By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
Grit alone is not enough to withstand the challenges and pounding that NFL offensive linemen face with regularity. Some would say that it takes an innate malice, a mean streak, to properly deal with the leagues most prolific pass rushers from week to week—but brawn alone is not a formula for a successful career in the trenches. Consistency, tenacity, durability, intelligence and the aptitude to make others better are what sets Cleveland Browns veteran left tackle Joe Thomas apart as a very special player both on and off the field.
Described as a warrior by his head coach, Hue Jackson, Thomas has gone to battle for 10 seasons in the league, playing in 160 straight games never missing a play. Not one. A feat that he does not attribute to the discovery of a fountain of youth, but just good old-fashioned luck, durable genetics from his mother and father—and a weekly dose of yoga.
The Browns team captain is the last one to draw attention to himself for his accomplishments, but the club’s third overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft is surely a bright spot within the organization.
He just finished his 10th season in the NFL, all with the Browns, and also netted his 10th consecutive Pro Bowl selection, something only accomplished by four other legends of the game: Merlin Olsen, Mel Renfro, Lawrence Taylor and Barry Sanders.
When reflecting on the milestone, it brings a surreal feeling over Thomas to be in the same conversation as those men—all of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“To simply be mentioned in the same class as those guys is humbling,” Thomas said. “Barry Sanders is a guy that I probably admired the most. I remember growing up as a Packers fan and he tortured the Packers for so many years with how talented he was. I think he is still probably one of the greatest players that has ever played the game and the most exciting. He went about it with such a humble grace. It’s just incredible to see my name next to his.”
However, the eight-time All-Pro left tackle considers his on-field accolades to be one of the smallest parts of what he has been able to accomplish in the last decade, a quality that makes him the kind of player for kids to emulate.
He believes that the height of platform that he has been given far surpasses the surface of any playing field—and his actions have proven that, placing his name alongside yet another Hall of Fame running back.
Thomas was named the Walter Payton Man of the Year by his teammates this season. It marks his third time being tabbed for the honor. The award is one of the league’s most prestigious, denoting a player from each team who embodies what it means to be a consummate professional on and off the field, acting as a servant in the community and placing others before themselves.
“The Walter Payton Award is one of those incredibly special awards that is at the very top of the list of things that I am proud of in my NFL career,” he said. “As athletes we have a tremendous platform to make change in our own communities and I always go out of my way to make that change and do the most with what the game of football has given me. To be recognized for this is really special.”
Many of Thomas’ initiatives are geared toward impacting different groups of youth around Cleveland among others. He dedicates a countless amount of time and donations to impact 10s of thousands of children in need whether it is in the area of health, education or support during the holiday seasons. Thomas also advocates for a local animal rescue and regularly expresses his appreciation for the military through his Thomas’ Troops program.
To assist the Cleveland Browns Foundation, each year he participates in a golf tournament and charters a fishing trip.
It may seem hard to imagine how the hectic schedule of a professional athlete could provide enough time for a player to make themselves available in so many ways. But Thomas finds it hard to imagine not being involved when he recalls the selfless qualities that he was exposed to growing up.
“[My parents] made a point when we were growing up to always give back in a number of different ways,” Thomas said. “Every year around Christmas time we would go down to the local food kitchen and help the homeless and needy. I remember going to the shelter with my grandfather as a kid and helping make sandwiches for the homeless during the winter.”
“Those simple things when you are a kid, really come back when you are an adult and make a big imprint on your mind and memory,” he went on to explain. “You really see how important giving back was in their lives and realize that the opportunity that you have now is even greater. Even though I’m only one person, I can make a big difference in so many people.”
Thomas’ outlook never strays far from one principle—the only measure of a man is being the difference you can make in another person’s life. His successful career to this point has gone far deeper than the nicks and bruises that mar the skin of an offensive lineman. Far beyond the wins, losses, recognition and accolades. Thomas is a purpose driven athlete with his sights set on creating success for the families, friends, teammates and the communities around him.