really see, the morning workouts that suck in the winter time. We are always finding a way to have good times no matter what. Traveling, in the hotel rooms, on the buses, we have a great time and no one really sees that. We spend a lot of time with each other and we get to be really good friends. I’m going to miss messing around and just being a part of a team.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.