C-T Browns beat writer Scott Petrak has covered left tackle Joe Thomas since the day he was drafted No. 3 out of Wisconsin in 2007. Petrak has interviewed Thomas about 250 times during his 10 Pro Bowl seasons, but never like this.
They sat down last week after practice for a wide-ranging discussion of Thomas’ life on and off the field. Thomas sat on a staircase yards from the practice field, dripping sweat as he unwrapped the massive amounts of tape on his hands.
During the 25-minute conversation, Thomas touched on his fondness for Cleveland, desire to make a playoff appearance, what it’s like to be called a future Hall of Famer, the torturous side of former coach Eric Mangini, his favorite ice cream and his extravagant side. (Spoiler: He doesn’t have one.)
Scott Petrak: Heading into Year 11, how do you feel physically?
Joe Thomas: I feel old. You know, every year you put in the NFL on your body is a little chunk out of your physical health, but I think hopefully you make up for it with being more experienced, a little bit smarter, you’ve seen things a little bit more. So even though you’re not feeling quite as good as you were in your 20s, you’re still able to play as well if not hopefully better because of that extra experience that you have.
SP: You’ve been managing practice reps for a while. Do you feel any different than you did in Year 9 and Year 10?
JT: You feel worse. Physically, you feel worse. I would say the big thing is it just takes a lot longer to get ready for practice as far as getting your body warmed up and stretched and ready to go. And it takes longer to recover after practices and games. You just feel sore and tired and when you get older that’s just what happens. Bruises last longer and all those little things.
SP: How much thought have you given to when you might stop playing?
JT: Um, you know, awhile ago I decided that it’s just got to be a year-by-year thing because it’s impossible to know when you’re going to want to retire because of the variables that are involved. But for me personally, it’s all about am I healthy, am I playing well and does somebody want me? And do I still love it? Those are the key questions that I ask myself after every season. As long as those are all yes or good to go, there’s no reason to stop playing. But you’ve got to ask yourself those questions after every season and be honest with yourself.
SP: Has the ‘still love it’ part waned at all?
JT: No. Actually I love it more the older I get, just because I think there’s less pressure because you know what to do more and more every year and, for me, it’s the enjoyment of taking on the coaching side of things. I enjoy helping the younger players. But also I think as you get older you gain better perspective about what you could be doing for a job. Like, this is a lot of fun. You get to still play a kid’s game. I’m going to turn 33 this season and I’m still playing the game that I loved when I was 12 years old, and being around a bunch of your buddies, a bunch of guys in a locker room atmosphere is something you can’t get anywhere else in life for a job. So that’s really special to me. The older you get, the more you realize those things, you realize how special it is. And I think being around a bunch of 20-year-old guys kinda keeps you young. And I really appreciate that side of it as well.
SP: I’m not sure when I made the move to referring to you as a future Hall of Famer. What goes through your head when you hear that and read that about yourself?
JT: It’s really humbling. I try not to think about it too much. Because I guess I don’t even really know how you’re supposed to react. Obviously when I was a rookie one of my big individual goals when I came here was to make the Hall of Fame. Through 10 seasons so far I feel like I’ve done everything I can to try to get on that track. Certainly after I retire I guess we’ll find out for sure. It feels good to at least be getting closer to that goal than I was when I was a rookie.
SP: In the ‘E:60’ documentary, you talked about how you’ve made Cleveland your home. When did you start to feel like a Clevelander?
JT: I feel like the people here are a lot like the people that I grew up with in Wisconsin and Milwaukee. So as far as the transition for lifestyle and personality and community was an easy transition for me. I still think it probably took a few years of living here full time and being on the team and making friends before I really felt like this is my home.
SP: If you go back to Wisconsin when you retire, do you think you’ll come back here and still be involved?
