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GREEN BAY – Linebacker Joe Thomas will be busy flying to Washington with the Green Bay Packers on Saturday, but he’s planning to watch a college football game.

It’s senior day at his alma mater, South Carolina State. There’s one senior he’s especially excited to see. Wearing No. 47 will be Thomas' father, Joe Sr.

He’s the Bulldogs’ 55-year-old running back.

“It’s been crazy for me,” Thomas said. “I never thought you’d see a 55-year-old running back. I’m just proud of him. He made his mind up to do something and stuck to it.”

Thomas Sr. played high school football, but never went to college. Instead, he became a successful small-business owner, operating a training facility. He also worked construction.

When the economy went bad in 2008, Thomas said, his father lost everything. That’s when an idea sparked. Thomas Sr. needed to get a college education. He's studying engineering.

Why not play college football too?

Before going forward, Thomas Sr. asked for permission. Not from the coaches. Not from the NCAA. He wanted his son’s blessing.

“He always kept in good shape,” Thomas said. “He always works out. He doesn’t drink or smoke. So his body’s in pretty good shape.

“I wasn’t going to keep him from chasing his dream.”

They always competed against each other, father and son. In high school, Thomas said, his dad beat him in a foot race. Now? He won’t even entertain the notion of losing to his father.

“That’s so disrespectful to me,” Thomas said, joking. “One-on-one, he at running back and me at linebacker? Oh, I’m going to knock his head off. Payback for all the years.”

Their rivalry is good natured. Thomas is his dad’s biggest fan. He said he keeps tabs on his father through frequent texts with his former coaches.

This week, South Carolina State coach Oliver Pough texted to let Thomas know the time had come. When the Bulldogs play Savannah State on Saturday, Pough said, Thomas Sr. will get a carry.

With that, Dad will become the oldest college football player in history.

“I am a little worried,” Thomas said. “I know his body might be a little fragile. I’m going to try to get the coach not to run him on one of those stretch plays. I’m going to try to get him to run straight downhill.”

Soon, worry will give way to pride. It’s been a long journey for his father.

No flight is keeping Thomas from missing its conclusion.

“I’m going to try to stream it,” Thomas said. “My mom said she’s going to send it to me. It’s senior night, and my grandma is going to walk him on the field.”

rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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