Editor's note: Between now and the NFL draft (April 28-29), Graham Bensinger will be talking to a high-profile prospect each week. This week, he checks in with Wisconsin's Joe Thomas.
Graham Bensinger: You recently said that pro day was like any other day of football practice. How so?
Joe Thomas: I did all of my work at the combine. I did all my timing drills and everything else they asked of me there. The pro day was just one more chance for some of the coaches to come out and put me through some specific offensive line drills and maybe get a little more hands-on as far as things they wanted me to do. My pro day was really 30 minutes of offensive line drills. That was it. The way we started practice everyday at [the University of] Wisconsin was 20 to 30 minutes of offensive line drills.
Bensinger: Coming into pro day, how aware were you of what you were going to be asked to do?
Thomas: I didn't know anything about what drills they were going to put me through. All I knew was that I wasn't doing any of the timing over again.
Bensinger: The drills were being run by people from two of the teams that are interested in you -- Steve Marshall of the Browns and Bill Muir of the Bucs. Let's start with Marshall. What did you think of him?
Thomas: He seems like a good coach. I didn't get a whole lot of time to get to know him as a person. He's relatively new there. I think he's only been there for a couple of weeks.
Bensinger: How about the Bucs' Bill Muir?
Thomas: He is from Pennsylvania. My former O-line coach, Jim Hueber, who is now with the Vikings, knew him. They're similar types of coaches. The guy who has been my mentor growing up is a guy named Joe Panos. He played in the NFL for seven years. He grew up in my hometown and coached me in high school. His first offensive line coach in the NFL was Bill Muir. I developed a little bit of a relationship with him through Joe.
Bensinger: Whether it is pro day or the combine, all eyes are on you. It's different from a game because those watching have a direct effect on your future. How do you avoid paying attention to that when you're actually in the situation?
Thomas: It was easy for me because I was on the track team here at Wisconsin for my first few years. I'm used to and got good at doing my individual thing for a time or a measurement in front of a big crowd. I was able to use my background in track to block out everything that was around me.
Bensinger: Prior to tearing your ACL during the Capital One Bowl, which capped off the '05 season for the Badgers, how much consideration did you give to declaring for the NFL draft?
Thomas: I thought about it and talked about it a little bit with my parents. I was pushing a definite decision off until after the bowl game because I didn't want to have to worry about that at all until my season was over. Looking back on it, I think I probably would have stayed.
Bensinger: At the time, people were projecting you to be a top-15 overall pick. Prior to the injury, how troubling of a decision was it for you?
Thomas: At that point, my offensive line coach was planning on staying. That would have played a role in whether I stayed or not. He ended up taking a job at the end of the season with the Vikings. We got a new offensive line coach. It was a little tough at first because I had hurt my knee and had obviously decided to stay another year. There was a lot of turmoil with all of the coaching changeovers and having the surgery. I just didn't know what was going to happen from there.
Bensinger: You had obviously worked hard to get to that point. You set yourself up to make a lot of money, had the opportunity to enter the NFL draft if you wanted, and then you sustain the injury. What was going through your head when you found out you tore your ACL?
Thomas: There are a number of things that were going through my head. The biggest thing was a fear of not knowing what was going to happen. I had heard about the injury, and 10-15 years ago, there might have been a real question as to if I'd play football again. That was the kind of the information that my mind was relying on at that point because I didn't know about the modern medicine and the advances that they've made since then. The initial shock was wondering whether or not I was going to be able to play football again.
Bensinger: What, if any, remaining effects have there been from the injury?
Thomas: I had a great doctor and a great team that rehabbed me. I feel very fortunate that I haven't had any lingering effects. I feel that I'm actually stronger now than before I hurt my knee.
Bensinger: In your recent meetings with teams, how many times have you been asked about that?
Thomas: Going through an entire season and not having a problem with it, having everybody's medical team check me out and giving me the okay -- I haven't had any questions about the knee at all.
Bensinger: It was once Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Stanford, USC, and a variety of other schools recruiting you. How is the NFL draft process similar to that?
Thomas: It's a little similar, but it's more different. At this point, you're really not in control of what happens. In my situation, I went to the combine and my pro day and did as well as I could have done at both of those. I think I had a great season.
At this point, I've done everything I can to set myself up to get drafted high. In the process of getting ready for the NFL draft, you have to sell yourself to the teams, whereas in college recruiting the teams have to sell themselves to you. You get so many scholarship offers. You're choosing between a number of great teams and you have control. Now, the control is in the hands of 32 NFL teams.
Bensinger: Would you like to make the decision again or do you enjoy that, for once, the ball isn't in your court?
Thomas: It's kind of funny to talk about it because it really doesn't matter what I think, but I like being able to choose. When I was ready to pick where I wanted to go to college I decided, rather than sitting here for six weeks and having everybody predict where you are going to go. I'm just basically sitting here for six weeks until they actually have to pick.
