Eastern Illinois wide receiver Justin Thomas has made an immediate impact this fall in his first season at EIU. (Photo by EIUPanthers.com)
By Barry Bottino
Justin Thomas grew up in Michigan, played college football in Michigan on the NCAA Division III level and is a fan of every Detroit pro sports team.
This fall, his college football career brought him to the FCS level at Eastern Illinois, where he has made an immediate impact for the Panthers.
“I fell in love with the place on my visit,” Thomas said.
The senior wide receiver, who was a D3Football.com All-American last season, hasn’t had a Chicago-style hot dog yet, but he’s sure that a Detroit Coney Dog is better.
He’s also a big Ohio State fan (even in Michigan) whose brother was his college quarterback.
Learn all about Thomas in our Prairie State Pigskin Moving the Chains Q&A:
What appealed to you about transferring to Eastern after a highly productive career in Division III?
I really had no idea what Eastern Illinois was. Coach Davis (EIU offensive coordinator Joe Davis) reached out to me. I did a little more research, found out the background and the tradition here and then I started talking more with (the coaches) and I fell in love with the place on my visit.
What was your connection with Coach Davis?
I never knew him, but our connection was through me playing in the (Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association). Coach Davis went to Adrian College, which is one of Albion’s rivals. He played there, so we had a little connection there.
What was your reaction when learning about some of the players and coaches who have been at Eastern?
From a Division III school where not a lot of NFL players come out of, it almost felt surreal when I pulled up and saw (banners outside O’Brien Field with) Mike Shanahan, Tony Romo, Jimmy Garoppolo. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the real deal.’ I based my decision off the tradition and values here, and I knew they had it and I loved that about it.
What do people not understand about D-III football?
The talent level is not as drastic as everyone thinks it is. In Division III, obviously there are no scholarships, so people are playing strictly for the love of the game and wanting to continue. That’s what I really loved about it.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Albion?
Actually, it was against Coach Davis’ alma mater, Adrian. (Laughs) My brother (Kyle) was my quarterback, and he threw me the game-winning touchdown. It’s something I’ll never, ever forget. That was my freshman year (in 2018).
(Editor’s note: Justin Thomas caught a 40-yard TD pass with 5 seconds left to give Albion a 49-42 victory.)
What was your relationship like with Kyle as your quarterback, on and off the field?
He was my quarterback for two years. He’s two years older. He’s my best friend. It was also very convenient that every time he wanted to go throw on the football field, I was right there with him ready to catch. It really helped with ball skills and all of that. I was blessed to have my best friend as my brother and quarterback.
Did you feel like your development advanced because of playing with Kyle?
One hundred percent. When he warmed up, I took that as my warmup. He’d throw 5-yard balls and I’d work on one-handed catches with my left hand, my right hand, while warming up with him.
Your hometown is Wixom, Mich., which is a suburb northwest of Detroit. Who’s the most famous person to come from your alma mater, Walled Lake Western High School?
There are two NFL players. Josh Jones (a safety) got drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He went to North Carolina State. And a buddy of mine, (wide receiver) Cody White, played at Michigan State and now he’s on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Both are active players right now. (Jones is now with the Seattle Seahawks.)
What are the best activities to do in and around Wixom, Mich.?
There are a bunch of lakes around us. That’s what a lot of people like to do. All my friends are there so it’s very convenient. I’d walk over to my buddy’s houses or bike. It was all close.
Have you done a taste test yet to compare Detroit coney dog with a Chicago-style hot dog?
I have not yet had a Chicago Dog, but I can tell you it’s going to be pretty hard to top a Detroit one. (Laughs)
Do you have a favorite sports jersey in your closet?
I have an Ohio State Aaron Craft No. 4 basketball jersey. My dad grew up a Buckeyes fan so he kind of brainwashed me. I had no choice. I get a lot of heat (in Michigan) for that jersey, for sure.
Have you and EIU tight end/fellow Michigan native Jay Vallie discussed how to fix Detroit’s pro sports teams?
I think the Lions are coming up, but I say that every year. Hopefully they’re on the rise. I think they are. The Tigers, they’ve got a little bit of time. I thought this was going to be their year, but it wasn’t. I love all Detroit sports.
Have you found a favorite place to eat in Charleston yet?
I like this place called Mi Casa Tu Casa. It’s got a Chipotle vibe, and I like that place a lot.
If you could play another college sport, what would it be?
I played baseball and basketball up until I got to high school. Then I wanted to focus on football. I would say probably baseball because that was my second-best sport. I played center field.
What three words would you use to describe first-year EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson?
Loving. Energetic. Smart.
What are three places that everyone should visit in your home state of Michigan?
Obviously, Detroit. I think Detroit is a place you’ve got to visit. A big one that I love is Grand Haven (along Lake Michigan) on the west side of the state. Up north, Mackinac Island. Those are the top spots to be.
You are studying marketing and communications at Eastern. What’s your dream job after college?
I want to open my own gym. I’ve talked to my brother Kyle about this. We would have turf in there and train athletes. Sports and football are my life.
What hobbies or interests do you have away from football?
I love being with my friends. Whether that’s my girlfriend or my friends, I love being around them and hanging out with them, even if it’s playing video games and I’ve got the headset on playing with my boys.
If you had the power to cure one disease, what would it be and why?
I wish I could cure all of them. If I had to pick one, it would be either cancer or ALS, because it’s time for those to be cured.
If you were the NCAA president for one day, what football related rule would you change?
Some things need to be adjusted with the transfer portal so it’s not like free agency.
One response to “Moving the Chains with … Eastern Illinois wide receiver Justin Thomas”
JT is the real deal. Great athlete great man.