For 11 seasons, Joe Thomas helped carry a Browns franchise that lost far more than it won. Now, those who saw him work firsthand explain the brilliance and tenacity that led him to the Hall of Fame.
While many of the other future members of the 2007 NFL Draft class donned flashy suits and filled the green room at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Thomas chose to ditch the event and head for the waters of Lake Michigan. The consensus All-American out of the University of Wisconsin didn't seek the glitz of the draft. All he needed was the phone call informing him of his NFL destination.
It didn't take long: The Cleveland Browns selected Thomas with the third overall pick. He answered the call on the boat, celebrating with those onboard before returning to shore to begin the next chapter of his journey.
The moment perfectly captured Thomas as a person while simultaneously predicting his future. The left tackle put together an illustrious career filled with first-team All-Pro selections (six) and Pro Bowl nods (10), making headlines with his reliability and occupying a spot among the NFL's top talents until a triceps injury cut his final season short. The only detail missing: the kind of significant team success that typically paves a player's path to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As it turned out, Thomas didn't need that team success -- or New York City, a draft-day suit or a stroll across the Radio City Music Hall stage -- to reach Canton. The Browns didn't win much of anything during Thomas' time with the team, but he's being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this Saturday as one of the best of his generation.
How did this Wisconsin kid cement his place in football immortality? What allowed him to serve as a perennial beacon of hope for a struggling franchise? I talked to those fortunate to encounter him in his 11 NFL seasons, from 2007 to 2017, and their recollections deliver an answer to the question:
Who was Joe Thomas?
'A different cat'
Phil Dawson (Browns kicker, 1999-2012): He came in ready Day 1. Before I ever met him, I could already tell he was a confident guy, because on draft day, unlike most of the other top picks, he didn't go to New York, he didn't do the green room, he didn't do all the fanfare and all the stuff that goes with that. He went fishing ... We've all seen the video -- he's literally on a fishing boat having a good time, and that's when he got the phone call from the Browns that he was going to be their No. 1 pick. For a guy to be that confident and stay true to [himself], I mean, that's Joe.
Josh Cribbs (Browns returner/receiver, 2005-2012): Joe was setting the standard of what it's supposed to be like. As far as talent goes, Joe didn't disappoint. When you don't hear about an offensive lineman, that's a good thing.
Doug Dieken (Browns left tackle, 1971-1984; Browns color commentator, 1984-1995, 1999-2021): At rookie minicamp, he came up to me, and he goes, "Hey, I hope you don't mind, I got your number (73)." I'm thinking, 99 out of 100 guys that came in would have no idea. But Joe, obviously, was a student of the game. He knew the history and things like that, which kind of impresses you. And I remember telling him, "Hey, I think I used up all the holding penalties, so you're in trouble."
From Day 1, you could just tell he was a different cat. He was ready for the pro game already.
Josh McCown (Browns quarterback, 2015-16): By the time I had gotten there, he had quite a bit of practice getting to know new quarterbacks. He was very welcoming, very cordial, probably as good at welcoming quarterbacks as I was [at] joining a new team. So it was seamless on both ends.
My favorite thing about Joe, from the very first conversation, was the belief that he had that whatever year it was -- I went there in 2015 -- that was the year they were going to turn it around and get it right. ... To Joe's credit, the ups and downs and some of the things he went through, he was always so optimistic. And I appreciated that.
Dawson: Joe's just gonna be Joe; he's a friendly, personable guy. He didn't care if you were the starting quarterback, the undrafted rookie, and in my case, the kicker. You could be serving meals in the cafeteria, you could be the janitor cleaning up the bathrooms. Whoever Joe met, he treated them with respect and was just a great guy.
Thomas' first year in Cleveland proved to be his best, in terms of wins and losses. The 2007 Browns -- boasting a mix of young talent and capable veterans led by unheralded quarterback Derek Anderson -- won 10 games and narrowly missed out on securing the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2002. The future looked bright, and Thomas was a prime example of why Browns fans had reason to feel optimistic.
