The first part in the series covers Brad Thorson, an offensive lineman and graduate of the University of Kansas. Brad earned a Business degree in two years while playing at the University of Wisconsin. He transferred to Kansas to complete a Masters degree in Economics and was twice named to the Big 12 All-Academic Team.
What have been the best parts of your college experience, both athletically and academically?
I got the degree in business at Wisconsin really rapidly, so when I got to Kansas I actually took kind of a slow route, what I think most people do as an undergrad when they’re feeling out what they want to do. I never got the opportunity in my undergrad to “meander”, if you will, with my education. So I got to take some really interesting stuff. I don’t think I would have read Plato if I hadn’t been involved in a Foundations of Education class. I think the ability to have that time to figure out, ‘yeah, I’ve been involved in business. Is that what I’m going to be passionate about for the rest of my life?’ I think that part of the educational experience was most rewarding, that I got time to pick. The business part, it meant something as a major, but it wasn’t a passion. I’ve met some people that are really passionate about finance, but it’s a little difficult to get behind. I went as fast as I could for my undergraduate degree, but when I got a chance to actually learn and take my time, school was a lot more enjoyable for me.
Does your academic success get talked about as much as your athletic success?
I think they are in tandem. I don’t usually get to go to something based on my academic success. Someone’s talking to me because of what I’ve done athletically. But it’s generally touched on that I have done so much academically while achieving on the football field. I definitely feel like interviews come to that point and most people are aware of it.
What was your role the year you redshirted at Wisconsin? Did you get to enjoy things such as Camp Randall’s “Jump Around?”
My first year I backed up Marcus Coleman, but their intention was not to play me but to redshirt me and give me a year to develop. I feel like I needed it. Both years I was there Marcus Coleman started as the center and I got an opportunity to come in and compete for the backup job and learned a lot, had both Bob Palcic and Bob Bostad, who are pretty accomplished offensive line coaches. Obviously if Marcus had gone down I would’ve been in there to step up and play. But he was a good player and I learned a lot behind him. We never had any of these 70 or 80 point games, but those would have been games I could have stepped in and played. I loved my experience in Kansas and couldn’t ask for anything better because it really worked out incredibly. But when you talk about a place to play, there’s not a better place than Camp Randall. Texas Stadium is unbelievable in the fact that it’s 100,000 people, Norman (Oklahoma) was awesome to play in. But at the end of the day the fans there (Camp Randall), it was a pretty incredible place to play.
Was there a tough transition between D-I schools?
One thing I learned from the transfer process is, the guys who play college football are very similar. Between Wisconsin and Kansas, we’ve got the same type of locker room; we’re generally pretty easy to get along with. Being an hour and 15 minutes from home, and then going down to Kansas and it being a 9-10 hour drive, that was probably the biggest adjustment. As far as athletically, I was able to step in and be a part of the team right away. And once you’re part of a team, once you are contributing, people accept you. The culture at Kansas was probably something that I attribute my experience to most of all, in that it’s very inclusive, cross-teams. We weren’t isolated, I knew everybody who worked in the athletic office at Kansas. I know so many people there and it was good in the end. But at first when I got down there and I no longer had the convenience of sending some laundry home with Mom or she could send me up some food, I was on my own, and it was a growing period for me. But as far as football to football, if you’re contributing, I think you find the team becomes brothers, like a second family pretty quickly.
What differences did you see between the Big Ten and Big 12?
There’s a lot of focus on the Big Ten maybe being a tougher conference or harder hitting, because they do run the ball more. At the end of the day I played against some pretty fantastic talent at Kansas. My junior year we played against (Oklahoma’s) Gerald McCoy and (Nebraska’s) Ndamukong Suh and they were amazing defensive tackles. The Big 12 definitely throws the ball a lot more. I think you can say great things about (Wisconsin Offensive) Coach Paul Chryst and his offense. He’s been unbelievably successful; I think he does a better job than anybody else in the nation about clock control. When I was at Kansas, we had a year where we were averaging 550 yards of offense and we had an offense that was really potent: Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier, Dezmon Briscoe, we could throw the ball on anybody. I think it’s just about finding the right style, and Kansas can win a lot of games with that style. Coach Turner Gill has brought the run game back there and it’s gonna help but, there’s a run-the-ball mentality in the Big Ten and kind of a pass mentality in the Big 12, and it’s about recruiting the right kids to build your team around.
You also lettered in wrestling and track in high school. How were those sports similar or different to you? Did you continue any of those in college?
Yeah (I did) shot and discus, wrestled my freshman and sophomore years. Tore my labrum playing football going into my junior year, had surgery. It kept me out of the entire wrestling season and the start of shot and disc so I decided at that point, I was hoping to get recruited so I was going to be going to camps in the summer, and so I shut down all my other athletics and focused only on football.
I think being involved in other sports keeps football from getting monotonous. Now football, I hope to make it a profession, and that’s what I’m going to focus on, that’s what I focused on in college. I think in high school you’re too young to (limit yourself). I think if I had done just football all four years I think I would have burned out pretty quickly. It keeps you active, keeps you in shape. I don’t think there’s a harder sport than wrestling though. When I get tired on the field I can compare that to guys wresting in college, three 3 minute periods. And to even go 6 minutes in high school, that was just a death sentence for me. So there were things about the sports, just being involved in competition keeps you hungry. I’m a huge advocate of playing a lot of sports, especially younger kids.
Describe the importance of your role on your team.
Being an offensive lineman is a unique position in that the 5 guys function as a unit. You can have a stud who doesn’t work worth a lick, and you can have 5 marginal guys that work together and have a great line. Almost every other position on the field in varying degrees, you can be individually great on the field. So that lends itself to offensive linemen being very team-concerned. I try to be a leader by action instead of words. We usually don’t get to do these opportunities to speak. I think almost all offensive linemen that you meet all kind of fill a role of being hard-nosed, blue-collar type guys and that’s what I try to emulate when I’m on the field.
