Injuries are an unavoidable part of playing football.
This point is especially true for offensive linemen, who face physical contact at the line of scrimmage on every play.
As a result, it is common for offensive linemen to miss plays, games, and even seasons because of injury.
However, Joe Thomas was not your ordinary offensive lineman.
During an 11-year career with the Cleveland Browns, Thomas played in 167 consecutive regular season games and, even more remarkably, 10,363 consecutive snaps.
Thomas not only exhibited dependability and durability, but also excellence in his play, as Thomas was invited to the Pro Bowl for 10 consecutive years.
We take a look at the life of Joe Thomas – before, during, and after his NFL career.
The Early Years Through High School
Joseph Hayden Thomas was born on December 4, 1984 in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
Brookfield is a suburb of Milwaukee.
Thomas learned about work dependability from his father, Eric, a banker, who never missed a day of work in 39 years until he retired.
Thomas’ mother, Sally, said about her son’s durability:
“He’s super durable. He does have the constitution of a horse. He was never really sick as a kid. He’s got his dad’s bones, which are freakishly thick. He’s just a healthy kid, and always has been.”
At six feet, three inches tall, and weighing 139 pounds, Thomas played “Pop Warner” football at age 12.
Thomas played fullback, tight end, and outside linebacker.
Growing up in Wisconsin, it is not surprising that Thomas’ football role models were Packers and Badgers.
“I grew up in the ‘90s in Wisconsin, so Brett Favre and Reggie White were guys that I loved. And I loved watching Ron Dayne and the run the Badgers had with Brent Moss and Terrell Fletcher and Darrell Bevell and Joe Panos – some of those great names from Rose Bowl teams in the ‘90s.”
Brookfield Central High School
Thomas attended Brookfield Central High School, graduating in 2003.
Thomas was a multiple sports star in high school (a four-year letter winner in three sports).
In track and field, Thomas won the state shot put and discus championships at the 2003 Wisconsin state track and field championships.
— Tracking Football (@TrckFootball) January 17, 2016
In basketball, Thomas was a four-year starter and named All-Conference all four years.
In football, as you might expect given his future football career, Thomas played right tackle.
What is probably more surprising is that Thomas also played tight end, fullback, defensive end, placekicker, and punter for his high school team.
As a defensive lineman, Thomas had 70 tackles and eight sacks as a junior and 85 tackles and 12 sacks as a senior.
Thomas was named the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Defensive Player of the Year in 2002.
Describing his play in high school, Thomas stated:
“High-school players tend to get more recognition when you play on defense. I didn’t really know much about offense at the time, didn’t know a lot about the technique. I was just over there (on offense) because I was a good player and could play both ways, but I definitely enjoyed defense more, and I thought I was better at it.”
While Thomas may have preferred defense, he was no slouch as an offensive lineman, including that he received second-team all-state honors from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and second-team All-America honors from USA Today, as an offensive lineman in high school.
Thomas also succeeded academically in high school, as he was a four-year honor roll student and named to the U.S. Army Academic All-America team.
In describing his humble attitude when being recruited by colleges, Thomas said:
“I never really expected to get a scholarship. And, then, the college coaches started calling. That’s when I realized, ‘Hey, maybe I’m good enough to get a scholarship.’ I never looked too far ahead. I always tried to enjoy the moment and do as well as I could where I was. I feel like I was always the last to know that I was pretty decent at football.”
Such colleges as University of Wisconsin, University of Nebraska, University of Colorado, and University of Notre Dame apparently thought Thomas “was pretty decent at football”, as they all recruited him.
Thomas ultimately decided to stay home and attend Wisconsin.
In deciding to become a Badger, Thomas in effect chose a football career on offense, instead of on defense.
“Some other schools recruited me as a defensive lineman. Wisconsin was very clear from the beginning that they thought being an offensive tackle was the best long-term position for me.”
Thomas played at Wisconsin from 2003 to 2006.
As a freshman in 2003, Thomas principally played as a blocking tight end.
Wisconsin had a 7-6 record in 2003.
In 2004, Thomas started all 12 games at left tackle.
Wisconsin had a 9-3 record and was ranked 17th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 2004.
In 2005, Thomas started all 13 games at left tackle and helped running back Brian Calhoun rush for 1,636 yards and 22 touchdowns and wide receiver Brandon Williams catch 59 passes for 1,095 yards and six touchdowns.
Wisconsin had a 10-3 record and was ranked 15th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 2005.
