Powers, Thomas forge military careers after football

In their most difficult moments of Army Ranger School, Blake Powers and Austin Thomas were always able to find more painful memories from their Indiana football careers.

For Powers, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound former quarterback, it sucked to have a 120-pound rucksack on his back for a 12-mile march — but it wasn’t much worse than “The House of Pain,” a station led by IU line coaches Steve Addazio and Joe Cullen during mat drills, which offered the cruelest possible mixture of sprints and barrel rolls.

“The military is hard in its own way,” said Powers, currently an admissions officer with Army’s football program, “but there’s no singular thing I’ve done in the military that was harder than The House of Pain.”

For Thomas, a 6-2, 220-pound ex-safety, he could be without food for 48 hours as he moved from mission to mission in the North Georgia mountains, burning so many calories it felt like he hadn’t eaten in weeks — but the hard-hitting Hoosier came to know suffering on Stadium Step Fridays, running up and down the bleachers on Memorial Stadium’s press-box side about 10 times.

“I’ve been hurt, I’ve been tired and sore before,” said Thomas, now an Army civil affairs specialist. “Having that background of getting up in the morning when you don’t feel like going to work out, and you are doing it on a consistent basis, because that’s what you have to do to be competitive. That goes through your mind. No way I’m going to stop.”

Not to underplay the tortuous process soldiers endure to make it through the Army’s premier course on small-unit tactics, which tests leadership and grit. But Powers and Thomas felt like they had a unique advantage as they overcame each phase of their 63-day trial at Ranger School in 2012.

They were Division I athletes, shaped by their own run-ins with adversity. Powers, who started behind center as a sophomore in 2005, badly sprained an ankle as a junior, falling behind Kellen Lewis on the depth chart. One of the highlights of Thomas’ career, his second pick versus ranked Northwestern in a 2008 win, ended with an ACL tear after landing awkwardly. He’d already torn a labrum.

College football wasn’t easy. Neither was Ranger School. But their path toward successful military careers, it was made possible because Hoosier alums had each other.

“The days I was feeling sorry for myself and getting broken down,” Thomas said, “he was there to pick me up.”

***

In their years as teammates and roommates at IU, Powers and Thomas never really talked about the military. They were mostly just living the life of college athletes, getting through workouts and returning home to flip on their video game system and play Mortal Kombat.

Of the two, Thomas was the master. The former elementary school state chess champion from Georgia spent so much time perfecting his combo moves in the video game, he was at one point ranked among the best in the world.

“You’d beat him and he wouldn’t talk to you for three days,” Powers said. “He’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met in my life.”

Thomas asserted his will on the football field, starting 30 games at strong safety. That included all 12 as a senior in 2009, returning from his ACL injury to add 67 tackles and a team-high four picks.

But Powers’ senior year was less inspiring. After throwing 22 touchdown passes in 2005, he didn’t complete one in ’07. He watched Lewis lead the Hoosiers to a 7-5 record and the program’s first bowl bid in 14 years.

As a competitor, that was a tough pill to swallow. Even tougher because Powers was the son of a former IU tight end, Dan, and he grew up as a Hoosier in the Bluegrass state. He proudly wore his cream and crimson gear despite the jeers of local Kentucky fans.

He wasn’t going to leave. But discussions needed to be had, as offensive coordinator Matt Canada focused on Powers’ desire to be a coach one day. Being selfless is also a pretty good trait for a future military officer.

“I found peace with it and was able to keep my chin held high knowing I was cheering on my teammates and putting the team first,” Powers said. “I really went out of my way to mentor Kellen and Ben Chappell, both friends of mine.”

It was still a painful lesson for Powers to endure. To play on a bum ankle as a junior and fall behind. To be completely healthy as a senior, watching opposing quarterbacks sling it, and believing they weren’t better.

He also watched as one of his Kentucky contemporaries, Wildcat quarterback Andre Woodson, steadily developed during his three years and became an NFL draft pick.

That just wasn’t Powers’ path. He ended up in the arena league, helping coach a high school team in the offseason. Despite some success in the AFL, Powers remembers watching a commercial for the Army on TV. He recalled how he felt on 9/11, when the U.S. was attacked, and the feelings it sparked about service.