It all came crashing down in 2008. The Browns finished 4-12, leading to the termination of coach Romeo Crennel and wholesale changes throughout the organization, sending Cleveland back down a long, bleak road filled with revolving doors. Through it all, three key figures remained: Dawson, Cribbs and Thomas.
Dawson: It was obvious to anybody who had any kind of football IQ that for the next 10 to 15 years, the Cleveland Browns would not be in need of a left tackle. It was just a staple of the organization. And I think through the years of the ups and downs -- mostly downs -- Joe and I formed a friendship around trying to do our part to represent the organization and handle our jobs so that the organization could go focus on other areas. I'd throw Josh Cribbs into that group; it's kind of the three amigos. We used to joke, "Joe, you go block people, Josh, you return kicks, and we'll see where we end up."
Cribbs: Every year, it felt like we were using the first-round pick to try to get another quarterback. Whether we agreed or not, because we knew football was the biggest team sport, we were like, "What's going to stay the same is us doing our job at a high level."
A technical wizard
Thomas soon learned every season wouldn't be as successful as his rookie campaign. With each disappointing year came countless roster changes, and frequent full-scale reboots repeated the cycle of failure.
Regardless of the mounting defeats, Thomas never wavered, establishing himself as an elite blind-side blocker. But unlike many other great tackles, the 6-foot-6, 312-pound Thomas wasn't noted for being a hulking freak of nature -- he was a technician.
Dieken: First off, he didn't get many holding penalties, which tells you his technique was pretty dang good. But the other thing is: You never saw his guy hit the quarterback.
McCown: From a technical aspect, he's arguably the best one to do it. Because if you look at his physical skill set, I would say he's not as gifted as some of these other guys that were mentioned. But from a technical aspect, nobody better.
Dieken: He was always on his feet. You didn't see Joe on the ground, trying to cut a guy. Joe always was on his feet and in position.
McCown: We always say, "Bad players find the ground." Great players are just never on the ground very long. ... He was never out of position, never in a bad spot, always right on his sets, and it's a credit to him.
John Greco (Browns offensive lineman, 2011-16): I always tell everybody kind of the same thing: Obviously, he was physically gifted. ... But when you kind of pair that with his technique, which is some of the best I've ever seen in offensive-tackle play, probably the most polished and consistent technique I've ever seen. His pass set looks the same no matter who he's going against. Some guys would see Von Miller out there -- compared to Terrell Suggs, probably a bigger, more powerful guy -- and you'd see three different sets or styles, or maybe they'd kind of panic. Joe never did that. He always said that his technique should be able to win against anyone.
"Coaches would say, 'Watch Joe.' And that was the easiest method for coaches. 'Just watch Joe.' " -- Josh Cribbs
Dawson: He kept a pretty low profile. He got his work in -- there was never a doubt about that -- but he was never showy about it. All you knew is, on Sunday, that dude was gonna be ready.
When everybody would say, "Oh, you've got it made, you're a perennial Pro Bowler, you can probably just show up on Sundays and be fine," he never bought into that. He always was ready, he studied his opponents, he knew all their tendencies, he knew all their tells. He'd know what was coming before they did. And when you combine knowing what your opponent's going to do and your attention to detail with your technique, coupled with elite athletic ability, I mean, that's why you're Joe Thomas.
McCown: There's only been a handful of linemen who have done this, and Joe's been the most detailed about it. "Hey, give me the concepts that are seven-step drops and let me write them down, and I'm going to memorize them so that I know when you're at nine-and-a-half, and everything else, when you're less, five, six-and-a-half." He would write those concepts so that when he would hear "bench" or "sharp" or "comebacks" or fill in the blank of a deep concept ... Normally, offensive linemen, they get the protection call, they hear that, and they shut off "X dig, Z comeback," because they don't even listen to that crap. But really good offensive linemen, great ones like Joe, they write down X comeback, it's a nine-and-a-half-yard drop by the quarterback.
And he would help the other linemen with this. Again, no stone unturned with his greatness.
