Browns' legend Joe Thomas visits NW Ohio
Discusses career, country roots, loyalty at Freedom Township Sports Night
BY: JULIANNE SCHAFER
You may have heard some barking in the distance just outside of Ridgeville Corners on Wednesday night. No, it wasn’t the neighbor’s dogs. It was a full, near capacity crowd of members of the Dawg Pound welcoming Cleveland Browns’ legend, Joe Thomas, to the podium for the 33rd Annual Sports Night at the Ridgeville American Legion presented by the Freedom Township Men’s Club.
From 2007 to 2017, there were very few things Browns’ fans had to cheer about. However, Thomas was one highlight.
The all-pro left tackle was the one bright spot you could always count on to be out there snap after snap protecting the blind side of whomever the Browns had playing quarterback that day … 10,363 consecutive snaps to be exact, which is an NFL record (the longest streak since snap counts were first recorded in 1999).
The former Wisconsin Badger and all-American never made a playoff appearance during his time in Cleveland, but his ironman mentality and offensive line savvy earned him trips to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. To top off his legendary status amongst Browns’ nation, Thomas was announced as a first-ballot inductee into the 2023 class of the Professional Football Hall of Fame back in February.
Before Thomas makes his way to Canton this summer to be enshrined as a Hall of Famer, the current NFL Network analyst and proud fourth-grade track coach for shot put made a stop in northwest Ohio as the Sports Night’s main speaker.
After a prayer and tasty meal, Thomas proceeded for over an hour to answer questions from the audience ranging in topics from his very noticeable slimmed down frame since his playing days to his very strong dislike of playing the Baltimore Ravens during his time as the Browns’ left tackle.
During his time as a Brown, Thomas weighed about 310 pounds. Since, he has gotten more health conscious and has trimmed his way down to 250 pounds, which he said is his sweet spot. Although, he said after eating the delicious brisket that was served during dinner, he’d make due with gaining a few more pounds just to eat some more.
I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to the future Hall of Famer before the event started. He talked a little bit about his days growing up back in Brookfield, Wisc. Along with excelling on the football field, he also excelled academically being on the honor roll all four years of high school. He threw shot put and discuss for his Brookfield Central High School track team, setting the school record for shot put and discuss throws.
Thomas acknowledged many similarities between his hometown and life here in northwest Ohio. I talked to him a bit about Black Swamp Football and he was very interested in learning more about us. Even going as far as saying he thinks Ohio is one of the best states in the country in terms of high school football talent.
By Thomas’ own admission, his high school football team “wasn’t really that great.” He had some advice for current high school athletes who may strive to play at the next level and maybe find themselves on a team that may not have a lot of talent.
“You have to focus on the individual battles,” explained Thomas. “You can’t focus so much that the report card is the scoreboard for your own performance. Because if you do that, it’s easy to feel like what you do doesn’t matter. You can’t turn apathetic on your own performance. You still have to demand excellence out of your self.”
“I think the same values that can give you success in life are the values that can make you a good football player,” he continued. “If you are on time, if you pay attention to the people that are trying to give you wisdom and you work hard … those are the keys to life and to success. They are the keys to football success and athletic success. I think that’s the foundation, but also be willing to do the things that maybe the other guy is not willing to do. Be willing to try to be great at all the things that don’t take talent.”
Thomas discussed how the college football recruitment process now is so different than it was back in 2002. In fact, he only attended one football camp when he was in high school at the University of Notre Dame. He was recruited by many Division I college football programs ranging from Virginia Tech to Notre Dame, but he eventually landed with the University of Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez.
After four stellar seasons with the Badgers, the Cleveland Browns drafted Thomas with the 3rd overall pick in the first round in 2007. However, his draft-day experience wasn’t what most would think.
Typical draftees gather in a big city, on a big stage with hundreds of media members, fans and ESPN covering their every waking move. Thomas decided to go a different rout with his draft-day activities and chose not to participate in the big show of glitz and glamour. Instead he went fishing with his dad on Lake Michigan.
“I just wasn’t interested in buying a suit,” Thomas said laughing. “I’d spend a lot of Saturdays growing up fishing with my dad on Lake Michigan. It was kind of our little tradition, what we did. So it was really a no brainer when my agent said I don’t have to go to New York. I’m like why would I want to? That sounds miserable! I’d rather go fishing. He’s like well you can do it, you just need to have cell phone service for when the team wants to get a hold of you. And I was like ‘done deal.’
Thomas won over a lot of Cleveland fans that very day when news of that went public.
“I certainly didn’t intend to do that,” he noted. “I certainly didn’t know who was going to draft me, but from the moment that I was drafted people were like yeah we share some values. We get this guy. He gets us.”
He had a lot to say about Browns’ fans and what makes them so special and different from all other fan bases in the NFL.