The final play of his AFL career ended up being a fourth-down run into the end zone. He was horse-collared at the goal line. While suspended in midair, another defender came at full speed and crushed him.

Part of his collarbone shattered into pieces.

“That was the AFL. It was ruthless, man,” Powers said. “I got it dirty, but it was a blessing. If I hadn’t gotten hurt, I probably would have played in the AFL that next season.”

By the time teams called, he had already enlisted.

Around that time, Powers also visited his alma mater and talked with Thomas.

“AT’s one of my best friends ever, I confided in him, and we both just realized it’s something we wanted,” Powers said.

They had to move quickly. Powers and Thomas were entering at a time when the military was shrinking in size. It wasn’t certain they would receive medical waivers for their prior injuries. The Army had also set an age limit of 27 for new recruits. Powers was 26.

Despite their worries, they made it. Powers graduated from Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Ga., in 2011, about six months ahead of Thomas. They split up for a time, because Powers landed with the infantry while Thomas ended up in the ordnance corps.

Working logistics was all well and good, but Thomas wanted more combat training. Ranger School was the Army’s ultimate proving ground.

“Having that athletic background, being competitive, always wanting to be the best, I knew that would be another test,” Thomas said. “That’s something that appealed to me. If this is the best leadership school, we’re going to do it.”

Thomas would have the tougher road, because he wasn’t infantry. All of the tactics used at Ranger School would be familiar to Powers, but not him.

Thomas was also naive enough to schedule his wedding for exactly 64 days after the start of the 63-day course. That means they had to pass all three phases of Ranger School — Darby, Mountain, and Swamp — without failing.

And that’s not an easy thing to do. When soldiers go through orientation, they are explicitly told “If you have any long-term plans, you might as well forget them.” Many, many soldiers end up redoing phases. They stay for months.

“I just looked at him like … ,” Powers said, “You (moron).”

***

Luckily for the future Mrs. Thomas, the boys made it back from Ranger School on-time. Powers just arrived 30 pounds lighter, so tired he fell asleep talking to former IU defensive tackle Jarrod Smith. While standing.

Thomas was so hungry, he ate far too much of the wedding cheesecake and ended up in the bathroom at 2 a.m., puking. The newlyweds had a honeymoon planned for Saint Martin in the Caribbean. That had to be pushed back.

Ranger School will do that. It was marching for miles, rucksacks on their back. Those included an MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) for each day of their journey. Five days in the woods gets you five of these airtight, plastic packages.

“The best thing I could compare it to is Campbell’s Chunky Soup,” Powers said. “You’re lucky if you get, like, a coffee pouch. They almost became like trading cards.”

“If you’re not truly starving, then you’re not going to like it,” Thomas said. “But when you’re that hungry, to the point where you’ll pick up things off the ground and eat it, it’ll get you through. That’s the only thing you can look forward to. I can’t wait until this next MRE.”

There was limited time to eat, limited time to sleep. There could be a day where they were afforded four hours of rest, but a patrol shift could break into their precious sleep time.

The purpose is to push soldiers to their limits, seeing how they respond under stress. It’s not only teachers grading how they perform. Peers grade each other, too.

So it’s all about operating on a team. Just like football.

“Your success there is based on your tactical abilities, your endurance, teamwork, all of those things are graded,” Powers said. “All of it relates back, like I said, to the House of Pain. Marches where you’re going for miles and miles and miles, and you’re really at your lowest point physically, I would always think of the House of Pain.”

Powers believes football strengthened him. The damaged side of his collarbone, the side held together by a metal plate, actually felt less rucksack-induced pain.

Likewise, Thomas was more than up to the task. His physicality made him a perfect partner for Powers in their first challenge, a run through the Darby Queen course.

Consisting of 25 obstacle stations, Darby Queen holds mythical status in the Army. Jumping over walls, crawling under barbwire, climbing up ropes. As they made their way up “the Skyscraper,” a giant wooden tower with platforms every six feet, Powers would leap up and Thomas was right there to help pull him up by his waistband.