For his play in 2005, Thomas was named first-team All-Big Ten at tackle by Big Ten conference coaches and Big Ten conference sports writers and broadcasters and first-team All-American by Pro Football Weekly.
Joe Thomas did two things better than his peers:
1. Avoided injury
— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) October 12, 2019
However, in his final game in 2005, a 24-10 Wisconsin victory over Auburn in the Capital One Bowl on January 2, 2006, playing defensive end because of injuries to other Wisconsin players, Thomas tore his anterior cruciate ligament.
Thomas worked hard after the injury to get ready for his senior season.
“It really motivated me to rehab as hard as I could and put everything into it knowing that potentially if I didn’t, it might be the end of my career and I might never be the same player again.”
Thomas in fact was “the same player again” and even more, as he had his best college season as a senior in 2006.
With Thomas again starting all 13 games at left tackle, his play helped running back P.J. Hill rush for 1,569 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2006.
Wisconsin had a 12-1 record and was ranked seventh in the nation in the final Associated Press poll in 2006.
In 2006, Thomas won the Outland Trophy, awarded by the Football Writers Association of America to the best college football interior lineman.
— B1G Talk (@BigTenTalk) June 14, 2018
In addition, in 2006, Thomas was again named first-team All-Big Ten at tackle by Big Ten conference coaches and Big Ten conference sports writers and broadcasters.
He was also named first-team All-American by the Associated Press, the American Football Coaches Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Walter Camp Foundation, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Pro Football Weekly, ESPN, CBS Sports, College Football News, Rivals.com, and Scout.com.
In summarizing Thomas’ play at Wisconsin, Wisconsin athletic director (and Thomas’ head coach in 2003, 2004, and 2005) Barry Alvarez stated:
“He is the best lineman to ever come through here. Everything came easy to him. He was such a good athlete. His hand placement. His feet. He was always right on.”
While at Wisconsin, Thomas continued to be involved in track and field, qualifying for the NCAA regionals in the shot put and the discus in 2004 and 2005.
Thomas majored in business administration at Wisconsin.
After four years with the Badgers, Thomas headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
On the day of the 2007 draft, Thomas went fishing on Lake Michigan instead of joining other projected high draft picks in New York City for the draft ceremony.
— Ryan Fowler (@FreelanceFowler) March 14, 2018
“I didn’t want to involve myself in all the craziness that goes on (with the draft). I knew it was going to be an exciting enough time where I didn’t need to go to New York.”
Thomas learned on his charter fishing boat’s satellite radio that he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft.
With pick 3 in the 2007 NFL Draft, the #Browns selected Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) June 16, 2019
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) April 27, 2017
Thomas signed a six-year contract with the Browns for $43 million (including $23 million guaranteed).
Thomas immediately began to justify his value under his contract with the Browns during his rookie season.
In 2007, Thomas immediately started at left tackle for Cleveland in all 16 regular-season games.
His first NFL regular-season game was a 34-7 Browns loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 9, 2007.
Thomas helped running back Jamal Lewis rush for 1,304 yards and nine touchdowns, wide receiver Braylon Edwards catch 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns, and tight end Kellen Winslow catch 82 passes for 1,106 yards and five touchdowns, in 2007.
In addition, Thomas’ play, allowing only one sack in 2007, contributed to Cleveland ranking tied for third in fewest sacks allowed (19) in the NFL in 2007.
Thomas was named to the 2007 Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team at tackle.
He finished second for the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award (to Adrian Peterson).
Thomas was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 2007, as one of only four rookies to be invited to the Pro Bowl in 2007.
The Browns just missed the playoffs in 2007, finishing the season with a 10-6 record.
However, team success was to elude Thomas and Cleveland during the remainder of Thomas’ NFL career.
After 2007, Thomas was never again to play on a winning team, as the Browns posted records of 4-12 in 2008, 5-11 in 2009 and 2010, 4-12 in 2011, 5-11 in 2012, 4-12 in 2013, 7-9 in 2014, 3-13 in 2015, 1-15 in 2016, and 0-16 in 2017.
Notwithstanding the lack of team success, Thomas continued to achieve individual success his second year in the NFL in 2008.
Thomas’ play at left tackle (again starting all 16 regular-season games) helped Jamal Lewis rush for 1,002 yards and four touchdowns in 2008.
In 2008, Thomas was invited to his second consecutive Pro Bowl and was voted second-team All-Pro at tackle by the Associated Press.
