Joe Thomas burying Pittsburgh Steelers' linebacker James Farrior is the favorite picture of his dad, Eric. (Courtesy of Joe Thomas)
The untold story of how Joe Thomas refused to let losing defeat him
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Editor's note: Tony Grossi is a Cleveland Browns analyst for TheLandOnDemand.com and 850 ESPN Cleveland. He has covered the Browns since 1984.
Joe Thomas didn’t realize how much he endeared himself to Cleveland when he went fishing with his dad and friends rather than attend the dog-and-pony show at the 2007 NFL draft in New York City.
Being drafted No. 3 overall by the Browns was the biggest day of Joe’s life, and he chose to spend it on a charter boat on Lake Michigan, renewing a tradition his dad started before Joe even knew how to bait a hook. Their draft-day experience became the perfect metaphor for Joe’s relationship with football-mad Cleveland -- a blue-collar city on a Great Lake not unlike Joe’s Wisconsin roots.
“Cleveland is a lot like Milwaukee, a city divided by a Great Lake,” said Eric Thomas, Joe’s dad. “So instead of being a small, compact, dense city, it’s broken up by a lake and expands east and west. I said, ‘Joe, it’s going to be a lot like Milwaukee. And they have a tremendous football tradition.’ He was really excited.”
Joe celebrated being selected by the Browns by bagging the prize of the day among those on that boat – a 10-pound brown trout. So the marriage of Joe Thomas and the Cleveland Browns truly was love at first bite.
The honeymoon extended through their first year together. Thomas fit in instantly as a cornerstone left tackle on a high-scoring offense. The Browns went 10-6, only their second winning season in nine years since they were born in the 1999 expansion season.
“We’d have friends and family come to games, and it was such a cool thing,” said Annie, Joe’s college sweetheart-turned-wife.
And that was as good as it got.
The tolls of football greatness
Over the next 10 seasons, the Browns lost 11 or more games nine times, bottoming out at 1-15 and then 0-16. Through it all, Thomas played left tackle at an extraordinary level never seen in franchise history.
“He could play in any era, without a doubt. And he would be All-Pro in any era,” said former Browns tackle and radio analyst Doug Dieken, whose playing career began as a teammate of Browns legendary linemen Gene Hickerson and Dick Schafrath.
Thomas was voted to the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row to start his career. Only four other players in NFL annals did that – and all are in the Hall of Fame. He was named to All-Pro teams eight times, six as a first-teamer. Only three other tackles in the Hall of Fame had more.
He never missed a snap, much less a game, enduring mid-week pain, offseason surgeries and exotic training sessions until, finally, his unprecedented streak ended at 10,363 when his left triceps muscle detached from the bone while making a routine block in the seventh game of the 2017 season. Fittingly, the Browns would lose them all that year, becoming the second NFL team to finish 0-16.
Thomas’ individual greatness as a relentlessly perfect technician at his position has carried him to the finalist round of election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
His case, along with 14 other modern-era candidates vying for a maximum of five spots, will be debated by 49 voters – men and women media members, which include four Hall of Famers – at the Hall’s annual selection meeting before the Super Bowl.
Of the 362 enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 87 were selected in their first year of eligibility. Only six of the so-called “first ballot” Hall of Famers played primarily offensive tackle. If Thomas makes it to the Class of 2023, he will be the first player in the Browns’ expansion era inducted, and the 18th full-time member of the franchise with a bust in Canton.
“It would be an atrocity if Joe didn’t make it on his first try,” said Joe Panos, a former NFL lineman who was Thomas’ position coach his senior year at Brookfield Central (WI) High School and now is an agent with Athletes First. Panos has never represented Thomas.
The physical toll of what became a personal crusade for Thomas – to never miss a day of work – was plainly evident to family, teammates, coaches and media over the last years of his career.
But what few knew, including people close to Thomas, was the toll the hopelessness of losing took on him emotionally and mentally.