“We crushed it,” Powers said. “That’s another thing he and I will always have, that bond. We did Darby Queen together. He was a beast on that stuff. He pushed me without a doubt, and I pushed him tactically.”

Powers knew strategy. His first assignment was with the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Knox, where he was a heavy weapons platoon leader. Once, Thomas had to lead a pre-mission planning meeting for his platoon, and he talked things over with Powers right before.

In the bathroom.

“As a quarterback, you have to know your progressions, how the line is blocking. You know everyone’s job,” Thomas said. “That’s one thing he translated really well to an infantry team or platoon. He knows what everyone’s job is and what they should be doing.”

Every time they conquered a phase, Thomas and Powers boarded a bus to their next location. It felt like a Saturday trip home after a road win, breaking down what worked. But they also talked about what was coming next, because they were heading right to their next game.

From the opening phase in Fort Benning to the mountains in Dahlonega to the swamps of North Florida, they made it through. Every time they passed, Thomas called home and updated his fiancé.

Tess was obviously ecstatic once Phase 3 was complete. She had to forgive her husband again when he let his insatiable hunger take over at the wedding.

“You feel like you can eat, eat, eat and you won’t get full. So I ate half of our wedding cheesecake. I couldn’t even move after that,” Thomas said. “I got a win by showing up. But, oh …. we have to reschedule the honeymoon.”

***

Just as the journey from one phase of Ranger School to the next is quick and unrelenting, graduating from the course isn’t close to the end of a soldier’s work.

It’s just the beginning of a life-changing, eye-opening experience.

Powers, now a captain, has served two tours in Afghanistan. The first was in Zabul Province in 2013 as an executive officer in the infantry. In 2017, he was stationed in Helmand Province, commanding a unit in the Signal Corps.

“I kind of look at being in training mode here in the United States, it’s like being on the bench,” Powers said. “Being over there, making a difference for our overall mission, is kind of like being in the game.”

In Afghanistan, the mission was training the national army, but it was also about building up the country’s economy and increasing access to health care. His duty was to try and build trust with the village elders and create a space where little girls could openly read.

Those aren’t situations he necessarily learned how to handle at Ranger School.

“I remember being a team player at Indiana and being a high school football coach, that prepared me more for the things I’ve experienced in the army than any tactical training I did,” Powers said. “The tactical training is great and we’re the best in the world at it … but I don’t think anything can prepare you for the political nature of being in a different country and seeing a different way of life.

“It really makes you believe in the American way of life and what it stands for. We’re in some crazy times in our country. Our ideals and what we stand behind is what everyone across the country right now is fighting for.”

Now on assignment with Army football, his job is to show recruits what they can gain from military service. As he puts it, Powers started out doing the “HUA, G.I. Joe stuff.” With Signal Company, he managed multi-million-dollar communications equipment, essentially serving as IT support for the most powerful army on earth.

“I could get out of the Army and probably make more money, frankly, but I really enjoy serving and I love making an impact on our players here at Army and teaching them what the Army can do in their life,” Powers said.

Powers has one or two more years left with the football team, then he expects to be promoted to major and reassigned. He’ll have to move again with his wife, former IU volleyball player Carrie (Deal) Powers, and their five kids.

Yes, five. The last three, including a set of twins, were not exactly planned.

Thomas has two kids himself. He can’t as much explain what his job entails in civil affairs, because it’s complicated. In short, he’s part of a four-man special operations force that works with governments around the world.

Part of Thomas’ training required him to learn another language. He speaks Korean. Thomas has traveled to countries like South Korea, Mongolia, Singapore, Kuwait, Jordan, and the Maldives.

In the fall, he was very much following college football, streaming IU’s Old Oaken Bucket win over Purdue in his team’s house in Sri Lanka.

“Winning the Bucket, it’s next level because of what it means to Indiana football,” Thomas said. “There are a couple of times, it was 3 (a.m.) and I was like ‘Yeah! Let’s Go!’ And they are all like ‘What’s going on over there?'”

