There are 17 Cleveland Browns players inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In August, that number goes to 18 as offensive tackle Joe Thomas becomes part of the 2023 HOF class. Cleveland now has the eighth-most players of any franchise inducted into the Hall.
Thomas is a first-ballot inductee, which does not happen often and is usually reserved for the best of the best. His induction will occur on August 5 at Tom Benson Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Not coincidentally, the Browns are playing in the annual Hall of Fame game against the New York Jets that same weekend.
The talented offensive tackle came to Cleveland with Olympic aspirations of being a medalist in the shot put. There was a moment when he considered ditching all of the other sports he was involved in - including football - in order to concentrate solely on the Olympics. For Browns’ fans, thankfully he changed that route.
Thomas, age 38, played 11 years in the NFL after being taken with the third overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft. He is famously known for being on a fishing trip aboard the Foxy Lady fishing boat in Port Washington with his dad when the draft process was in motion. Only after weighing out a 10-pound brown trout did Thomas and his dad find out which team selected him and at what draft slot later that day. But this personified Thomas, a humble yet mega-talented athlete who let his play do most of the talking.
Since the seventh grade, Thomas had never experienced a losing season. In his rookie season under head coach Romeo Crennel, Cleveland posted a 10-6-0 record. Losing soon followed but Thomas’ story goes beyond wins and losses.
He played youth soccer and as a youngster had a poster of Brett Favre on his wall. Thomas told his mom that he wanted to play in the NFL one day. She did not want to give him false hopes and was honest when she told him to go back to studying because almost nobody makes it to the NFL.
A multi-sport athlete at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, Wisconsin. In football, Thomas played right tackle, defensive end, kicker and punter, tight end, and fullback. Standing 6’7” and a beefy 250 pounds, although he was listed among the Top 20 offensive tackles in the nation, he excelled at defensive end.
As a senior, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel named him First Team All-State at defensive end and received First Team All-State honors from the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association at the same position.
I took this picture at our photo day at the U.S. Army All-American game. You can see Joe Thomas, Greg Olsen, Brady Quinn, Chris Leak, John Sullivan and Tommy Zbikowski. #footballrecruiting pic.twitter.com/bIVQqLHno0— Tom Lemming (@LemmingReport) November 29, 2022
He was a four-year honor roll student and part of the U.S. Army’s Academic All-America team and played in the 2003 U.S. Army All-American Bowl for standout high school seniors.
Thomas was a star in track and field and set his school’s record for shot put and discus. He lettered four times in track and field and holds the school indoor record for the shot put at 62 feet 1/4 inches. With all of his success at shot put, he wanted to continue that career at the college level.
In the 2003 Outdoor Track Season, he fell short in his bid for the WIAA state shot put record during the state track meet but still won a Division 1 title in both the shot and discus. His 12-pound shot put traveled 62’-1.5” while he tossed the 1.6kg discus 185’-6”.
Many major D-1 universities wanted Thomas. However, he had a stipulation: he wanted to participate in track with his goal of being in the Olympics in the shot put, and he needed his chosen school to allow him the time to accomplish this or else he would find one that would.
USC wanted him as an offensive lineman, Iowa and Purdue University saw his talents at defensive end, Wisconsin needed him to play tight end, while Northwestern, Colorado, Kansas, Stanford, Virginia, Notre Dame, and Nebraska just wanted him to compete and play wherever they needed the most help since he was so versatile.
Despite all the schools who wanted him for football, he chose the University of Wisconsin Badgers because head football coach Barry Alvarez was known as a proponent of allowing his players to participate in other sports as long as they kept up their grades and devoted time in-season to football.
As it turned out, Thomas played some tight end and defensive end as a freshman before being switched to left tackle in his sophomore year. To bulk up for his new position, in addition to three square meals a day, he ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every 30 minutes and a whole carton of coffee creamer. By his second season, he had added 30 pounds to now a hefty 280.
Brookfield Central High School’s stadium was previously unnamed but in 2020 the school christened it the Harrison-Thomas Stadium to be used for football, soccer and lacrosse. Fellow alum Kenny Harrison had won a gold medal in the triple jump at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“The world class accomplishments of these two distinguished alumni deserve to be celebrated, shared and remembered by all. History will remember these two athletes as being the best at their craft. Brookfield Central is proud to recognize and honor them with this naming ceremony.”
Out of all the coaches, front office, and thousands of players that have been employed by the Browns, only two members have ever had a stadium named after them: Coach Paul Brown and Joe Thomas.
