The group texts started because of football, but it’s moved well down the list of topics for discussion.
Recipes, restaurants, travel, family and hunting are among the most popular talking points for the fomer Browns offensive linemen.
“We had a great time, even if we didn’t win as much as we (wanted), but we played a lot of good ball and we had a great time and a lot of good friendships and they’re just great people,” Alex Mack, who played center in Cleveland from 2009-15, recently told The Chronicle-Telegram by phone. “So it’s just fun to keep those connections alive.”
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Joe Thomas relishes the “super special” bond he developed with his fellow linemen throughout his 11-year career as left tackle for the Browns. The relationships remain strong, cultivated by text conversations ranging from funny to serious, mundane to important.
“We just talk life really,” he told The Chronicle.
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The fellas hope to have something exciting to chat about tonight, as Thomas is expected to be announced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023. In his first year of eligibility, the 10-time Pro Bowler and six-time All-Pro is one of 15 finalists.
“It’s so awesome. I’m just happy that I was able to say that I played with him and was on those lines and got to see greatness,” said guard John Greco, who played with Thomas from 2011-16.
Interviews with Thomas and four linemates revealed a deep admiration for Thomas, as well as an intensity often overshadowed by his affable personality.
“You’re around each other all day every day, in the offseason you’re talking, you’re traveling together,” Greco said. “There’s so many big life events that are happening in a small snapshot of your life and you share those things.”
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While Thomas was an institution, playing a believed-to-be-unprecedented 10,363 consecutive snaps, the rest of the line was shuffled multiple times. Thomas keeps in touch with many of the linemen but mentioned Mack, Greco, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (2012-15 with the Browns) and left guard Joel Bitonio, who was drafted in 2014 and still plays, as his closest friends among the group.
“He is pretty charismatic so guys kind of are attracted to that with him, that he’s well-spoken, good guy, funny, and he’s a great player, so all that kind of creates that bond with him on the field,” Bitonio said Tuesday after his fifth straight Pro Bowl appearance.
“When you’re gonna have dinner with him or be out with him or go on a trip, you know you’re gonna have fun,” Greco said.
Thomas and Greco spent six seasons together without a winning record. The losing may have strengthened the bond.
“It sucked because we didn’t win a lot of games, but if you talked to anybody that was on that line and played during that time, everyone will tell you the same thing. We still managed to have fun and we kind of were playing a game within a game, and we wanted to be the best offensive line in the league regardless of what our record showed,” Greco said. “Joe set the tone and it was like, hey, listen, this is the standard and you either meet it and try to exceed it or you’re gonna be left behind. And I found that out really quick.”
When asked for favorite Thomas stories, Greco, Mack and Bitonio told ones that conveyed his determination to excel.
Mack was a rookie in 2009, two years after Thomas was the No. 3 pick, and complained about the coach harping on his poor hand placement.
“I was frustrated one day, I talked to Joe and he was like, ‘Well, how about you just put your hands in the right place?’ Just very matter-of-factly,” Mack said. “Having that come from a peer being, listen, you can fix this. You can just do it right and he won’t yell at you anymore. And just to have that level of excellence and expectation and then also do everything the right way is just such a great combo.”
Bitonio said he had a lot of great moments in which he recognized Thomas was a “freak of nature” but relayed an experience from his rookie season. Mack had been lost for the season with a broken leg, and inexperienced Ryan Seymour filled in vs. the Colts.
“Usually the center’s responsible for the calls. So he was making a call and at the same time Joe was making a call, but they’re like complete opposite calls,” Bitonio said. “So I’m sitting in the middle of them like, oh my God, what do I do? I just panicked and so I listened to what the center said. Joe’s not a super aggressive guy, but after the play he looked at me and is like, ‘Don’t ever effing not listen to me before the play.’
“I was like, OK, I guess I’m gonna pay attention to what my Hall of Fame left tackle’s telling me. The funny part, though, was after the game my mom texted me and she’s like, ‘Was Joe mad at you during the game?’”
Greco filled in at center against Jacksonville and Thomas got mad because he didn’t sprint to the line after breaking the huddle like Mack did.
“He and I had gotten into a shouting match at the line of scrimmage and I remember the Jacksonville linebackers and D-linemen laughing at us,” Greco said. “We had a good laugh about it later, but I’ll never forget that.”
He also witnessed Thomas’ softer side after a win in Minnesota.
“His daughter was there and that was the first time one of his kids was at the game,” Greco said. “I just remember this guy worked so hard and he’s getting emotional, so that was kind of cool.”
The memories off the field shifted to the annual Halloween party thrown by Joe and wife Annie, hunting advice and general knowledge of nature Thomas was quick to share. The friends see each other at weddings and football functions and some travel together.
“It’s super special because you spend more time with those guys than you do with your family during the course of the season,” Thomas said. “And you get to know those guys better than their family knows them. And you rely on each other for support, not only just on the field, but in meeting rooms and they help you see your blind spots.
“It’s funny to say, but they’re kind of like your spouse. You have that level of trust where they’re the only people in your life that are maybe willing to tell you something that you don’t want to hear.”
The group texts have evolved along with the people on them.
“Proud dads, proud fathers, proud husbands, that type of talk,” said Tony Pashos, who was the right tackle in 2010-11. “Joe will say what I love the most about taking my kid to get ice cream or what I love the most about watching my kid play soccer. Everybody shoots each other pictures of a kid fishing or doing sports. We’re very normal dads, too.”
And former players. Thomas and Schwartz will go back and forth arguing a football topic that Greco mostly ignores.
“I think deep down they’re competing on which one of them knows more about whatever they’re arguing about,” Greco said.
The feeling is familiar.
“Now we’re all part of it, like almost sitting in the locker room again,” Bitonio said. “Usually it starts with something funny or something outrageous that happened that someone wants to talk about.”
With his old teammates.