For a young guy from Mesa, Ariz., playing football comes natural for senior linebacker Jake Thomas. He started at a young age and now as he's about to play his last college game, the passion and love for the sport continues to shine.
Thomas is one of the leaders on the Northern Arizona football team. He has grown on-and-off the field during his time at NAU as he can hardly believe that his time in Flagstaff is coming to an end.
It's not hard for Thomas to reflect back on when he started playing football and what got him this far, because for him everything prior to this Saturday was just a part of the plan.
Football has been running through Thomas' veins for as long as he can remember.
"Like any other little kid growing up, I had two older brothers who both played football, and my dad played as well," said Thomas. "It was just kind of always around me. I started with Flag and all the way through here."
For a while, football was going head-to-head with baseball to see which one would be able to take Thomas' full attention.
"I played baseball pretty competitively all the way up until 10th grade, but I ended up choosing football," Thomas said. "I think I had more of a passion for the game. Football is a more physical game with a lot going on at an up-tempo place. I just fell in love with it."
Knowing that his love for the game wasn't going to die down, Thomas soon began to plan how he could make his playing career go beyond high school.
"I always set a goal with football," said Thomas. "I knew around my sophomore year that I wanted to play football in college at a high level Division I. I made that commitment to myself that I would reach that level and play Division I and more importantly get a scholarship. I wanted to take care of my education and I was able to fulfill that goal."
Gradually over Thomas' career he has made grown as every year goes by.
"From my sophomore year to now I'm mentally and physically at a higher level. I'm able to do things at a faster pace."
Every year Thomas has statistically gotten better and has upped his appearances. Part of Thomas' development has been the transition from offense to defense. That's right. When Thomas first arrived at NAU he was a fullback. He played in seven games, but wasn't as effective as he wanted to be. Thomas soon transitioned over to defense and the linebacker position was the place to be.
He started a pair of contests, appeared in all 12 games and had 40 tackles as a sophomore. The next year, he started 10 out of 11 games and was third on the team in tackles with 68. Now in his senior campaign, the Mesa product is pulling out all the stops. He leads NAU in tackles with 73, but the kicker is he has a pair of touchdowns for three yards each. Yup, both times that NAU lined Thomas up at fullback this season and passed it to him, he has caught them both.
Thomas credits part of his versatility and success on the field to the weight room.
"The weight room is huge and it's something I pride myself on," Thomas said. "I never miss a lift or a run. I started to take my diet more seriously in my latter years."
With football taken care of, Thomas is also set to walk across the commencement stage. Thomas admits that school isn't necessarily his strong suit, but he always gave it his best and that's what led him to majoring in criminology and criminal justice.
"I graduate in December and I'm excited about that. Time has gone by really fast," said Thomas. "I will be the first of my siblings to get a bachelor's degree. It's a pretty big accomplishment for me to graduate and I think I did a good job of sticking with it."
Thomas knows that there's no way he would have made it this far in college on his own.
"My family has been a great support system for me. They've pushed me this whole time and I have done it for them."
With his family by his side, a degree in his hand and always a football in the other, Thomas has hit the jackpot.