CLEVELAND — Over the course of 11 seasons, Joe Thomas became masterful in the art of deflecting praise with a certain brand of humility tinged with humor and self-deprecation.
So it was fitting, then, when the former Browns left tackle and future Hall-of-Famer wore a Baker Mayfield jersey to what was something of a homecoming to pay homage to his impact on and off the field.
"I thought it'd be strange if I wore my own jersey since everyone in my family is wearing a 73 jersey," he said, laughing. "I wanted to represent Baker and show some support."
Trust, however, that this afternoon was about Thomas, who was honored during Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers. The team enshrined the number "10,363" — Thomas' improbably consecutive snap streak — into the team's Ring of Honor and celebrated a career that spanned highs, lows and everything in between.
"It's a very emotional and special moment for me," Thomas said. "I'm honored to be able to come back and do some pretty special things for me today, and it makes me feel pretty good about some of the things I was able to do here throughout my career."
Thomas, who retired in March after 10 Pro Bowls, is the first player to be acknowledged in the Ring of Honor since it was established in 2010 and was the game's honorary Dawg Pound Captain.
He returns to a Browns team that looks like it might be on the upswing thanks partly because of Mayfield, the rookie quarterback and No. 1 NFL Draft pick, and a defense that leads the league in takeaways. The beginnings of a potential turnaround, he joked, are a "direct correlation" to his departure. "They finally got rid of the dead weight at left tackle," he said.
Thomas, of course, was a constant force — on the field and in the community — despite constant change and some of the darkest years in franchise history. He was also known for his toughness and resolve to play despite a litany of nagging injuries that finally took their toll when he suffered a season-ending triceps injury last October.
Since then, Thomas said he's lost 50 pounds and has dabbled in various media roles. Most importantly, he's cherishing more time with his family and wife, Annie. "I've decided to do a lot of things, including having a new baby this fall," he said. "It's been really busy from that standpoint, but I got a taste of it watching the team a little bit last year after I got hurt.
"It's fun watching this team grow," he continued. "It's fun watching these young guys all of the sudden click. Now that they've put a couple wins together, it's cool."
Someday, Thomas will almost certainly be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame down the road in Canton. For now, he's perfectly content with focusing on the moment at hand and watching his former teammates build upon a foundation he helped lay over the years.
"I'm proud of going out there and giving me all every Sunday and doing everything I can to try and help the team win and turn it around," he said. "And, even though I wasn't physically on the team when we turned it around, I feel like the turnaround has happened this year and I hope that I was part of building the foundation."