Jan 8, 2008: Former @BadgerFootball player Joe Thomas named to the AFC Pro Bowl team. Thomas, of the @Browns, was an alternate, then named to team due to a player injury. He's just the 2nd former Badger to make the Pro Bowl in his rookie year, Alan Ameche was the first (1955). pic.twitter.com/6B3UpWZSTf
— Jack Eich (@jackeichsays) January 8, 2020
In 2009, with Thomas again starting all 16 regular-season games, he was invited to his third consecutive Pro Bowl.
Thomas was voted first-team NFL All-Pro for the first time in 2009.
In addition, in 2009, Thomas was voted first-team All-Pro by the Pro Football Writers of America, first-team All-Pro at tackle by the Associated Press, first-team All-Pro at left tackle by Pro Football Focus, first-team All-Conference at tackle by Pro Football Weekly, and second-team All-Pro by The Sporting News.
In describing the status of his play after the 2009 season, Thomas stated:
“I was pleased with the way I played. I felt like I grew as a player from the year before, which is always my goal. I think this was my best season. I improved in a lot of areas that needed improvement, and I stayed good and even improved in the areas I thought I was already solid. . . . I understand the game a lot better [than when Thomas was a rookie]. I understand the offense and I understand defenses. Coming in, you’re so concerned about learning your job and the things you need to do to be successful individually. Once that’s good, you can start to focus on learning guys around you and learning defenses and what they’re trying to do to you.”
Thomas again started all 16 regular-season games for Cleveland in 2010.
His play at left tackle helped running back Peyton Hillis rush for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010.
In 2010, Thomas was invited to his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl and was voted first-team NFL All-Pro for the second consecutive year.
— Vintage Browns (@VintageBrowns) January 21, 2019
In addition, in 2010, Thomas was voted first-team All-Pro at tackle by each of the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, and The Sporting News, and first-team All-Conference at tackle by Pro Football Weekly.
Before the beginning of the 2011 season, Thomas and the Browns agreed on a seven-year contract extension for $84 million (including $44 million guaranteed).
Thomas was thrilled to stay with the Browns, stating:
“I am just so excited that I get to continue my career with the Cleveland Browns. . . . [I]t makes me very happy to get to start and finish my career in front of the best fans in the NFL. I love the city, fans, and the organization, and I just want to thank coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to continue to play for this great and storied franchise.”
Browns head coach Pat Shurmur praised Thomas, stating:
“Joe is a steady guy, which you need from an offensive lineman. He’s a guy that comes out here every day and works. Every once in a while he can be vocal, I wouldn’t say that’s his nature to just be exerting himself verbally. There’s time within a practice or within a day when something needs to get said and he’ll step right to the front and say it. I have a great appreciation for what he is as a player and a man.”
In 2011, Thomas again started all 16 regular-season games, was invited to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, and was voted first-team NFL All-Pro for the third consecutive year.
Thomas was also voted in 2011 first-team All-Pro at tackle by the Associated Press and the Pro Football Writers of America and first-team All-Conference at tackle by Pro Football Weekly.
Thomas continued to excel on the field during the remaining six years of his NFL career.
In 2012, Thomas again started all 16 regular-season games and was invited to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl.
Thomas was also voted first-team All-Pro at tackle by The Sporting News and second-team All-Pro at tackle by the Associated Press in 2012.
Former offensive lineman and ESPN football analyst Damien Woody said about Thomas:
“From Day One, he stepped in and has been one of the top left tackles, and I’d say that right now, he’s the top left tackle in the game.”
Linebacker Paul Kruger cited Thomas’ long arms, measured at 32-1/2 inches, as one reason for Thomas’ success, stating:
“With his long arms, you’ve got to defend yourself earlier because he’s going to be able to touch you a lot sooner than other guys would.”
In 2013, the play of Thomas (who again started all 16 regular-season games) at left tackle helped wide receiver Josh Gordon catch 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns.
Thomas recovered two fumbles in 2013; he recovered 10 fumbles during his NFL career.
Thomas was invited to his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl and was voted first-team NFL All-Pro for the fourth time in 2013.
Thomas again started all 16 regular-season games in 2014.
In 2014, Thomas was ranked 18th (the highest offensive lineman) in the “NFL Top 100”, a list of the top 100 players in the NFL as selected by NFL players.
Thomas made the “NFL Top 100” in each year from 2011 (the first year of the “NFL Top 100”) through 2017.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine said about Thomas:
“He’s just so consistent. He works just as hard in practice as he does in the game, and it shows up. I always talk about, ‘It’s you against the grade sheet.’ He’s well into the 90s every single game.”