Greco: He had a notebook. He would watch thousands and thousands of cut-ups of a guy's pass rush. ... When he would break down tape, he would go in there and just be watching the same cut-ups over and over. And he would watch the whole game or have it categorized by third-down rush or obvious passing situations. In his mind, it was like, OK, everybody on the field knows it's a pass. This is going to be my guy's best move. What is it? When does he do it? Does he do it on Thursday night? Does he do it at home? Does he do it on grass? Does he do it on artificial turf? Does he do it when they're up? Down? Third-and-short? Third-and-medium? He was like the original analytics. Before it was able to be spit out by a computer, he kind of had a Rolodex.
We'd be playing the Raiders in 2011 or whenever it was, and then in 2013, he'd be like, "Oh, remember that guy was with the Raiders, and now he's with the Vikings." So it's like, "Let me look back at my notes for that guy." And he had it, which was very cool. It was like, "Yeah, this guy's a big spinner. So third down, you've got to worry about him spinning inside. This guy's a big arm-over guy, swim guy, rip guy." So he had a book on everybody in the league that he went against.
Pep Hamilton (Browns assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, 2016): From week to week, especially when you're facing division opponents, you have to change up your cadence. Under normal circumstances, that process is driven by the quarterbacks. Of course, I had a say in it. But I would typically leave it up to the quarterbacks. "Hey, let's change up this cadence; we used a normal quick count the last time we played the Ravens."
For Joe, he really took charge and took ownership of the cadence. I didn't think about it that way, but the cadence affected him more than it affected anyone else, because the guy he was blocking was typically the team's best pass rusher. Being able to get off on that guy was important to him. Joe Thomas pretty much came up with the menu of cadences that we came up with from week to week.
After that experience with Joe, I went to (Houston left tackle) Laremy Tunsil (while working with the Texans) and said the same thing. "Hey, you've got some say in this cadence." I would always defer to the tackles just to get their input on what they thought about the different cadences we used, but they never took the same interest in having ownership and having input in that area like Joe did. It was really important to Joe.
A reluctant leader
When Thomas arrived in Cleveland, he kept his focus on the main thing: Doing his job at an elite level. In the locker room, he let his play do the talking -- until it became obvious he'd need to speak up.
Dawson: Man, any aspiring authors out there that want to write a book on leadership, they should just go study Joe Thomas, because they'd learn a lot.
McCown: At a walkthrough, I've never had offensive linemen ... You'll run a play in walkthrough, and the play won't go like you want it. You can get a sense that when a receiver jogs through his route and he breaks it off at 6 (yards) and it was supposed to be broken off at 10, most times, a quarterback or receiver says, "Hey, give me that again, let's do that again -- I messed that up." Especially the pros. Very rarely do offensive linemen do that. Joe, he'd say, "Hey, can we do that again? I didn't like how that set was; I didn't like my footwork." You felt this professionalism, this detail from him that spoke to the rest of the guys.
Cribbs: When we became the pillars of the team, especially under Eric Mangini (the Browns' head coach in 2009 and 2010), we had meetings as captains and kind of ran the team through each other with the coaches' blessing. One time, I got out of character and I got into a fight, like a scuffle, in practice.
It was embarrassing, because I'm a captain. So I remember that captains' meeting. Joe didn't really say much as far as the hoopla of the team, but he was always vocal in our captains' meetings. And he came to me and said, "Cribbs, I've never known you to be like that. That's way out of character for you." All of the captains looked at me from that perspective, and even Coach Mangini was like, "That ain't you," all from Joe's leadership.
"Joe was the one true beacon of hope." -- Pep Hamilton
Greco: He would hold guys accountable, which is what you want your leaders to do. I would see him talk to all the position groups, and when something wasn't right, he made sure to let the guy know. He wouldn't call them out or embarrass them, but if someone needed their cage rattled, he did it in a way that was respectful and effective.
Dawson: He's on the Mount Rushmore of the new Browns. Obviously, going into the Hall of Fame, you could make a strong case he's on the Mount Rushmore of the all-time Browns. But it was interesting, early in his career when Josh (Cribbs) and I were still around, Joe didn't really step out into that up-front role because it was already being occupied.
