The junior kicker toiled as an active walk-on in his first two seasons at Jacksonville State, using his powerful leg to drill kickoffs and getting a shot at placements only when the coaching staff lost confidence in his predecessor.
But Saturday night he got to experience the ultimate kicker’s high — for the first time in his life. He nailed a 37-yard field goal on the last play of the game to give the Gamecocks their first win of the season, 27-24 over UT Chattanooga.
The former soccer player had never kicked a game-winner in football before. His high school team never played a close game he said Saturday night, and it was always somebody else’s job at JSU before he was handed it this summer.
Now he’s doing it all.
“He’s the ultimate walk-on story,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said. “He comes in and pays his own way for three years just to have an opportunity to be the difference between winning and losing.
“Did he do us a favor? Yes. Do we owe him? Yes.”
Thomas is on scholarship now, have gotten partial aid when he started doing kickoffs and going full-ride after Florida State transfer James Esco gave up his final year of eligibility to pursue a lucrative job opportunity in South Florida.
Before Saturday night, he had kicked only three field goals in his career — a 49-yarder in the season opener at Arkansas and two in the 2010 playoff loss to Wofford. He hit a 33-yarder to open the scoring against the Mocs.
"I really just had to wait for my opportunity and just continue to practice," he said. "I'm just glad to have that chance even though I waited long for it."
His chance against UTC came after the Mocs tied the game with 39 seconds left. A Gabe Chambers kickoff return set up the Gamecocks near midfield and before he went on the field quarterback Marques Ivory told Thomas to be ready because he was going to give him a chance to win it.
Ivory completed three straight passes to move into position and the Gamecocks ran the ball on their final play to get in the middle of the field. They were able to call a time-out with one second left. Thomas' kick started out a little to the right then curled back through the pipes.
His teammates might have carried him off the field on their shoulders, but they never got the chance. As soon as the kick broke the uprights, Thomas broke for the field house, hoping to beat the rushing horde of teammates chasing him to avoid being caught in the dogpile. He was beaten to his place of refuge by only a couple receivers.
“I knew he was going to hit it, but I didn’t know he was going to take off from me like that,” his holder, quarterback Coty Blanchard, said. “I thought he was going to run into the locker room, actually.”
Thomas caught himself thinking what he might do when he made the kick, but dismissed those thoughts to focus on the attempt. The mad dash was a spontaneous act solely intended for self-preservation and slightly out of character for the mild-mannered Georgian. He said a worker in the student union building told him the reaction was the last thing she expected to see from him.
Thomas said in the immediate aftermath of the victory the impact of his kick hadn't sunk in and it still hadn't by the time practice started Tuesday afternoon. Actually, it might have passed him. He said he was looking toward next week's game with OVC favorite Eastern Kentucky more than reflecting on last week.
"I know it was a big kick for the team to keep our ranking in the nation and everything and it was important for our season to win, but we're really focusing on our conference games," he said. "It's exciting and satisfying, but I think us winning the national championship or another OVC championship would be more important to me and the team; winning something bigger than that game. It's just a small game on the way to what I think we can accomplish."
OK, so it's one small step for the Gamecocks, but one giant leap for Griffin Thomas, who senses the Gamecocks will have more close games this year and more opportunities for him to kick a game-winner. At least when that happens, he's been there, done that.
“I think it’s a really good confidence booster for him,” Ivory said. “We all knew he was good but to have something like that happen to you, for you to do something like that, it just makes it, in his mind, that much better.”
Sports Writer Al Muskewitz: 256-235-3577. On Twitter @JSUSports_Star.