In the midst of the final game of yet another trying, difficult season, Joe Thomas gave himself a couple of seconds to stretch his back in between plays. It was, as the Browns veteran left tackle described it, a “meaningless” game against the team’s top rival, Pittsburgh, which was similarly out of the playoff picture, to cap his seventh season with the Browns. An hour or so separated Thomas from a month of R&R -- “Other people call it the playoffs but I call it the all-star break,” he jokingly says -- before his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.
Thomas, who was dealing with back spasms at the time, lifted his leg across the other, placing his ankle atop the opposite knee. He bent down with force, too much of it, and heard the kind of “pop” an athlete never wants to hear come from his knee.
“I knew something bad had happened,” Thomas says. “I could kind of walk and it felt OK to stand on it and then I said, ‘all right, I guess I'll play this play and play it like I normally do.’ At that point you're probably not going to make it worse. It is what it is.”
Thomas played the rest of the game, a 20-7 loss that capped Rob Chudzinski’s first and last season as Browns head coach. An MRI shortly thereafter revealed Thomas had a Grade 2 tear in his LCL, an injury that would have kept him sidelined for four-six weeks if the season continued.
It’s a story, more than three years later, Thomas relays with plenty of laughter after lunch inside the Browns’ facility in suburban Cleveland. Ten years and 10 Pro Bowls later, Thomas is still a cornerstone piece of the team that drafted him. He’s come close -- torn LCL close -- but he still hasn’t missed a single snap since his NFL debut.
And now, after his fourth snap against the Ravens in the second game of his 11th season, Thomas is in even more rarified air. He’s at 10,000 and counting, an unthinkable accomplishment even for one of the best left tackles in NFL history.
“You don't let your mind tell you that you can't do that because your mind tells you a lot of times in any game, I can't do it anymore,” Thomas says. “You've got to push through it and kind of block out that part of your mind that says you can't do it anymore.