Once Josh and I left, I think Joe reluctantly -- because we've already documented his personality was just go to work and do your job -- but I think Joe recognized, OK, now I'm an established vet. Some of the older guys are no longer here. I'm gonna step out of my comfort zone and become the ambassador for the Browns organization.
I really respected how he -- he could've stepped in Day 1 and done that. He was a Pro Bowler in his first year. An elite-caliber player. But he was respectful to the guys that had been there a while before, and then he recognized when it was his time. And boy, did he step into that role and truly become an ambassador for the Browns to the city of Cleveland.
Cribbs: Coaches would say, "Watch Joe." And that was the easiest method for coaches. "Just watch Joe. You see him taking notes, you gotta take notes. You see what he's doing, ask him, and then do the same thing." He became a teacher while he was playing. ... It forced [Browns defenders] to take notes on how to be better, so they could learn how to beat Joe Thomas. If they could beat Joe Thomas, guess who else they could beat? Any other Joe Schmo, because Joe Thomas was the best.
Hamilton: Joe was the one true beacon of hope. And he represented professionalism even through a challenging year. I couldn't pay my kids to come watch a Browns game in 2016. But Joe was a great example for the young players that we had on that team.
Ray Farmer (Browns assistant general manager, 2013; Browns general manager, 2014-15): At one point, when I first got there -- we didn't have Joel Bitonio then, so it was just Mitchell (Schwartz) and Alex Mack -- and we would lovingly and jokingly refer to those guys as "The Wall Street Club." It's almost like they came in with briefcases and a Wall Street Journal, and they sat together. It was all business. It didn't seem like there was a lot of goof-off time. Joe has a dry sense of humor, but those guys were all about work. When you got to practice, when you were in meetings, you could tell they carried themselves differently than a lot of other people I'd been around in the business before I got to Joe. He definitely set the tone for how those guys operated.
A constructive critic
Thomas' obsessive focus on his craft gave him agency to police the locker room, whether he liked it or not. As he grew into a leader, he also demonstrated an ability to provide his peers with useful feedback.
Greco: Especially when I was playing center, he was harder on me. He held centers to a higher standard. He helped kind of mold Alex Mack into the professional that he became. Alex had a lot of the physical attributes and obviously was a great center coming into the league, but I think being around Joe really helped him take the next step and play at that consistent next level throughout his career, and [that was] why he was such a great pro. And I'm sure Alex would admit that, too. But I played some of my best football next to [Joe Thomas] and with him, and that's a direct reflection of his leadership ability and the level of standard that you needed to have to be in that room and play on that line. And I think that's what makes Joel (Bitonio) the great player he is today, too. He makes great players even better. He makes average players good.
McCown: My second year, we were playing at Baltimore. I was coming off injury, and Cody Kessler was starting the game. I end up dressing and I have to go in the game in the second or third quarter, they put me in for Cody. (Terrell) Suggs gets me on a sack fumble. We have a route called to the right side, Terrelle Pryor is running a bench route and I'm waiting for him to come out of his break and I kind of hold the ball an extra click. Getting ready to throw, and Terrell Suggs gets it in my backswing and knocks the ball out. I'm like, What the heck? From my back side? You're never thinking about that, because that's Joe back there, so it's like, What the heck happened?
So I get to the sideline, and I'm talking through it, and I'm like, "Joe, what happened?" And Joe was not mad or anything, but Joe goes, "Hey, you were at 10 yards." And I said, "No, I was at 9, 9-and-a-half." And he goes, "No, you were deep on your drop. You were at 10." [Joe was] very polite. And I said, "All right, that's on me then." But I was defensive because it caused a fumble. So, sure enough, we watched the film the next day -- and this is how technically good he is -- because when I pushed back, I said, "I felt like I was good." And he said, "No, his angle, the angle he took was not a 9-and-a-half yard angle, it was a 10-yard angle," like from the spot and depth.