With all the numbers involved with Thomas there is this one that stands out: 10,363.
What does this represent? This represents the number of consecutive snaps Thomas played while serving as left tackle for the Browns. Think about it: From Week 1 of his rookie year in 2007 until Week 7 of the 2017 NFL season, Thomas never missed a season, a game, or a single play despite most seasons where the team was miserable. If Cleveland was up by four touchdowns or down by four touchdowns late into the fourth quarter, Thomas remained in.
If he had minor injuries during the week or while playing, he toughed it out. He even had off-season surgery to scrape out the remaining cartilage in his left knee in 2017. If he was tired, or hot, or freezing cold in those frigid games where the wind howls coming off Lake Erie, he remained in the game. He had aching knees, joint inflammation, soreness, and an ailing back, but his motto was ‘Hey, you got work to do, you show up.’
Later in his career, Thomas would rarely practice to preserve his body for game days.
Thomas’ dad, Eric, was a banker and never missed a day of work in 39 years until he retired, his son certainly learned that lesson.
Playing offensive line in the NFL is grueling. It’s banging knees, smashing fingers, jamming skulls, ankles rolled up, and blowing out knees.
And that exact number, 10,363, is prominently displayed at the stadium in the Browns Ring of Honor. Honoring a number that will most likely never be broken in the annals of NFL history.
His Iron Man snap streak ended on October 22, 2017, against the Tennessee Titans when he suffered a torn triceps muscle in his left arm while attempting a block. The injury landed him on IR. It would become his final football game. Ironically, he received a $1.5 million roster bonus while being listed on IR.
While at Wisconsin, Thomas was twice named First Team All-Big 10, Unanimous All-American (2006), and captured the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best offensive lineman. In the NFL, he was named to the 2007 PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team, selected to 10 Pro Bowls, seven first-team All-Pro selections, and two second-team All-Pro selections, a unanimous selection for the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team, plus included in the Browns Ring of Honor and Cleveland Browns Legends.
Thomas is the only Wisconsin football player Top 3 of the NFL draft since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966. Including his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement, he has also been inducted into the University of Wisconsin Hall of Fame (2018), College Football Hall of Fame (2019), and the Brookfield Central High School Hall of Fame (2020).
In NFL history, Thomas is the only player to have played offensive linemen to be voted to 10 consecutive Pro Bowls. In a list of the 100 Greatest Browns, he was listed as Number 3. And now, our latest Cleveland Brown is to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Thomas now lives in Wisconsin married to his college sweetheart Annie and their four children: Logan, 10, Camryn, 8, Jack, 6, and Reese, 4. You can follow Thomas on Twitter at @joethomas73.
Dawgs By Nature caught up with Thomas to find out how he ditched football for track, what makes an offensive line click and how he made his mom cry.
DBN: At Brookfield Central High School, you played offensive tackle, tight end, punter, kicker, defensive end, and fullback. But where you shined was at defensive end with 20 sacks your final two years. How did you decide to focus on offensive tackle at the college level, and did you enjoy playing defensive end?
Thomas: Most colleges that were recruiting me thought I had the build and the frame of an offensive tackle. I was just happy to do anything it took to be on the field. When I got to Wisconsin, they gave me the option to play tight end, defensive end or offensive tackle. I entrusted my future with them, that they knew what was best. I played some defensive end in my freshman and junior years in the Bowl games. I played here and there on the defensive side of the football, but wisely they saw my best future was at offensive tackle. Defensive end was easy – see ball, get ball. When you are a young player that’s kinda nice. I enjoyed getting after the quarterback and maybe having the opportunity to affect the game that offensive tackles don’t.
DBN: So, you had a ton of colleges who were trying to recruit you. Tell us about the time that the University of Miami was going to fly their private jet up to Wisconsin to meet you, but a school dance got in the way and you canceled their meeting.
Thomas: Recruiting is crazy. It may be easier now. When a team kinda focuses in on this is the guy they need, they are willing to do anything to make it work. I didn’t feel the fit was right for me down there in Miami and the school dance was probably a better option. They were all set to fly up and meet with me, but the dance was at the same time and told them so they wouldn’t waste their time.
DBN: Is it true that you were considering going to college on a track scholarship because you had Olympic aspirations and not even play football?
