There's a saying: Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have. While Michael Thomas is happy to be a safety for the Miami Dolphins, he took those words to heart last year when he replaced his football uniform with a crisp button-down shirt, slacks, and dress shoes. He didn't ditch his Dolphins duds for good, but during the start of his spring semester of graduate school at the University of Miami, Thomas was channeling the business leader he hopes to one day become. It took him two weeks to decide he didn't have to dress the part quite yet.
"I realized how long the days can be," Thomas recalls. "I changed it up to jeans, a polo shirt, and sneakers. I was back in school, all day. Comfort is key."
So is planning a post-football life — something that is important to Thomas, even given his professional success with the Dolphins. The 5'11", 201-pound safety was third on the team with 85 tackles last season, but football won't be his occupation forever. So the Stanford University grad returned to the classroom for another degree. On July 1, Thomas, 27, will graduate with an executive masters in business administration from the University of Miami after completing a two-year program.
"I was thinking about the future. This game is going to come to an end one day," Thomas says. "I want to develop myself as a businessman. Pursuing an M.B.A. made sense. I'm excited about what I can do with this degree."
Many players do not receive a college diploma before entering the NFL. But Thomas did. A four-year starter for the Cardinal, Thomas earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Stanford in 2012. That same year, he embarked on a career in the NFL, signing with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent. He was on the team's practice squad until Miami signed him in December 2013.
Five days after he joined the Dolphins, in his first NFL game, Thomas became a hero in Miami's 24--20 victory over the New England Patriots. He intercepted Pats quarterback Tom Brady and broke up a potential game-winning touchdown pass intended for wideout Danny Amendola.
Off the field, Thomas wanted to make his mark too. Miami's director of player engagement, Kaleb Thornhill, approached him with the back-to-school opportunity. Thomas said the decision to apply to the program was "a no-brainer." After submitting a written essay and sitting for two interviews, he was admitted for the fall 2014 semester.
Being in the NFL, Thomas says, helps with his classes. "I definitely apply my football experience to school. Business school is all about group projects. I have an advantage because I play on a team, and that's group work," Thomas points out. "I'm also used to playing in front of thousands of people. So when I have to present in front of the class, I can do it without fear. Both times all eyes are on me, and I've got to execute."
Designed in collaboration with the NFL, the Miami M.B.A. program is fast-paced. During the season, Thomas's classes were all online. He then took six courses, which were broken into three two-week periods, on campus during the off-season.
The days are long. Thomas says he and his classmates, which include Dolphins long snapper John Denney, are in school from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. five days a week. They munch on apples, bananas, and popcorn to get through the lectures.
The courses are eye-opening. "For one class, we had to do research on our dream job. I'd like to be a CEO of a sports franchise one day," Thomas says. "I reached out to the Dolphins' CEO Tom Garfinkel, and we talked about the qualities you need in this role: accountability, being able to work well with others, and not taking no for an answer. I used all of that information in my presentation. [That research] helped me reflect on my goals too."
His most challenging course? "Accounting!" Thomas says. "It was my favorite class, though, because much of what I learned I can use to improve the way I keep track of where my money goes."
Juggling professional football and academics can be difficult, but Thomas saw the value in being a student-athlete again.
"Between school and playing in the NFL, I'm learning firsthand how a business is run," he says. "I see myself doing that one day."
Achieving his dream of becoming the CEO might be years away, but right now Thomas wants to create a business that focuses on TV and film production. "I figured, Why not start a business now and let it grow while I'm playing?" he says.
His focus on a career in television or the movies fits well with another interest of his: acting.
During his downtime, when he isn't reading The Wall Street Journal or Business Insider, Thomas takes acting classes. "Football has been great to me," says Thomas, who was in two plays at Stanford. "But I want to experience other things too."
Photos: Jeffrey Salter (ripping shirt), Todd Warshaw/Getty Images (tackling), Peter McMahon/Miami Dolphins (holding helmet)