And we look at the pictures, and sure enough, my back foot into my drop was at 10 yards. I created a short edge for Terrell Suggs, and he got the sack. And I felt awful because A) we turned the ball over, but B) because I'd let Joe down. And C) because I had the gall to argue with him. He's a Hall of Famer! And he was right.
So if it never gets told -- I think I said it in the media, but I don't know if it ever got printed -- but I was like, "Make sure people know that's my fault, man. That's not your fault." I owe Joe for that one still.
Greco: When I played next to him, he was always yelling at me to move back or get set, which was always funny. That was stretched across my entire career with him. He was very meticulous. I remember Alex (Mack), he would break the huddle and sprint to the line of scrimmage. Not only was he reading the defense, but he was allowing Joe time to get set so he could process things and go to work. I was more of a clap, break the huddle and kind of meander to the line of scrimmage. Because I was studying what I saw in front of me, but I'd never played center, so I had to get ready for the center to get set too.
I remember how [particular] he was about rushing to the line of scrimmage. He would always give me s--- about it when I played next to him, which was funny. But when I played center, he was really hard on me, because I was taking my time because I was studying the defense and looking at the looks. But he'd be screaming at me every play, Get set up! Get set up!
I had a lot on my plate. We'd scream and holler at each other. We were playing against Jacksonville one time, it was a tough game. We were yelling at each other in the huddle and on the line of scrimmage, and I remember at one point, we just kind of looked at each other and just started laughing. Like, What the hell are we even doing?
Thomas retired without a single notable team achievement to his name, but it was never a fault of his own. He logged an incredible streak of consecutive snaps played: 10,363, an unofficial NFL record. The number hangs by itself on a facade inside Cleveland Browns Stadium. Context isn't necessary -- Browns fans know exactly what that figure means and who was responsible for it. And as his teammates will recall, he was there for them beyond the field, too.
Hamilton: He understood what it took to take care of his body. I would always reference Joe when I was trying to get young guys to understand what it really took to be a pro. But he was always there. He was always available to play in games, because the most important ability is availability.
Dieken: [When he might retire] was something I was always curious about. Because I'm sitting there, and I got the record for the most consecutive starts by a tackle in the history of the NFL. And I'm thinking, This son of a b---- is gonna break it!
If somebody was gonna break it, there wouldn't have been a better guy to break it than Joe.
(At 167 consecutive starts, Thomas ended up finishing short of Dieken's record of 194 games started.)
Jason McCourty (Browns cornerback, 2017): When we moved there, I just had my third kid and I'm moving in with my wife, as well. And his wife was the veteran on the team, welcoming all the other wives and making that transition easier for other players doing the same. I think for him, it went so much further than just what transpired on the football field.
Cribbs: I remember Joe had a throwback '80s or '90s party at his house. Because we had one winning season, sometimes it could be a bad situation where guys clique up. It was different with Joe, because his invitation encompassed the whole team. And he opened his family, as well, to the team. We not only knew Joe -- we knew his wife, Annie. She was coaching basketball locally. They're both very tall (laughs). It speaks to the human aspect of him outside of the football version that we all know. Joe's this happy person that opened his family to the community and to the team. He bled accountability and respect. I gave him that in return, and that friendship grew because of it.
Built for an unenviable job
Thomas' ultimate win-loss record doesn't fit his résumé: The Browns were 48-119 in games in which he appeared. Seemingly everything around him was in perpetual flux, but he was steady. As a result, he ended up bearing the weight of an entire franchise that could never find the right complements -- and he rarely complained about the task.
Dieken: Did he get one playoff appearance? None? That's just sad, really. ... The poor guy, he was coming out of the locker room with the same feeling way too many times.
McCourty: People on the outside, people within, you knew what was going on in Cleveland was a lot more chaotic than what was going on in the other 31 buildings across the league.
McCown: [There is only] one [player made for what he endured]. Joe Thomas. That's it. He's one of one. People say that, but it's specific to him, man.
