CLEVELAND (AP) — Due to space limitations, Joe Thomas was given only 300 tickets to disperse among dozens of family members, former teammates, friends and other guests to attend his upcoming Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.
Not everyone made the cut.
“I invited all my Browns head coaches and quarterbacks, then ran out,” he cracked.
At least Thomas can joke these days while reflecting on a stellar NFL career that included so many miserable, losing seasons in Cleveland — he played for six coaches and blocked for 20 different starting QBs — while at times pushing himself through debilitating pain just to stay on the field.
For 11 years, Thomas was a pillar of excellence for a franchise that has spent most of the past two-plus decades in disarray. An iron man, he played 10,363 consecutive snaps, a streak believed to be a league record, before being forced off the field with a torn triceps midway through Cleveland’s 0-16 season in 2017.
He was a technician on the field, his performance shaped by an endless quest for perfection. Outside the lines, Thomas was the consummate teammate.
Thomas played on just one winning team — the Browns went 48-128 with him — and he never made the playoffs, the only blemish on an otherwise flawless resume.
“I’m not a guy who thinks about what could have been or things that were out of my control,” Thomas told The Associated Press. “I’m very satisfied with my career, but certainly the big hole is not bringing a championship to Cleveland because that was my driving force since the day I got to Cleveland.”
It’s not even arguable: Thomas is the best thing about the Browns since their 1999 expansion rebirth.
A 10-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro and regarded as one of the best left tackles in league history, Thomas was always there for his team and a city that embraced the Wisconsin native as one of its own from the moment he was drafted.
“Rare breed,” said Browns All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett, who spent his rookie season with Thomas. “He’s a natural whether it’s football, the media. He’s got a glowing personality. A great person. He helped me so much studying the game.”
Elected for enshrinement in his first year of eligibility, Thomas will be introduced by his wife, Annie, and their four children, before he’s the fitting closing speaker on Saturday in Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, which will be overrun by Browns fans.
During quiet moments this summer while planning for his enshrinement, Thomas allowed himself to consider what it will be like to stand on stage wearing his gold jacket in front of 20,000-plus fans.
He can already hear Cleveland’s rabid fans barking with delight.
“Obviously it’s really special for anyone to make the Hall of Fame, but doing it as kind of a home game is going to make it even more special. There will be a little extra smile on my face. That’s the part I’m most excited for.”
His wholesome, outgoing demeanor helped Thomas make an immediate connection with Cleveland. He was the guy next door, albeit a 6-foot-6, 315-pound mountain of muscle who blocked similar giants for a living.
He turned down the NFL’s invitation to be in New York for the 2007 draft, choosing instead to go fishing with his dad on Lake Michigan.
Browns fans were hooked.
Family over fame. It’s part of why Thomas’ kinship with Cleveland and its football-obsessed fans runs so deep.
“More than anything, they saw me from Day One as one of them,” Thomas said. “Fans want to cheer for a winner, but they want to cheer for somebody they feel represents who they are — their values, things they believe in, their priorities in life.
“They want to know that, hey, if they had that opportunity, if they were blessed with skills to be an NFL player, they want to see somebody out there appreciating it the way they would and giving the type of effort and commitment to their team and their city the way they would as a fan.”
Few gave more to the game than Thomas.
Despite numerous knee surgeries, crippling back spasms and needing pain medication in his final seasons simply so he could stand long enough to do weekly media requirements, Thomas never missed a single play in 167 consecutive games.
Pushed by the work ethic he inherited from his father, Eric, Thomas showed up to work every day. Every play. Every season.
But he paid a price. His body was so badly beaten that Thomas barely practiced in his final two years, opting for swimming, Yoga, cryotherapy and other treatments just so he could buckle on his orange helmet for another game.
“It sapped the love of the game from me because it was such a process of pain and anguish just to get to Sundays,” he said. “As much as I loved the game and my teammates and coaches and loved representing Cleveland, it was becoming hard for me to separate 99% of the game that I loved from the 1% of how crappy I felt and how much misery it was to get out there and play.”
The Canton induction is his Super Bowl, and he’s already given up thinking he’ll be able to stay composed.
“I won’t,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me is that I make sure I recite the speech several times so if I do start to find my mind wandering in kind of the emotions of the moment, I can kind of turn into a robot hopefully and read the words so I can stay on task.”
He always did.
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