Thomas: I had a lot of success in track in high school and was recruited by a lot of schools. The recruiting process was good for me because it turned over a lot of stones. And explore all possibilities. Knowing that, once I opened up all the doors I thought the decision would be very clear of what I wanted in a college. A couple of schools like Virginia and Kansas that I visited was specifically for the track team. I never got too far down the rabbit hole with this. I would have gone there for their track programs and the development of their throwers. And then probably ended up doing track and also football.
DBN: With considering which college to accept, Wisconsin stood out because head football coach Barry Alvarez was willing to share you with the track program as long as you kept up your grades. However, the winter and spring schedule was hectic doing both. Was their willingness to adapt the determining factor in choosing Wisconsin?
Thomas: I chose Wisconsin because they were very accommodating with me regarding me doing both sports. The influence here was Barry had a long history with the track coach. I knew that relationship was solid and Barry understood the value of having two-sport athletes. Barry also saw that the football players benefited from doing track in the spring. So I knew his word was good that track would be a priority in the spring and that if there were any conflicts I could choose which one to go to.
DBN: Track is in the spring and so is spring football which conflict. What was an average schedule like doing both sports?
Thomas: I participated in football and track activities during the winter and spring months. I would lift and do my football workouts in the morning and then participate in field events during practices or meets in the afternoon. On a day in which we had spring football practice, I had the option to go and skip track and field practice or vice versa. But if there was an important track meet, I would attend no matter what the football team was doing. In spring ball during my sophomore year they began to put me at left tackle and whoever was trying to get that position they moved him to another position.
DBN: As a senior, where were you when you found out that you had won the Outland Trophy?
Thomas: I was at the college football awards show on ESPN the night that I won it. They did a pretty good job keeping it a secret. I learned that I won it the same time that America did. I was there with my fiancé-now-wife Annie and my parents.
DBN: What was your first training camp like with the Browns?
Thomas: It was tough. Training camp is always hard. It is not physically demanding every day that college is because in college they work you longer and harder. But, in the NFL your training camp is six weeks instead of two weeks and you are going up against much bigger, faster, stronger, more physical players. So it is much more challenging. And then you have preseason games all the while you are practicing. It was always humbling an at times you question your ability and wonder if you belong at this level.
DBN: Your first season with Cleveland the team went 10-6-0 under Romeo Crennel with magical seasons by QB Derek Anderson and WR Braylon Edwards and just missed the playoffs. At that time, did you think that this was going to be the norm with your new team the Browns?
Thomas: There is no doubt. I had a ton of success in college and high school and frankly never had a losing season playing football in my life. I just kinda thought winning 10 games in my rookie year was the floor and would only go up from there. It is hard to win in the NFL.
DBN: During your career in Cleveland you had six head coaches, one winning season, zero playoff games, 19 quarterbacks, and plenty of high draft picks. Looking back now, why did the franchise consistently have three, four, and five-win seasons?
Thomas: It comes down to two things. One, the quarterback play was never good enough to be consistently a winner in the NFL. And when you don’t have that, you get a lot of turnover at coach, at general manager. Secondly, when you get the turnover ratio at those positions you are constantly hitting the reset button on the roster and a lot of your middle-class players who are solid starters end up leaving. You do that enough times, and you kinda wipe out the core of your team. And unless you give yourself a long window to rebuild, it is really hard to pull yourself out of that hole.
DBN: In your final three years in Cleveland the team went 3-13, 1-15, and finally 0-16. Did that winless season break you?
Thomas: I think before that season was over I was broken mentally. The 1-15 was hard enough. And then to go 0-7 before I got hurt my last year was just as difficult. Because as a competitor to get the most out of yourself, you have to convince yourself that this is the week. We have a great game plan and will finally turn things around with a win and pole vault us into a nice winning streak. And then when it doesn’t happen over and over again, it just gets increasingly more challenging to convince yourself that it is indeed a great game plan and that we have the right players to turn it around.
DBN: So in college, you started 38 games and then in the NFL you set an NFL record for 10,363 consecutive snaps. What do you attribute your durability to?
Thomas: There are a lot of determining factors. For one, having great genes from my mom and dad. I never got hurt doing anything in my life. You do get beat up in football and I had some minor surgeries to correct this and that. I did not miss a start in football going back to the seventh grade. I never missed a game until I tore my triceps muscle against the Titans. I was also very mindful about taking care of my body. I explored different ways to stay healthy. I was very good at stretching and got very big into yoga. I spent a lot of time in the training room with the trainers who taught me different ways to stay healthy. Then there are all the days in the weight room making sure all my muscles are working properly and my body was in balance. And the awareness on the field was very helpful like knowing where the ball was going to be and where the tacklers should be. Trying to get yourself out of harm’s way if you could.