Dawson: I think the city would have loved him even if he hadn't done that, because they just respect dudes who go to work and do their job. But he's even more beloved now because he put himself out there and took the entire burden of the city on his shoulders and carried it for a good long while there. He's stated how hard that was on him, but he knew somebody had to do it. And he was willing to do it.
... When you factor in how much our offenses struggled, it wouldn't take long in a game where we were down multiple scores, so you're now no longer running the ball. Because you've gotta throw the ball to get caught up.
So what that translated [to] for Joe was, those pass rushers now knew they didn't have to honor the run. So they're just laying their ears back, and here they come, every time. And yet, Joe snuffed it out every time.
Greco: It got to the point where we kind of laughed at it. At one point, we had a sheet of paper with how many owners we've had, how many head coaches, coordinators -- and obviously, the infamous quarterback list. You just had to laugh about it. ... It was like, "My god -- you remember Connor Shaw?" These were all great guys. We're not dogging any of them, but talk about a revolving door, for various reasons. Each year, you just never knew who was going to be taking snaps and who was going to be in that huddle.
Greco: He shook his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Joe Thomas. Nice to meet you."
I remember thinking, Wait a second, this is actually happening?! and then just laughing. We were getting railroaded. For him to still be playing terrifically and to say that, I was just like, What is going on?
McCourty: Being able to see him go to work every single day, I think, helped me learn to be a better leader and a better football player. On top of that, as the year is unfolding, 0-7 and 0-8 at the time, I'm pissed off every single day. Even in my home life, I'm going home every day, and my wife is looking at me like, What the hell is wrong with you? I remember being in the facility, and I started wondering like, even for Joe, How the hell have you put up with this? Why would you be here?
I remember when he started speaking out a little bit, talking about his frustrations, I just had so much respect for him. Just what he endured and what he went through his entire career there -- he did it all with a smile on his face and working his butt off to be the best he can be.
'A warrior' to the end
As turmoil raged and losses mounted in Cleveland, Thomas remained the same unflappable franchise cornerstone he'd always been, collecting his 10th Pro Bowl nod in his 10th professional season in 2016, even while the Browns went 1-15. The seemingly invincible tackle finally became human, though, when he suffered a torn triceps in Cleveland's Week 7 loss to Tennessee in 2017. It would be the final game of his career, and the Browns finished 0-16.
McCourty: I had a very unique perspective. I hurt my ankle during the week of the game, and I'm not able to play. I'm on the sideline, and I go hang out in the training room just to get off my ankle. So I'm watching the game on the TV, and I see Joe Thomas get injured. He's heading off the field, and I remember (Titans left tackle) Taylor Lewan running up to him, saying something to him as he was exiting the field.
He comes to the training room. He's just gotten hurt, and I'm in the training room. And it is dead silent.
This guy, 10,000 snaps or whatever it was at that point. Nobody's saying a word. At some point, someone's like, "Man, I'm so sorry, Joe T." And I remember his reaction was so nonchalant. He was just like, "It's football, it's just part of the game. Don't feel sorry for me," in a sense. That was kind of how he always was.
Greco: I was in New York. I remember hearing about it and just being like, Man, what a run. He made it all that way, and to have his injury. And I remember thinking, first of all, he doesn't need to rehab to keep going. But that's kind of where my mind took me, like, I wonder if this is it. And then I was like, Damn, we're old. We always wondered if his streak would end on his terms, and one day, he'd say, "I've had enough," or is it going to be something like this that doesn't seem like anybody else can avoid, but he was able to do so for so long.
McCown: Oh, heartbroken. I think I texted him immediately. I always say a little prayer when anybody gets hurt, but especially my buddies. I just know how important being there was for his team. It was the utmost for him. ... I just remember hurting for him, because I know that hurt him. As a competitor, he wanted to see that team get over the hump, and they were hopefully starting to turn the corner and all those things.
But also, there wasn't a lot left for Joe. The streak was what was kind of left for him. So I think all of us close to him knew, once that streak ends, it's only a matter of time for him, because it's kind of what's keeping him rolling here. He was doing everything he could to keep his body right and his body healthy. That dude's a warrior, man. People don't know, but he wasn't feeling great those last few years, and he gutted it out. It hurt to see that.