He suffered what he termed “a mental breakdown” in his next-to-last year and sought regular counseling with a team psychologist.
‘My heart broke for him’
The night it all crashed down on Joe Thomas, he took his usual long time icing down and dressing. He quietly left the locker room in kind of a state of trance.
Annie was waiting in the car in the players’ lot outside FirstEnergy Stadium with daughter Logan, the couple’s oldest of four children, in the back seat. Joe sat down in the passenger seat and as soon as he closed the door tears were running down his cheeks.
Thomas had arrived at that game against the New England Patriots on Oct. 9, 2016, with his usual unflinching optimism and hope.
Never mind that the Browns were off to another winless start and were playing Bill Belichick’s dynasty team with Brady coming back for the first time from a four-game NFL suspension. Never mind the Browns had their top two quarterbacks out with injuries and went into the game with only rookie Cody Kessler and hastily-signed journeyman Charlie Whitehurst available at the sport’s most important position. One of the secrets to Thomas’ robotic consistency at his position was convincing himself his team had a chance to win every game.
“And they just beat our ass [33-13],” Thomas said. “They played a defense they hadn’t shown on film and totally shut down our running game and, of course, we couldn’t throw the ball. I think the big realization was, one, I was fooling myself, we’re not very good, we don’t have very good players. And at the time, the team was not trying to win actively. That was with Sashi Brown [in charge of football operations] and the deep rebuild with [first-year coach] Hue Jackson.
“But also the thing I think that hit me the hardest and the worst was I felt a loss of control. Because in that game, I played perfect. Literally, every snap I got a plus [grade]. I did my job, which is kind of rare for a lineman because there’s a lot of nuance and detail even if people don’t notice. A lot of times your coach will give you corrections. So it’s kind of rare to play a game without flaw. So I played the perfect game and we still got smoked.
“It was at that point I pretty much realized I didn’t have that much impact on the game. Even though people talk about how important left tackle is, if Charlie Whitehurst is your quarterback … I don’t even know who our running backs were or our wide receivers or our defense … It doesn’t matter. What I do does not matter. I had no control over the outcome. And that was a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around and I think I had just a mental breakdown.”
Annie was heart-broken.
“It was so hard to see him so defeated,” she said. “He was bubble-wrapped from head to toe in ice packs and he looked so sad, and I’d never seen him like that before. And I just didn’t know what to say. In that moment my heart broke for him because I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for him, and I don’t think he did either. He was just stuck. In that moment, it was either fight or flight, and he just chose to fight.”
Left guard Joel Bitonio, Thomas’ closest friend on the team, said, “I never knew that happened.”
Eric Thomas, Joe’s dad, said, “I did not know he had to do the counseling, but I’m not surprised because I’d sure like to have seen more of him after the games. He was inside himself at that point.”
Eric said that during Joe’s rookie season, times were “great” after games. Browns’ wins would be celebrated with family get-togethers, dinner and talk. They had fun reliving the games.
“Then that second year, Joe would be in the locker room for hours afterward,” Eric said. “We’d say, ‘C’mon, let’s talk.’ I won’t use the word depressed, but he was really down about [the losing] and clearly wasn’t the same family person for us as that rookie year playing. I could tell it was painful to lose. But he was critiquing his game and thinking about what he could do differently and putting that game behind him as fast as he could to get ready for the next week. It was awfully difficult to be in Cleveland a day and a half and not see him because he’d be looking at film or icing down knees to be in position to play the next game.”
Joe said the counseling helped him to regroup mentally and emotionally and make it through the season.
Annie said it helped Joe immensely that the Browns finally won a game that season on Christmas Eve.
“All three of our kids [at the time] were there. I was bawling my eyes out. Joe was bawling his eyes out. It was so euphoric just to get the validation that there was a possibility we could win. When we got home there was a celebration like it was a Christmas miracle,” Annie said.
It was almost as if Joe knew it would be the last win he’d experience in his career.