He’s still an IU fan, and Thomas loves how the 2019 Hoosiers were led by quarterback Peyton Ramsey, a former starter who dealt with a challenging demotion — kind of like Powers — only to come in and lead IU to an eight-win season when Michael Penix Jr. was hurt.

Soon, Thomas expects to be an alum of both IU and the Army. He wants to transition into civilian life once his contract runs out in 2021.

For life, he’ll be telling stories about Darby Queen. But just as much, he’ll recall those runs up the Memorial Stadium steps back in his playing days, which prepared him for the challenge.

“Those were the days nobody was excited about going, because you knew you were going to get broken off,” Thomas said. “Nothing compared to that physically, mentally. As hard as (military) training is, I still look back on those Stadium Step Fridays. If you can make it through that, you can make it through anything.”

9 comments

  1. You HT guys continue to come up with great stories. This is a good one Jon.

    I believe our country would be in a better place if a 2-year military service was required. A little structured discipline and learning a trade would go along way in today’s world.

  2. Enjoyed the article. I remember both Blake and Austin from their playing days. Drove up to B-town from Knoxville for the Kentucky game in 2005. Blake played inspired football and led the team to a convincing 38-14 victory. Actually thought Hep’s first year might be a magical season when the team started out 4-1, but it was not to be. Austin was a tough, hard nosed safety who made a ton of tackles. Both gave their all for IU!

    Sounds like Blake and Austin really enjoyed those MRE’s during Ranger school! They had to be like gourmet dining compared to the one Korean War (literally) vintage C-ration we got on a daily (mostly) basis back in the fall and early winter of 1967! The ham and lima beans and the pork steak were probably the least two favorites with gobs of fat congealed at the top of the tin can. Edible when heated, but that was rarely an option. In those days, each C-ration came with a pack of 9 cigarettes and matches. I always traded my cigs to a smoker for a small package of chiclets gum which was also part of each ration. I also bet they no longer give Rangers a live chicken at Darby so they can kill it with their bare hands and then make chicken stew cooked in an empty green .50 cal ammo can (lead contamination and all) over an open fire or have the Rangers waterproof their leather combat boots with dark black used motor oil (carcinogenic) directly from the motor pool applied with old paint brushes!

    It would be great to run into Blake and Austin at a bowl game and swap some Ranger stories over a beer or two! I am honored to be able to consider them my Ranger brothers!

  3. I’ve always pleaded for these sorts of stories when we weren’t in a shutdown.

    Scoop was once far more concentrated in this area/niche of expertise….before HSR models of change (much like IDS removing ‘Basketblog’ and going with a more commercialized presentation…and weak sauce of ‘Hoosier Hype’).

    Remember when HSR was offering free Roku sticks as if nearly every story was going to be a video presentation? That worked real well…

    Great writing and great stories may not save the profession, but it sure seems worth the effort. Do you really want to be a part of Facebooking it into the future?

    Now I’ll read the story….Jon and Jeremy are both excellent writers. Lucky to have them. Lucky to have young men with old-school skills dying from the profession.

  4. Graham, Korman, Dopirak…were all great as well. Scoop has always had a foundation of fantastic writers and storytellers.
    Great sports minds is almost secondary.
    Such a tremendous and undervalued asset at HT/HSR/SCOOP….compared to places like ‘Inside the Halitosis’ which simply saturates the sport “junkie” with big plates of dull ingredients having little flavor.

    If the ship goes down, at least it fought to retain the art where only deep seas shall test a pen rather than merely giving into a tamed bay full of shallow waters and shallow readers.

  5. Excellent story. So grateful that men and women like Powers and Thomas choose to serve. Hope the get the chance to return to IU to be honored for their service and perhaps a chance to educate other your men about the opportunities to serve is the U.S. Military.

  6. Jon, great story about a couple of IU players after graduation. I hope you keep these kind of stories coming once football starts back up. It is no surprise to me that football players were called to service for this country. Football prepares them for the struggles they face in training and in combat. I agree that 2 years of mandatory service would be a great benefit to young people and our country. All should go through boot camp then decide on military service or service to the poorest districts in our nation.

  7. Sorry, V13, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlaws 2 years (or any term) of mandatory service, military or otherwise.

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