Farmer: I'm 99.9 percent sure I was sitting in my house in Atlanta, Georgia, watching games on TV, and it popped up on the ticker that he got hurt. I was sitting on my couch, like, Holy cow, Ironman finally took a shot that actually penetrated the armor. It's definitely a sad moment when you see guys like Joe, who put everything into it, suffer an injury that sidelines them. In the moment, I was like, Ah, he'll come back. Then I had that second thought, like, I don't know, I don't know. He's more the guy that's like, "If I can't be great, then I don't want to do it." Definitely proud of Joe and to watch his career. Unfortunate that we couldn't move them in a direction where he could've had more positive on-field moments as a Brown.
'He showed up every day'
Given the chance to sum up Thomas prior to his enshrinement and the conclusion of his unique path to Canton, those with whom he crossed paths needed a moment to collect their thoughts.
McCown: My main message? Shoot, man ... It would be: Just show up. Just keep showing up. ... Joe did not experience team success, but if he looks up after 11 years and he can say, "Man, I was the best at my position in the league. The best in the world. Seven billion people, I was the best left tackle, one of these best left tackles in the world for 11 years." And that's just because he showed up every day. And he was consistent. And he was unbelievably tough. So that's what I would say, and that's what I would tell his kids is, "That's your dad. Your dad is one of the most consistent and tough people I've been around, and that's why he's in the Hall of Fame."
Dawson: Whatever Joe put his mind to, he accomplished it. From on-field performance, to leadership, to his marriage, to being a dad, to being someone in the community that served, to being a good teammate, friend. Everything he put his mind to, he was excellent. I think there's a lesson there for all of us normal people: Let's not commit all of our efforts to one area of life to try to be great. Greatness knows no boundaries, and that's what Joe Thomas is.
Cribbs: The title of my sermon would be, "The Blueprint." ... Everybody's not gonna make it to the Hall of Fame. Everybody doesn't have his talent. If you have his talent, you can make it to the Hall of Fame if you do all the other stuff. Everybody's not going to have his talent, though. But they can still be a good man like Joe Thomas. They can still be a good family man like Joe Thomas. They can still be great in the classroom like Joe Thomas. ... Things change when the lights cut on, because everybody can't be a Joe Thomas. But if you do all the other things right, I'm pretty sure they would have had a hell of an NFL career. ... He didn't just live a Hall of Fame life on the field, he lived an off-the-field Hall of Fame life, as well.
Hamilton: That's easy. He's consistent. Leadership is consistent. And that's what he represents. He represents consistency, and the way he approached the game as a whole, it was really how he approached life. And how he approached preparing to play the game that gave him a chance to be available to play at a high level from week to week.
Greco: If he won more games -- imagine if he was on a team like some guys are where all they do is win -- he'd be an absolute superstar. Everybody knows him because of the streak, the consistency, the talent, and it's like, "Oh my god, he played for the Browns, he didn't win." And yet, he's still a household name. Imagine if he won a Super Bowl or two or reached the playoffs, or played in a huge market. It'd be way different.
Dieken: I can't think of many players who played on teams that didn't make it to the playoffs who were first-ballot Hall of Famers. That speaks volumes by itself. Because too often, the writers don't understand offensive line play; they just look at the records of the team and say, "Well, this guy must be good."
Farmer: Talent is just the beginning of success for somebody. It's the everyday commitment to excellence that allows those that actually have talent to demonstrate it to the world. And Joe is truly the personification of that.
McCourty: I only got a short time with him. Only that one single year. But there was nobody that was ever going to outwork him, nobody who was going to outperform him on a Sunday. And there was nobody that cared more about his teammates and about his organization and city, making it something that was important to him, showing up each and every day. Being in Cleveland, being in that area, being around the people there, there was no player that represented what Cleveland was more than Joe Thomas.
Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Gennaro Filice
Illustration by: David Lomeli
Illustration photo courtesy of: The Associated Press