JT: Yeah. I’ve been here a long time. I mean, the majority of my adult life I’d say I’ve been in Cleveland. So for me, I’m a Clevelander and there’s always going to be a place in my heart for Cleveland and I hope that I get to spend a lot of time here in retirement. Now I don’t know where I’ll be when I retire, but both my wife and my families are in Wisconsin, so it’d be natural to move back there, although we’re not sure yet what we’re going to do, I guess we’ll figure that out when the time comes. But I would definitely like to still be involved with the city and with the team when I’m done playing. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy and effort in the city and with the team that I hope there’s a mutual love and a respect that we can continue to work together when I’m done playing.
SP: What’s your favorite place to go around town?
JT: For me, being on the lake is probably my favorite thing. I really like being on the lake. I would say if you gave me a beautiful day in the fall and I wasn’t playing football, I think going to the Metroparks would be pretty awesome and I think that’s a really special area.
SP: What’s your favorite place to eat?
JT: You know, there’s a lot of really good restaurants, of course, in Cleveland. My favorite place is probably Mitchell’s Ice Cream, because it makes me and my kids really happy when we go there.
SP: What’s your go-to flavor?
JT: the mint cookies and cream is my favorite. It was a special they had a couple months ago. It’s not usually on their menu, but it was awesome.
SP: Commissioner Roger Goodell was a recent guest on the ‘Joe Thomas Hour.’
JT: Yes, yes, very hard-hitting.
SP: You’ve been a vocal critic of his more than once. Was the interview awkward at all?
JT: No, I don’t find myself feeling awkward ever, really. And my wife hates it. Because she gets really nervous and awkward and anxious. But for me, I don’t know, I just don’t have that in me. So I think it’s probably from my parents, they never get awkward with anything. It made me embarrassed when I was a kid.
It was fun. I think we both enjoyed it.
SP: Who’s your favorite coach? You’ve had a ton of them.
JT: Hue (Jackson).
SP: You’re not just saying that because he’s here now, are you?
JT: Hue is very, very good at X’s and O’s, he knows to push and be tough when he has to. He knows when to be your friend and make things fun. He keeps a really fun atmosphere because he just really walks the line really well with discipline and working hard and toughness and getting the most out of guys while also showing guys that this is fun. It’s football, it’s supposed to be fun, we’re supposed to play with energy and every practice should be fun, you can talk trash. He doesn’t let you lose the fun side of the game.
SP: Who’s your least favorite coach?
SP: Got a reason?
JT: Now, I really like Eric as a person, he and I are friends since then. He’s a very nice, very, very smart football coach. But we always said when he was the coach here, he’s thought of every way to make your life miserable. And that’s what it felt like. Every day we showed up, it was like, ‘That’s awful. But how did he even think of that?’
Like the way he would make guys ride the bike if you were injured with your helmet and shoulder pads and pants and cleats on. Like how do you even think of that? The mental games and the torture that he put us through, it was impressive. You almost wanted to applaud him, like, ‘I don’t know how you have time to think of all this miserable stuff.’ He was thorough with his punishments.
SP: Who’s been your favorite teammate?
JT: Good question. One of my favorites is Robert Royal. I always thought he was really funny. He kept things light and fun.
SP: Is Alex Mack gonna be heartbroken?
JT: Alex knows he’s my best friend. So I guess from a standpoint of like, who do I miss the most? It would be Alex. But outside of your usual suspects …
SP: Least favorite teammate?
JT: I’d rather not say.
SP: Who’s the best player you played with?
JT: Alex. He’s a beast. He’s even improved since he was here.
SP: Who’s the best player you played against? It doesn’t have to be a pass rusher.
JT: Aaron Donald.
SP: Favorite band?
JT: I’ve got a lot of favorites in the music industry. I like to listen to a lot of different groups. I would say my favorite all time is probably Bob Marley. I was a fan when I was in high school and today I’ll still throw it on and listen to it, I like it. It just makes you feel good. I listen to probably more country music than anything else.
SP: Old country or new country?
JT: Both. My father-in-law is a huge old country guy, so whenever we’d be hanging out together or fishing or whatever, we’d always put old country on. So I really got into a lot of the older stuff.
SP: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
JT: ‘Gone.’ By Montgomery Gentry.
SP: Favorite TV show?