Pro Bowl linebacker Terrell Suggs said about Thomas:
“One thing about going against Joe is he’s very deceptive. He’s more athletic than he looks. . . . [H]e’s one of the best tackles in the league. He always gives me trouble. He’s a phenomenal player.”
In 2015, Thomas (who again started all 16 regular-season games) helped tight end Gary Barnidge catch 79 passes for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns.
Thomas, who allowed only two sacks, was invited to his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl and was voted first-team NFL All-Pro for the sixth time in 2015.
Thomas was also voted first-team All-Pro at tackle by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, and The Sporting News, first-team All-Pro at left tackle by Pro Football Focus, and first-team All-Conference at tackle by Pro Football Weekly.
In 2015, Thomas also received from Pro Football Focus the Bruce Matthews Award for being the league’s best overall offensive lineman and the Anthony Munoz Award for being the league’s best pass protector.
Thomas again started all 16 regular-season games in 2016; his play contributed to wide receiver Terrelle Pryor catching 77 passes for 1,007 yards and four touchdowns.
In 2016, Thomas was invited to his tenth consecutive Pro Bowl and voted first-team All-Pro at tackle by the Pro Football Writers of America and first-team All-Conference at tackle by Pro Football Weekly.
Thomas started the first seven regular-season games in 2017.
However, in the seventh game, a 12-9 Cleveland loss in overtime to the Tennessee Titans on October 22, 2017, Thomas tore the triceps tendon in his left arm.
— . (@r__kalif) October 22, 2017
Thomas was put on injured reserve and missed the rest of the 2017 season.
The Titans game turned out to be Thomas’ final game.
On March 14, 2018, at age 33, Thomas retired from the NFL.
The Years After the NFL
Thomas is married to Annie (a former University of Wisconsin basketball player).
Thomas has three children.
Since his retirement, Thomas has been an analyst for the NFL Network and co-hosted a podcast, “The ThomaHawk Show”, with former Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Thomas has lost over 50 pounds since his retirement, attributing his weight loss to swimming, a ketogenic diet, and intermittent fasting.
In 2018, the Browns honored Thomas by adding the number of his consecutive snaps streak – 10,363 – to the Cleveland Browns Ring of Honor inside Cleveland’s First Energy Stadium.
— clevelanddotcom (@clevelanddotcom) October 14, 2018
In 2019, Thomas was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Joe Thomas in one emoji: 🐐
Congrats to @joethomas73 on being selected to the College Football Hall of Fame Class of 2019!
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) January 7, 2019
— Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) December 11, 2019
In recognition of Thomas’ high school achievements, it was announced in 2020 that Brookfield Central High School’s stadium will be renamed the Harrison – Thomas stadium in honor of Thomas (and 1983 Brookfield Central High School graduate and 1996 gold medalist Kenny Harrison).
In 2020, Thomas was one of eight unanimous selections to the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2010s (as named by the Pro Football Hall of Fame).
Thomas is one of only five NFL players (and the only offensive lineman) who received invitations to the Pro Bowl in each of their first 10 seasons in the NFL.
The fact that the other four players – Merlin Olsen, Mel Renfro, Barry Sanders, and Lawrence Taylor – have all been inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame leads to the speculation expressed in the following tweet from LeBron James on Thomas’ retirement:
“Helleva career @joethomas73!!! Next stop Canton for you brother!!”
In addition to his 10 consecutive Pro Bowl invitations, based on his incredible streak of playing 10,363 consecutive snaps, and his six first-team NFL All-Pro honors in seven years, it seems almost certain that Thomas will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he is eligible in 2023.
Some tough choices were made, but this is my Cleveland Browns Mount Rushmore.
— Michael (@big_mike9169) May 24, 2020
At his retirement press conference, Thomas expressed his thanks to Cleveland Browns fans, stating:
“The passion, toughness and determination that you display on a daily basis is an inspiration for myself and for all of my teammates and all the people that wear ‘Cleveland’ across their chest. You guys taught me what it means to be a Clevelander. Playing in front of the greatest fans in the NFL is easily the greatest honor that I’ve had in my 11-year career. I hope I was able to make you guys proud in the way that I was always proud when I told people boldly that ‘I am a Cleveland Brown.’ The excitement I had for my team and my city never wavered, no matter what the circumstances.”
As Thomas was one of the few continuing bright spots on struggling Cleveland Browns teams, it is Browns fans who should thank Thomas for standing out for his dependability, durability, and excellence throughout his 11 years in Cleveland.