Bensinger: I'm sure you love flipping on the TV everyday and watching the analysts and "talking heads" project where Joe Thomas is going, or in some instances tell where they definitively know you are headed.
Thomas: It is kind of funny. In the end, it's anybody's guess. Nobody really knows more than the other person, especially with all of the false information that teams try to put out there to throw the other teams off. If one person thinks he has the inside track because someone from a team told him, you don't know if that person is being honest or trying to give you false information so it gets leaked out.
It's a crazy process and unless you've gone through it you don't really understand how much teams try to mess with the other teams so that nobody really knows their true intentions. Now, the control is out of my hands. It doesn't really matter to me if I'm going [to be drafted] two, three, four, or five. I just want to be on a football team and playing in the NFL.
Bensinger: I'm sure you've talked to players who have been drafted high. Last year, I talked to a couple players who were being flown around by teams leading up to the draft. One of them was almost certain that he was going to be going to Organization X because he met with the owner and head coach and they told him if he was on the board they would without a doubt draft him. Come draft day, they passed on him. It's amazing how much the organizations will not only play the media, but the actual players too.
Thomas: You can't read too much into any one person telling you one thing or the other. You have 30 GMs at your pro day and 10 owners. You meet with them afterwards and a team will say we're definitely taking you and we love you. Draft day comes and those two GMs that weren't at your pro day are the two guys who want you the most. They didn't want to let anybody else know how much they wanted you because they were worried about somebody jumping ahead of them and taking you.
It's this crazy game and you try to pick up on hints and signals from other teams on what they're thinking, but you never really know if that's actually what they are thinking or if it's just what they want other people to think that's what they're thinking. You can look at the top five guys and say that nobody really knows where they are going to go. If you put their names in a hat, swished it around, and picked them out one by one, you're just as likely to pick it out the right way as someone who's been studying this, talking to the different teams, and trying to figure out exactly what's going on.
Bensinger: The hype and speculation will only increase over the next month and a half. Some of the top picks that I've talked to have said they're basically trying to stay as far away from their college-town as possible. You're still studying to get your degree and decided to stay around the University of Wisconsin. How hard of a decision was that?
Thomas: It really wasn't a difficult decision at all. It was very easy for me because I want to treat this offseason as much as I could like a typical offseason for me. I'm living in my apartment with my roommates and I'm staying and training in Madison, Wis.
I didn't want to get myself too wrapped up in the whole NFL draft process because in the end you aren't measured on where you go on draft day, you're measured by how well you do in the NFL. I'm not measuring myself on where I go in the draft because I've done everything I can. The sooner I get drafted is the sooner I can start working for that starting spot and the sooner I can try to become a Hall of Famer.
Bensinger: Is it even necessary to try and avoid all of the hype and speculation or can you just sit back and say, "Hey, I got myself to this point. I might as well have fun with it!"?
Thomas: I don't know about everybody else, but it's easier for me to avoid the hype and everything like that when I'm acting as normal as I possibly can! (laughs) I'm still living with the same guys that I've been living with for four years, still training in the same spot, still driving the same Moped, and still going to class.
When you take yourself and go out to Arizona and hide away with the other prospects, I think that only increases the nervousness and hype because you're away from home and in an awkward situation that you wouldn't be in unless you were preparing for the NFL draft.
Bensinger: You have a 3.5 GPA. How hard is it to not only have the athletic success, but to be able to maintain your grades?
Thomas: It was a little bit difficult, but in the long run I was used to it. In high school, I was a four-year varsity letter winner on three different teams. I had a 3.8 GPA in high school. I think I was even busier in high school because you go to class seven hours per day. Then, you spend three hours at practice after school.
That goes on all year. In college, it was easy. I did track for two years and football for four years. There was a lot more free time because you aren't going to class as much. For me, coming to college and doing two sports, while trying to get a degree, was actually easy compared to what I was doing in high school.
Bensinger: In high school, you didn't know that you were going to be making tens of millions of dollars. In college, when you know you're going to be a top pick, you often have athletes that don't consider academics a big concern because they know they're going to be able to provide for their family. How do you prevent yourself from looking at the NFL as the end-all-be-all?
Thomas: No matter how much money I make in the NFL, the same things in my life will be important. I never looked at playing in the NFL, I looked at playing in college and being good in school and being a good athlete. Those were always important to me. Those things don't change. The important things -- family and friends -- those don't change regardless of the amount of money you're going to get in your contract. I always take things one day at a time and that's still how I take things.
The whole NFL thing wasn't something that I worried about while I was in college. I worried about being good in college. I didn't worry about how an NFL scout is here so he's going to want me to do this or that. I just wanted to be on a winning team, help my team win, do what my coach asks of me, and be done with it. It doesn't change whether the NFL draft is six weeks away or six years away.
Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org