JT: I usually just lay down and watch whatever my wife’s watching. But my favorite show right now probably is ‘Below Deck,’ it’s a Bravo show. It’s a dumb show but it’s very entertaining. Reality show on a yacht. Love that.
SP: You’re a big Halloween guy. What’s the favorite costume you’ve worn?
JT: There’s been a lot of good ones. I was Paul Bunyan, that’s probably my favorite. I’ve done that a couple times.
SP: What about Cousin Eddie (from ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’)? I’ve seen a picture.
JT: That’s right. That is my favorite.
SP: What is the worst injury you’ve played through?
JT: Torn meniscus and broken cartilage in my knee. That hurts.
SP: When was that?
JT: In my career. I’d rather not say.
SP: You played games with it?
SP: How important has the snap streak become to you? (He’s played 9,934 to start his career.)
JT: It’s not something that I think about, because I don’t want to dwell on it because it’s not something that … you have control over it but you don’t. So I don’t want to dwell on it. And I don’t want to make it more important than what it is. I think there’s always been a pride for me with just being out there with my teammates and doing everything I can to help my team win. And I think that’s kind of where it sprouted from. Now for me it’s important but it’s not something I think about. And it’s going to be over someday. I think it’s cool that it’s happened and people have noticed. But it’s not that important to me.
SP: Do you remember the first time anybody made a big deal about it?
JT: I think it was maybe year 7 or so. I knew I had never missed a play but I didn’t really think about it in those terms. We start talking about our end-of-game situations, where sometimes on offense you’ll take out your linemen and put little guys in for the old lateral play. And we started leaving me and the center in just so I wouldn’t ruin my snap streak. At that point I was like, this must be a big deal if they’re altering game plans to make sure I don’t miss the last play of the game.
SP: What’s your favorite moment in the 10 years?
JT: For me the most memorable moment was Year 2 when we beat the Giants at home on Monday Night Football and they were coming off of their Super Bowl victory. Now, the season ended up not turning out good, but we were still kind of riding the wave from the year before at that point and there was still a lot of energy in the city about the Browns. It was awesome. It really was cool.
SP: What would making the playoffs mean to you?
JT: They would be obviously a huge highlight. That would be for me the cherry on top of my career. It’s one of those things where minutely directly I have influence over that, my own little piece. But I never really try to think about it, because that’s a big-picture thing. I try not to worry about the big picture and I just try to worry about the little stuff I deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I think when the career was over, when it was all said and done, for me, it would be really special because I want to have that feeling when I’m done playing that … hopefully I win a Super Bowl, but if I don’t, I want to feel like I was here helping build the foundation for the team that went on this great run and made the Super Bowl and won the Super Bowl and made the playoffs.
I think for me, being able to make the playoffs would kind of validate what we’re doing right now, what Hue’s doing, what Sashi’s doing upstairs, the direction the team is going. And I think the atmosphere, being able to play in that one time in Cleveland, with just the way the city would be and the electricity in the air, those memories would be really special.
SP: You have a reputation for being frugal.
JT: I wish I was more frugal but I’m married with kids now, so they tend to spend more than they should.
SP: Personally, what’s the most extravagant thing you’ve bought? Is there anything?
JT: See, it’s hard for me to get over wasting money on something that’s not an asset. So I don’t think I’ve ever, other than like a vacation, I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything that was like not an asset, where I felt like, ‘All right, this is a lot of money but I feel I have something of value that will appreciate over time.’ Land, houses, maybe vehicles. But I’ve never bought a car. I actually have a farm truck, an ’07 Silverado with 150,000 miles.
SP: You’ve never bought a car? What do you drive?
JT: I’ve got a loaner from a dealer. For the whole career.
SP: That’s great.
JT: It is great. It’s awesome. That’s why I don’t have to buy a car.
SP: Have you bought expensive golf clubs?
JT: No. Under Armour has a deal with TaylorMade so I got a free set. So that was perfect.
SP: Do you have a giant TV?
JT: No. We’ve got like a normal TV. It’s like 48 or 50 (inches). It’s not crazy.
SP: How about a home theater? A bowling alley? Tennis courts?
JT: None of that stuff.