Joe Thomas was always a winner. He was used to good things happening. He went through his sporting life without a black cloud floating overhead.
Then he spent 11 years playing left tackle for the Browns, falling in love with and immersing himself in Northeast Ohio. Three years after his retirement, he’s become one of the Great Lakes beer-drinking, Cleveland T-shirt-wearing, expect-the-worst Browns fans.
The only difference is he’s headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in two years.
So Thomas is basking in the unusual success of the season and the thrilling 48-37 wild card win over the Steelers on Sunday night.
“I am overjoyed,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Chronicle-Telegram. “It’s hard to put into words, because it’s very similar to how the game started in the first quarter last weekend. It’s like, I know what I’m seeing but my brain had been programmed in such a way that I don’t know how to react to this because this is not reality. This is like an alternate universe that I’m not prepared for.
“And so it’s just nothing but pure joy. I’ve just been on cloud 9 really since they beat the Steelers in Week 17. And then it’s just been this fog. It’s been just greatness. It’s just so fun.”
The playoff victory over the Steelers felt like a turning point for the organization. The Browns don’t win in Pittsburgh. They don’t win playoff games. They don’t shock the world.
Even though all that happened and plenty of demons were exorcised with the first playoff appearance since 2002, the first playoff win since Jan. 1. 1995, the first road playoff win since 1969 and the first playoff win in three tries against the hated Steelers, Thomas isn’t remotely ready to declare dead the dread that comes with being a Browns fan.
“It’s gonna take a lot of years, man,” he said. “Shoot, I don’t have to lecture Browns fans on the heartbreak of AFC championships, The Drive and all those things that happened in the history. But I think if you’ve been a Browns fan for any length of time, you’ve built up this callus on your heart. You’ve been heartbroken and the team has found a way to disappoint you when you thought, ‘There’s no way we can lose this one. This game’s over,’ so many times and it’s hurt so bad. Like a scorned lover, you won’t love the same way ever again for fear of being heartbroken in that manner.”
So the messages of doom sent Sundays on the text chains with buddies aren’t going anywhere?
“It’s that defense mechanism that fans have built up over the years, and that I’ve built up,” Thomas said. “I was not part of The Drive or The Fumble or any of those things, but just in my career when we were leading the AFC North at (6-3) in 2014 and then we just screwed it up and let it slide away and we lost almost every game the rest of the season and finished 7-9.”
He proceeded to recount a painful loss to the Patriots in 2013 when they blew a 12-point lead in the final 61 seconds as Fozzy Whittaker couldn’t recover an onside kick.
“That was the heartbreaker,” Thomas said. “Because I hated the Patriots so much. I hated the Ravens, I hated the Steelers, but the Patriots, I had a special hate in my heart for them.
“The impossible have always happened to the Browns. So you build up this defense mechanism because you don’t want that feeling again of the heartbreak. And so I feel the same way, too. It’s like, ‘Uh, they’re going to blow it.’ You want to talk yourself into they’re going to blow it until it’s actually over over, so that you’re not hurt.”
The 17-season playoff drought covered the length of Thomas’ career, which began in 2007. One of the greatest Browns ever, and certainly the best since the return in 1999, never got to experience what rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills already has.
Thomas insists his joy isn’t interrupted by a feeling of missing out.
“Um, when I talk to some of my buddies that are on the team, like Joel (Bitonio), or when people ask me about it I think about it for a brief moment,” he said. “But one of the things that I think has helped me in retirement is I’ve never looked back with regret or what if. Once I hung up the cleats, the very next day I saw myself as a fan, not a player anymore.
“I think so many guys hold onto, hey, I’m still a player, I can still do it. You have that mentality that’s hard to get away from, and I think it leads to a lot of emotional hardship maybe. Whereas me, I’m groovy as a fan and I don’t really think about all that stuff, that woulda, coulda, shoulda.”
That’s the only healthy approach given the hell he went through while playing 10,363 consecutive snaps. After going 10-6 as a rookie but missing the playoffs, Thomas never had another winning season. He experienced five coaching changes and constant turnover at quarterback.
It was enough to make the No. 3 draft pick who had huge success from the day he started playing in seventh grade expect the worst — even when the Browns were up 28-0 in the first quarter in Pittsburgh.
“It was somewhere after the (Eric) Mangini regime,” he said of crossing over to the dark side. “Well, I can’t blame him directly, but certainly that was about the time in my career where I was like, man, this sucks, what the hell? We’re always losing. You tell me all I have to do is work hard and we’re going to win. All I have to do is be tough. No, no, that’s not the way it works.
“But it really made me a definite, true Cleveland Browns fan to be able to go through that heartbreak and get my heart hardened the way a true Browns fan has.”
When Thomas isn’t yelling at the TV during Browns games — his wife and four kids quit watching with him — he does work for NFL Network and Browns media. He said nothing can be assumed but he’s confident the good days are only beginning.
“That’s one of the most enjoyable things for me personally watching this team grow and turn into a true team this season is the notion in my head that this is not a team that has been built with overnight free agents for a one-year, make-or-break run,” Thomas said. “This is a team that was built the right way by (GM) Andrew Berry and company. Built a great foundation of values and principles and core characteristics by (coach) Kevin Stefanski, full of young, talented players at all the right positions. That’s not a guarantee. But there’s a great opportunity for this team to be contenders year in and year out for a long time.”
First things first: a chance to knock off the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
“It’s a tall task but I think they’re up to the job,” he said. “And I think this is a team that relishes the underdog role and I think the big benefit is the running game. They can control the clock and try to keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline.”