“It’s definitely their loyalty,” Thomas exclaimed. “And it’s their passion. I grew up in Wisconsin … Green Bay Packer fans are loyal and passionate, but they haven’t been tested the way Browns fans have been tested.”
His time in Cleveland didn’t produce many wins for the team through his 11 seasons (48 wins and 128 losses), but there are many special memories that he holds close to heart. Three of his four children were born in Cleveland. He had many wonderful relationships with former teammates that are still in tact today. One of his favorite Browns’ teammates was former Notre Dame standout quarterback, Brady Quinn. They were roommates during their time with the Browns and their families are still close to this day.
He also has maintained a friendship with other former Cleveland alumni, namely big-name players for the 1980’s teams.
“I would say Doug Dieken and Bernie Kosar are a couple guys that I’ve got really good relationships with,” Thomas explained. “I’ve been friends with since day one when I got to Cleveland and I love coming back home and seeing those guys. I work with Hanford (Dixon) doing media stuff with those guys occasionally. I love working with him. That’s one thing that’s cool about Cleveland, especially those guys from the 80’s and the 90’s. They have a real loyalty to the organization. They love being around the team and coming back for alumni events. It’s always great seeing them.”
As for opponents that he faced in the trenches, Thomas had a few favorite defensive linemen he really either hated to go up against or loved to face.
“Whoever was the crappiest, “ he said with a big laugh. “Because I knew my day was going to be easy then. I will say when I played against Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware, James Harrison and Terrell Suggs, I got the most satisfaction about playing a good game because those guys were the best. I mean they were the best of the best. The week of preparation that I put in, the film study, practice on the field, going out and playing a good game…those were the guys you really felt good about yourself when you finish that game and you had a good game.”
After suffering torn triceps in his left arm in the middle of the 2017 season ended his consecutive-snap streak and essentially his career as a Brown, Thomas announced his retirement from the NFL on March 14, 2018.
However there are two main things that he is most proud of during his time in Cleveland.
“I have a lot of pride in I think two things in my career,” said Thomas sentimentally. “One is the snap streak. Two is the fact that I played my whole career in Cleveland. Those are the things I think I have the most pride about statistically. One, you do not see long snap streaks like that. Two, you don’t see guys staying in one place. Loyalty is something that was ingrained in me as a kid from my parents. It’s still important. It’s a value I try to teach to my kids. It’s something you don’t see much in the NFL. I showed it to my team, my city and that makes it even more special.”
When asked if he ever thought his consecutive snap streak record would be broken, he answered carefully. “I would say never say never.”
His sights now rest on joining NFL royalty this coming August when he will be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.
He also spoke of his wife, Annie, his four kids and what an instrumental part they play in his life and were throughout his football career. To be able to share his Football Hall of Fame induction day with them and the rest of his family is one of the things he is most excited for.
“The gold jacket dinner, which happens Friday night, when we first get presented our jacket,” stated Thomas of what he is most looking forward to. “The second moment is going to be Saturday afternoon when I’ve got my family on stage with me. They have always been really important to me and I’ve said they are the biggest part of my success in the NFL. My wife and kids, just having them on stage with me when the bust gets revealed.”
There are also a few current Hall of Famers that Thomas is really looking forward to seeing at the ceremony.
“I was really excited being that I was a Packers’ fan growing up to meet Brett Favre and to meet Leroy Butler,” Thomas stated. “But I actually got to meet Brett when I was playing and a few times since I’ve retired. I also got to meet Leroy Butler at the Hall of Fame luncheon at the Super Bowl right after they announced the Hall of Fame class. So I’ve already met them, but I’m excited to see them again.”
With his playing days behind him, Thomas’ mission moving forward is pretty clear.
“I’ve got a lot of passions, but I think for me the biggest thing is just trying to be a good servant,” said Thomas. “To my kids, I love coaching them in all their sports. I love trying to teach them some of the wisdom that I’ve learned over the years through trial and error. Through doing the wrong stuff. I try to be a good servant to my wife and help her to be the best mom she can be. I try to give back to the communities that I live in and that I was raised in. Back in Cleveland they meant so much to me and been such a big part of my life.”
He also stays busy with some of his other interests.
“Hunting, fishing and I’ve got a farm,” Thomas continued. “We raise beef cows, steers, and cash crop. I’ve got a bunch of other little businesses. Most of them revolve around football, sports and food. It keeps me happy.”
As a life long-diehard Browns’ fan myself; it warms my heart that Joe Thomas’ name will be included amongst other Browns’ legends in the Hall of Fame this summer. The bright light that Thomas provided for a franchise, whose fan base so desperately wants a winner, has certainly not been dimmed since his retirement. The standing ovation Thomas got at the end of Sports Night was just more evidence to support that fact.
I think Thomas said it best himself when it comes to his relationship with Browns fans.
“We get this guy. He gets us.”
We do get you, Joe. On behalf of Browns’ nation, thank you. God bless! Go Browns!