DBN: In the end, you had 10 Pro Bowl nods plus you were named All-Pro eight times. In Browns history, those are Jim Brown numbers. Your thoughts?
Thomas: The great Jim Brown will never be equaled. Jim was a great friend. It gives me great pride to even be in the same sentence as him. The greatest NFL player ever.
DBN: Tell us about the first time you met him.
Thomas: I was at a Browns practice my rookie year. It was a pretty amazing scene with him in his 70s with a cutoff shirt and those huge bulging biceps. He spoke to the team about the importance of the team concept. It was cool because everyone stood up a little straighter when he was around. That day for me was pretty special. He was close with Romeo. So to have him around and be part of practices and share words of wisdom from his days was really unique. He spent a lot of time at practice actually.
DBN: After you retired in early 2018, the Browns enshrined the number “10,363” in their Ring of Honor in recognition of his historic consecutive-snaps-played streak. How did you learn about that the franchise was going to install this number in the stadium? Will this record stand the test of time?
Thomas: My friend Dan Murphy started in the front office the same time I did in the communications department. He always handled my communications with the media. He told me about the team’s plans to place the number in the stadium. It was really special to me because it is something I have a lot of pride in. That represents the kind of teammate I was playing through injuries and ineffectiveness. The amount of losses, the hot, the cold, or the amount of turnover I have seen. It was always important to me to be there for my teammates. That is what that number represents to me. That number is going to be tough to beat nowadays because the more games the league adds the more meaningless games they will have at the end of each season. Which means teams that are already in the playoffs or teams that are already out of the playoffs will be resting guys and getting their backups some live-game experience. It’s like you see in the NBA where they have a smart approach of resting guys. So I think going 10-plus years without ever missing a play will be hard to do.
DBN: We know you are a humble guy, but being elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was expected. We want to know what your mom said to you when she found out it was confirmed, and also what your dad told you.
Thomas: My mom started crying. She told me over the phone, “I am just so proud of you, Joseph. My baby boy.” Which is funny because that is the family joke because she walks in here and is the only one who calls me Joseph. That used to bug me to no end as a kid. Everyone else called me Joe and I told her to call me Joe. And she said she named me Joseph and loves that name so that is what she is going to call me. Everyone can relate. Your mom is going to call you whatever she wants. It was a funny moment but summed up the relationship and how proud she was of me. My dad said, “I’m just so proud of you buddy.” We call each other buddy a lot. Having that moment to tie in with my childhood was special to me.
DBN: Those days until induction are falling off the calendar. It just so happens the Browns are playing in the Hall of Fame game. With all the festivities that weekend, what are you looking forward to the most?
Thomas: I am looking forward to the moments with my family and teammates and my coaches at my party after the enshrinement. After that, I am looking forward to the moment I am onstage with my kids and my wife as we reveal the bust for the first time. My wife Annie and my kids are my presenters. My center and good friend Alex Mack came in second. Sorry, Alex.
Editor’s note: In the history of Hall of Fame presenters, there have been 29 sons, nine daughters, and four wives. Nobody has combined all three until Joe Thomas.
DBN: You knew your future wife Annie because she was a Wisconsin women’s basketball player and lived across the street from you. But is it true you asked her out in front of her then-boyfriend?
Thomas: It was not to be intimidating. We were outside at a restaurant and I saw her. I already knew who she was with her being an athlete we shared workout spaces. She was taller than most women being a basketball player and was cute and had it going on. So here we were in a casual setting and I did not know she had a boyfriend. It was not apparent. I took some time to get to know her and then asked for her phone number. I called shortly thereafter but no response because she was dating this guy. She did the appropriate thing. At that point I kinda gave up on it. Then things slowly deteriorated between the two, and in the summer she randomly called me. I got really excited when she called. Things kinda blossomed from there. She was a really good college basketball player and is super competitive to this day.
DBN: You were able to meet and spend time with HOF sculptor Ben Hammond while he worked on your clay bust for the ceremony. Players like you that have gone to war in the trenches require toughness and typically want to exude that trait. Yet, there is a rumor that your bust will sport a slight smile. Tell me that’s not true and about your day’s experience with Ben.
