EL PASO, Texas — Tough may be football's most overused adjective. But if any Virginia Tech player ever merited the description, if anyone demonstrated remarkable durability and strength, despite occasional pain most cannot comprehend, it was quarterback Logan Thomas.
In three seasons as the Hokies' starter, Thomas never shied away from using every inch and ounce of his 6-foot-6, 254-pound linebacker's frame. Need a crucial yard between the tackles? Want to make a statement by dump-trucking a defender?
Thomas was your guy.
But in modern athletics, thank goodness, concussion symptoms are red flags, and they sideline the toughest of men and women. This Thomas and Tech experienced Tuesday in a 42-12 Sun Bowl loss to 17th-ranked UCLA.
Let's be clear: Even with Thomas healthy, the Hokies (8-5) had only a puncher's chance against the Bruins (10-3), perhaps one-in-five. With dynamic future pros on both sides, UCLA was the best team Tech had faced since the season-opener against Alabama, and it showed.
So absent Thomas for most of three quarters, and with backup Mark Leal lacking extended game experience, the Hokies were pretty much toast. Toss in the defense's worst statistical performance of 2013, and you get a 30-point beatdown, second only to North Carolina's 42-3 Gator Bowl rout 16 years ago in Tech postseason annals.
"It's the worst thing I've had to go through," Thomas said. "I'd rather hear you (media) guys talk bad about me all day long than have to watch a game on the sidelines."
The game was knotted at 7 early in the second quarter, and for the first time all afternoon, the Hokies appeared to own the momentum. Thomas had just jacked up Myles Jack, lowering his right shoulder into the UCLA linebacker and bulldozing several extra yards to complete a 25-yard gain on a designed option.
Spectators in the stands, scribes in the press box and certainly viewers on television simply said, "Whoa!"
"Any time I make a play like that or anybody makes a play like that, it gives you a jolt of energy," Thomas said. "From there on out, I had the feeling we were about to take off."
Sure, Thomas was only 2-of-10 passing at the time, but he had thrown a seam-route rope that tight end Kalvin Cline turned into a 37-yard gain, setting up J.C. Coleman's 1-yard scoring plunge. He had rushed for 49 yards.
In short, Thomas was doing what's he'd often done: helping Tech stay close through sheer force of will, despite his own, and others', shortcomings.
And then, suddenly, his college career was over.
Three plays after decking Jack, and just as he completed a short pass to Josh Stanford, Thomas was leveled by linebacker Jordan Zumwalt, who was flagged on the play for a personal foul.
"I think 35 just plays hard in that way," Thomas said, using Zumwalt's jersey number. "He just happened to catch me under the chin."
Medical personnel and Tech coach Frank Beamer raced across the field. Motionless on his back near the UCLA sideline for several seconds, Thomas sat up, stood and walked slowly off the field, his left arm draped for a time over the shoulder of a trainer.
Soon thereafter, equipment manager Lester Karlin took Thomas' helmet.
"I went over there thinking, 'He's just a little dazed; he's going to get up; he usually does,' " receiver Willie Byrn said. "When I saw him, I was really scared. He didn't look good. His eyes were glossed over and everything."
"I've never seen Logan go down," defensive end James Gayle said. "That guy's a tank."
Thomas the tank doesn't remember the hit. The last moment he recalls is releasing the pass toward Stanford.
So he lost consciousness?
"Yeah, I guess so," Thomas said.
Still, he yearned to play. Bank on that. He played through a abdominal strain at Georgia Tech this season, and subsequently with a foot injury.
In fact, at no time during his 40 consecutive starts had Thomas missed a snap because of injury. Until now.
"At halftime he was showing off his counting skills to the trainers and everything," Byrn said. "You could tell he wanted to get back in there."
For all his remarkable moments, rarely, if ever, has Thomas' value been more evident. After his exit, UCLA outscored Tech 35-5.
"We lost a lot of momentum when Logan went down," Coleman said.
Five inches shorter and 37 pounds lighter, Leal, a junior, was overwhelmed by the moment, and some early panic foreshadowed his ultimate demise, an under-duress flip that Jack intercepted and returned 24 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown and 28-10 lead.
A curious-though-uncertain NFL prospect as either a quarterback or tight end, Thomas remained active on the bench and tried to help Leal, but the die was cast.
"When he found out he wasn't going to go back in, he took about two minutes to be alone," Byrn said, "and after that he was right back at it with the team, just like you'd expect from him."