Is it easy to get along with most of the players on a team?
Yeah. Especially in college, workouts are pretty tough, practices and games are tough, and that common struggle to all get better and achieve a similar goal ties you together. So the fact that you are teammates, you are brothers, you learn to lean on each other. We’re just kind of drawn to each other. There’s a large level of intimacy about the stuff you are going through, it’s a very personal experience and you’re sharing it with 110 guys in your locker room. We’re all going through personal struggles but as a team we want to see each other succeed. That’s why teams in general, especially when there’s not money involved at the collegiate level, you see teams bonding, you see them going out on the field and doing something symbolic. And that’s not unique to football, that’s a general thing about sports.
Describe some of the techniques you generally focus on most.
Here the primary focus is weight lifting and running, the things they’re generally going to test us on, the Combine type, the 40, the 5-10-5, the L-drill, broad and vertical jump and bench. But for me, particularly, we run block, we pass block, but there are some intricacies based on the defensive tackle. It is difficult not having a D-tackle here to work in a set against different techniques, whether it’s a shade or a 2i wide. The D-tackle being removed 8-12 inches changes my set quite a bit versus him being tighter, or in the run game we ran zone inside and outside so we had one footwork pattern for inside zone and one footwork pattern for outside zone. For me a lot of it is about repetition, feeling it, and knowing when I’m doing something right. The more reps I have at doing the most basic things, the less I’ll have to think about them, the more natural it becomes. A lot of offensive line training for me is to repeat the things that I’ve done for 13 years, obviously the last 5 has been much more focused training, and just staying with those minute details, making sure the toes are in the right position on a step, good body position, everything.
When did you first realize you had a shot at a professional football career?
It’s always been a dream. I think my junior year, I was playing, and being able to watch other players on film, see where they went, see that I could develop the same sort of habits. I’ve been lucky, I was at Kansas and we had some guys who have been incredibly hard workers and have seen success out of it, and I realized that with that mentality, I could elevate my play to be comparable. It just seems like there is a big opportunity for guys to get a shot in the league and I’ve always thought that if I can just get a shot, if I can get my foot in the door then it’s up to me to make things happen. To go from Wisconsin to Kansas and to be able to see the talent at both schools and realize that if I carry my work ethic over and keep pushing myself I can do what they are doing. I can watch them on tape and become like the guys I’m watching who are getting drafted and playing professionally.
Do you follow along with any mock drafts or things of that nature around the internet?
No. I’ve learned over the years to just avoid all of that. At the end of the day, when the draft comes around, I’ll be waiting for my cell phone to ring, probably with just my family, and if it does, I’ll have some place to go, and if it doesn’t, hopefully free agency works out. But there's no use, I’m not a first or second-rounder. It gets difficult to predict team’s needs after that point. I just stay away from it all.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about football up until now?
That it’s just a sport. When I was younger I definitely would have said football is my life. It’s still a major portion of who I am. When football ends it’s going to be a tough day. But through all my experiences I’ve learned I’m a person beyond football and that there is life beyond football. I need to be able to separate the importance of football on my life and the fact that it’s not the only thing I have.
Describe yourself off the field: What is your attitude like, what sort of activities do you enjoy? Are you active on social networking websites?
I think I’m a pretty different person from football to my regular life. I try to be as stress-free as I can. Right now life is pretty darn boring. I’m getting the most out of my Netflix account and reading books. So I take things pretty easy. When I was at Kansas I spent time as a tutor, I did a lot of volunteer work, but a big portion of my day revolved around football, staying healthy, studying film. I think in the Division I football cycle, my most recent memories were in the season when it takes up a lot more time than in the spring. You spend almost all of your time after practice when you’re really tired, usually just being a bum with your teammates. Most of my time was spent with them watching ESPN, watching movies. That’s pretty much me.
Have you had contact with scouts/agents that have given you tips or pointed you in a certain direction?
I do have representation, I have an agent, but most guys know, I know pretty well, about what I need to work on, where I sit. I try and be as realistic about it, nobody is going to get on the phone and tell me “you’re going to get drafted 5th overall and make $30 million dollars.” I realize that’s not the case. I just understand who I am and where I am. And I’ve had good coaches that have been really honest about my strengths and my weaknesses, so being opened to those recommendations means you don’t have to be lied to and disappointed in the future.
What makes you think you can succeed in the NFL?
I’ve played 4 positions, I’ve played both right and left guard spots, center and right tackle now. So I think my versatility is both undeniable and a huge asset. And I also think I’m very intelligent and very passionate about this game. I have had points in my career where I could have given up the game, and it’s important enough to me that I’ve stuck with it. To have somebody who can learn a playbook, understand the process, not just what I’m supposed to do but what the play and the gameplan is about, and somebody who can step in at multiple positions, there were multiple games this year where I’m playing right tackle and all of a sudden our left guard goes down, that’s a difficult switch not only going back inside, but you’re down in position, now you’re in a different stance. Those types of things make me comfortable with pursuing this dream that I feel like I could do some things that are a little bit unique, and I think that package is definitely my selling point.
If you played baseball, and were stepping up to an at-bat, what would be your entrance music?
There have been so many conversations about this when we went to a lot of Kansas baseball games. I would pick something really funny, something off the wall like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” I’d have fun with the at-bat songs.
Special thanks to Brad Arnett, Nic Hansen and the staff at NX Level in Waukesha, WI. Visit www.nxlevelathletics.com/ for information on the work they do.