He was their rock through a million Sundays in Cleveland.
Now he’s gone.
The ultra-reliable left tackle who announced his retirement from the Browns on Wednesday after 11 pristine seasons.
Joe Thomas. The selfless bookend who never allowed his spirit to be broken through wave after wave of on-field defeats and disappointment.
Joe Thomas. The immovable object tasked with protecting roughly 475 signal-callers during his Browns tenure — a grueling span that saw him toil away as one quarterback after the next unfurled noodle-armed interceptions and wayward anti-darts into the winds off Lake Erie. If only Joe Thomas could have lined up under center.
Chosen by the Browns with the third overall pick in 2007, Thomas turned heads by shunning the Radio City Music Hall green room, choosing instead to spend the biggest moment of his professional life fishing his with father on the waters of Port Washington, Wisconsin.
From there, Thomas would embark on a career that saw him emerge as an immediate force, earning 10 consecutive Pro Bowl nods and six first-team All-Pro selections despite playing for one of the least-successful teams in professional sports.
“From the moment I was drafted, the city embraced me in a way that I could never fully describe,” Thomas said in a statement released Wednesday, calling his choice to walk away from the Browns an “extremely difficult decision, but the right one for me and my family.”
“I am proud to call Cleveland home,” Thomas said. “The loyalty and passion of the fans is unmatched and it was an honor to play in front of them from (sic) the past 11 years. I would like to thank all of the coaches, teammates, staff, fans and everyone who has shown me support throughout my career. Even though I will be hanging up my cleats, I will always be a Cleveland Brown.”
His departure is bittersweet. While Cleveland’s on-field ineptitude has become the stuff of legend since returning to the league in 1999, it’s almost impossible to imagine a player like Thomas waging on so faithfully, autumn after autumn, with no sense of January play.
The ultra-rare Browns win over the hated Steelers and Ravens lingers in the memory like a distant fever dream; regular-season fare ultimately lost in the vicious collage of three-, four-, and five-victory campaigns. One-win seasons. Winless seasons.Joe Thomas has seen the other side.
For every Tom Brady and plug-and-play, toolsy Patriots charge piling up Super Bowl rings, there are thousands of players who will never know the thrill of winning at the highest level. Just as many athletes will never know what Thomas endured as his team, like clockwork, struggled at the lowest level. In a way few organizations could ever imagine.
During the Joe Thomas era, an endless flock of coaches and front-office czars rolled through Cleveland. To a man, they promised to revive the culture, cease the losing and bring light to a city tugged through hell and back. Each of those men exited with the job half-finished, leaving tatters for the next guy. But also leaving behind a player, in Thomas, who would invariably produce the same results every Sunday: mistake-free, high-level play. Zero complaints. Zero demands.
Cleveland’s winning days have been reduced to black-and-white cutups of power backs from the Eisenhower era and chalky YouTube videos of Bernie Kosar guiding Browns rosters to the brink in the late-1980s. The move to Baltimore left Browns fans in pieces, but the team’s return has been equally rugged.
Everything since 1999 registers as dark torture for this endlessly badgered fan base. Lost Sundays. Watching your kids grow up with no knowledge of glory.
Everything except Joe Thomas.
Joe Thomas gave Browns fans something to be proud of. Amid the endless heckling, collective pain and embarrassment of clinging to this team, the loyal people of Cleveland could always point to their shoo-in Hall of Fame left tackle.
A rare player. A rare human. Always.
Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.