A high threshold for pain
After that 1-15 season, Thomas had offseason surgery to scrape out remaining cartilage in his left knee, which was originally injured his sophomore season at Wisconsin. Thomas tore the ACL in his right knee his junior year while volunteering to play on the defensive line in Wisconsin’s bowl game against Auburn.
It was a scramble to get ready for the 2017 season after the surgery, but Thomas was motivated by two things – the work ethic he inherited from his father and the milestone of playing 10,000 consecutive snaps.
His dad, Eric, once strapped on cross country skis to traipse two miles to work in his banking office after a snowstorm closed down the roads.
“I don’t think he missed a day of work his entire life,” Joe said. “It was ingrained in me – ‘hey, you got work to do, you show up.’ That’s just what you did. And I was very fortunate genetically, and, luckily, I never had a serious injury until I tore my ACL in college.”
“What set Joe apart,” said Eric, “was he had a very high threshold for pain. He could kind of work through the pain. Where a lot of people would have stopped, he kept going and challenging himself. And he liked the physiology of working out.”
The closest the streak came to ending was Game 5 in 2014. The Browns were putting on the final touches of a rare blowout victory over the hated Steelers at home and coach Mike Pettine was selectively pulling starters to avoid injury. An unwitting lineman named Vinston Painter was sent in by Pettine to relieve Thomas. Thomas said something to the effect of “You get the hell out of here.”
So the streak was still alive when Thomas began his 11th season, though it became increasingly difficult for him to practice during the week. Instead of practicing with his teammates, Thomas’ work week consisted of hours of swimming, Yoga, meditation, electrical stimulation sessions, cryotherapy, acupuncture treatments, a strenuous stretching regimen, and hot tub/cold tub marathons to recover his body each week from the last game.
“He was playing on borrowed time,” Annie said.
Finally, on the 38th offensive snap of the seventh game in the 2017 season – a loss, naturally, to the Tennessee Titans – Thomas was injured blocking against defensive end Bryan Orakpo after a handoff to Duke Johnson. Thomas felt a pop in his left elbow and had no control over his arm while he lay on the ground.
One thought crossed Thomas' mind -- don't get carted off the field. It was a credo linemen followed at Wisconsin. So he lifted himself on his feet and walked to the sideline, figuring it probably was the last time he’d wear a football uniform.
Annie was at the game with her two oldest daughters and her mom and dad.
“The ride home was pretty somber. The end of something so unbelievable. I get emotional just thinking about that moment,” she said, pausing and weeping. “I just saw all his hard work come to an end. I know that’s not the way he wanted it to end. I just think he knew deep down that was something he wasn’t going to be able to come back from.”
A master technician
Thomas’ decision to play defensive line in the bowl game his junior season indirectly steered him to Cleveland. The ACL injury forced him to return to Wisconsin his senior year. The next season began in a game against Bowling Green on Sept. 2 in then-named Cleveland Browns Stadium.
“It was the easiest scouting trip I’ve had in my life,” said Phil Savage, the Browns’ general manager in charge of the team’s 2007 draft.
Savage and his staff correctly projected quarterback Jamarcus Russell would go first to the Raiders and receiver Calvin Johnson second to the Lions. Savage considered running back Adrian Peterson with the third pick, and chose Thomas based mostly on need.
“We thought, ‘OK, he’s gonna be a very good left tackle. Is he gonna be a Pro Bowler? Who knows?’ Savage recalled. “We actually had a discussion about if he can’t play left tackle he’ll play right tackle. We were hedging our bets vs. ‘Wait a minute, we just drafted a Hall of Fame tackle.’ No one thought that. We thought we’d drafted a very solid, functional 10-year tackle.”
Savage was involved in the draft process in Baltimore when the Ravens drafted giant tackle Jonathan Ogden fourth overall in 1996. Ogden was 6-9 and 345 pounds; Thomas 6-6 and 310.
