Everyone who follows AFL knows “that situation a few years ago” saw Thomas and his teammate at the time, Lachie Keefe, suspended for two seasons for an anti-doping violation after they took an illicit drug that was unbeknown to them laced with the banned substance Clenbuterol.
Thomas accepted the consequences, then showed his character when he bounced back from exile to establish himself in the line-up again, kicking 38 goals in 2018 when the Magpies fell five points short of West Coast in the grand final.
He is now a permanent fixture up forward, skating inside 50 to reel off 58 games post-suspension, playing with a furrowed brow and a focused expression that would not look out of place in the many sepia-toned images of Magpies from yesteryear.
When the shutdown news came he was able to dust himself off and quickly alter his routine. Suddenly, he was doing three university subjects – management accounting, equity markets and macroeconomics – as part of his business degree at Monash.
As he had when he moved back to Queensland while suspended, he also established an exercise routine – some running and weights – and made the best of a unfortunate situation.
“Part of this process is just realigning some of those goals. I’m now able to focus on trying to finish uni by the end of this year … small little wins to refocus your energy,” Thomas said.
Even his wedding planned for October 31 has been affected, plans thrown in the air temporarily by both government restrictions and the prospect of football stretching into spring. What can he do but shrug his square shoulders?
“I think I will just park [the wedding] for now and cross that bridge in a few weeks or a few months when there is more clarity but [that date] is not looking good,” Thomas said.
Thomas has always been a likeable and diligent athlete but he knows the suspension made him mature more quickly than he may have otherwise.
“If it taught me anything or if I took anything away from [the suspension] it was just to compartmentalise – for the lack of a better word – football and understand that it is a great job and appreciate it for what it is but that there are plenty of other things that form your identity,” Thomas said.
“I feel that I have probably got a little bit more of a balanced view having gone through that and come out the other side.”
He doesn’t take anything for granted either, least of all his spot in the team, where he plays a sometimes less than glamorous role inside the forward 50. Less happy with last season – when a hip problem and a patch of poor form reduced his output – than he was in 2018, he is determined to rediscover consistency when the season restarts.
As an athlete who is often hard on himself he is also learning to accept the good with the bad on the field as readily as he has shown he can off it.
“That is the challenge: to keep positive through those tougher periods where things aren’t going your way. I have shown in ’18 I can play the role consistently and it is just a matter for me to get back to that level,” Thomas said.
Getting back to AFL level has been a constant in Thomas’ career, with foot and leg problems sidelining him in 2011 and 2012 and making him wait until his fourth season to debut, while suspension cost him 2015 and 2016 when he enrolled at QUT and earned money driving Ubers and at a gym.
“When you are in that situation you do what you can to survive. I was no different a few years ago. I was 23, living at home as a uni student. You’re not exactly going to have much,” Thomas said.
He can empathise with people whose lives have been upended by the coronavirus. “It is important to keep perspective because there are people in the industry and just more broadly doing a lot worse.”
In 2020 the 28-year-old’s resilience has been tested again and once more he has refused to buckle. “It’s an interesting journey,” Thomas said.
Peter Ryan is a sports reporter with The Age covering AFL, horse racing and other sports.