Thomas: Yeah, that is true. It’s a rumor because I can’t confirm or deny it. Ben and I were working together and he picked out some photos that he thought would make some good representations of me. And one is a well-known photo of me coming off the field holding my helmet up over my head as a salute to the crowd with a little smirk on my face. Ben asked me about that pic. I told him I was never a big trash talker during my career. I was never snarling toward my opponent. That smirk represents to me, “Hey c’mon. Give me your best shot. I know it’s not going to matter because you’re not going to get by me.” Being with Ben was an amazing experience and we spent about 10 hours together. It is just amazing how lifelike the busts are with his ability to take this big lump of clay, work it into a human likeness, and give it breath and emotion is beyond incredible.
DBN: You co-host a popular podcast called the “ThomaHawk Show” with fellow former NFL and Browns player Andrew Hawkins. Is this a fun gig, and who thought of it?
Thomas: I had gone on an Uninterrupted podcast. That then gave me an opportunity to start my own podcast. I told them I would love to do it but only if I could do it with my buddy Hawk. They said great, he works for us. We started it on a whim and had some extra time with my injury. We had a lot of fun doing it. We liked hanging out with each other and was the reason we were doing the podcast sharing stories and peeling back the curtain for the fans.
DBN: After football, you have done quite a bit of broadcasting. How did you get into this?
Thomas: My agent Peter Schaffer pushed me as I was getting closer to retirement to do some auditions. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do but had done the podcast and had fun with that. I enjoyed that and knew I wanted to be around the game of football. I didn’t want to commit the time to be a coach because I wanted to make my kids and family my Number 1 priority in retirement. After thinking about it and doing the auditions, I thought it could be pretty good since it keeps me around football but I am also going to be able to choose my schedule so I am not going to miss out on games or dance with my daughter. So it just worked out. It’s the perfect job for me in retirement.
DBN: Being an NFL offensive lineman means having to digest a large amount of calories and tip the scales at over 300 pounds in order to survive. But after you hung up your cleats, you trimmed down from 315 pounds to 261 and got jacked. How did you lose 50 pounds?
Thomas: I was pretty eager to lose weight right away in retirement. I knew I had to get on it. To lose the weight, you just don’t eat until you feel like you’re gonna throw up at every meal and all of a sudden the weight falls right off. I also started swimming regularly, working out and doing yoga. You have to have discipline. During the season I would have to eat 4300 calories a day to keep the weight on. I used to drink two big glasses of whole milk and a sleeve of Girl Scouts thin mint cookies before bed just to get enough calories in the day or I wouldn’t maintain weight. I always had an issue with maybe being too light and then the coach would chew me up. It was stressful trying to keep the weight on and eating so much all the time. It took a lot of effort to stay at my playing weight.
DBN: You are a partner in several Mission BBQ franchises. Is it your job to go to each store and make sure the food tastes right?
Thomas: The guy who started it went to school with my mom. He was also the one who signed me to my rookie marketing contract. So we were both from the same hometown. We got along really well and became good friends. When he opened up his first store he said one day he would love for me to become a partner. So as the franchises started creeping west from Baltimore into Pennsylvania and Ohio, it was a natural fit because I like to eat and they make great Bar-B-Q. Every day it is my job to make sure the menu and food is right. They send me whatever is left over to make sure it passes the mustard.
DBN: The current Browns roster features one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Although players do get recognized individually, why is it essential for the offensive line group to operate as one unit instead of five separate guys?
Thomas: Because they have to work together. They have to combination block whether it is pass or run block, most of the time. Their ability to communicate and block 2-block one, 2-block three, 3-block two. Different combinations are crucial and being able to have that communication and work together is the only way to have success for the offensive line.
DBN: Other than money, how has the NFL changed since you left?
Thomas: You are seeing a more wide-open game. They are realizing it is easier to gain yardage and spread out the field. And allow these fantastic athletes to play in space.
DBN: Joe, you are not just in four Hall of Fames. There is a stadium named after you. Out of all the former players Dawgs By Nature has interviewed, not one has a stadium named after them. When did they contact you about this being a possibility, and when you go to games do you get free nachos?
Thomas: It was a couple of years ago and was a special day in my hometown. The official dedication was a small ceremony because I had been really busy with NFL Network. I left there in 2003 and played football and did track at that same stadium. It was a complete surprise and a huge honor. I am humbled. It’s an honor to have my name up there next to an American hero like Kenny (Harrison). And as far as free nachos - oh yeah. And free hot dogs.
DBN thanks Joe Thomas for taking the time to talk with us and we look forward, along with all Browns fans, to celebrating his career as he enters the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio this weekend.
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