“Joe just knew how to play football. I think that’s what I’d say about him more than anything else,” Savage said. “He’s a big man but he wasn’t a giant. He was strong but he wasn’t Hercules. He wasn’t a Jonathan Ogden in terms of sheer, raw ability, but he knew how to play the game. Very much a technician. I think he was always trying to improve from the time he was in college all throughout his career.”
Thomas said, “Just murdering people, that was never my game. My highlight film would never compare to those [larger] guys because they were so much more powerful and dominant. But from a consistency standpoint, I don’t think anybody could come close, from any generation.”
Thomas won with consistently perfect technique.
“I was obsessed with perfect technique and having a level of focus with my mindset that I would never let one play slip. I tried to maintain perfect concentration, focus and technique every single time I lined up. Every play, not just every game.”
Dieken said, “Joe was a master technician. You never saw Joe on the ground. In last-minute desperation, [an offensive tackle] will try to cut the guy. Joe was always in position. Technique-wise, if you were an offensive line coach and you wanted to teach a rookie left tackle, you’d put on a tape of Joe Thomas.”
The fact Thomas maintained his strive for perfection every play, every season, while blocking for a team that lost so many games and changed so many coaches and quarterbacks, made him rare.
Thomas played for seven head coaches in his 10 ½ seasons with the Browns. He blocked for 18 different starting quarterbacks. The Browns’ record in Thomas’ 167 games was 48-119 (.287).
“It’s very, very difficult to come in and work as hard as he did and prepare as hard as he did when you constantly lose as a team,” Panos said. “You’d think it would wear on you and you’d demand a trade or want to leave or not take your job as seriously knowing you’re probably going to lose almost all the time.”
No place like home
As the losses mounted into Thomas’ ninth season, Thomas did, in fact, have the opportunity to change teams.
The Denver Broncos were having injury problems at left tackle and quarterback Peyton Manning, himself wobbling to a Super Bowl run with various ailments in his last season before retirement, needed a reinforcement. Peter Schaffer, Thomas’ Denver-based agent, intervened as an intermediary to initiate trade talks for Thomas between the Broncos and the Browns.
Everyone involved knew that the only way the Browns could possibly “sell” a trade of their best and most popular player to their suffering fans was with Thomas’ approval. But Thomas wouldn’t budge – even after receiving recruiting texts from Manning himself.
“I always thought loyalty was another value I was raised on,” Thomas said. “And when I got to Cleveland, the fans embraced me and I fell in love with the city and really I wanted to be a great player individually, but part of my dream was that I wanted to build the Browns back to the greatness that they had. So I was really motivated by that. That was very important to me. Also Cleveland was my home, I didn’t want to leave, I loved the fans, the city, the franchise.
“I also felt had I gone to Denver and won a championship it would have felt a little bit hollow because, I feel, maybe they never would admit it, but the guys who go chasing championships, it’s a little bit hollow. I’ve always been somebody who wants to take something from nothing and build it into something special. I want to build it with my bare hands. Winning a Super Bowl would have been great, but it wouldn’t have been meaningful to me because the journey is more important to me than the destination.”
At the time, Annie was pregnant with the couple’s third child, Thomas’ only son, Jack. She was nervous about pulling up stakes, but stayed out of the discussion as Thomas contemplated his decision for about two weeks.
“Everybody always said to him, ‘Don’t you wish you’d moved to another team?’ and when he says no he truly means no,” Annie said. “His time in Cleveland was so precious to him, the teammates he had, the coaches he had, the city he got to play for.
“It’s hard to believe, especially in that moment in the car when he was so broken and so beaten, but I just don’t think his story would have been complete if he would have moved to a different team. It’s just a part of who he was. In the end, what happened was meant to be. I am very thankful he did end up staying.
“Our three oldest kids were born in Cleveland. They take very much pride in that. They’re big Browns fans. I don’t think that would have been the ending of our story if he had been traded. I just think it was the best thing for our family.”
The Broncos won the Super Bowl championship without Thomas. So Joe never got the ring. But his chase obviously netted him and his family something more priceless.