Given his famously boisterous personality, it's pretty common to see Joe Thomas's face light up. But one memory makes it light up brighter than most.
It's a story that took place an ocean away – and then some. Back in 2010, a then-25-year-old Thomas was part of an NFL-USO Tour in Afghanistan. And while the Blackhawk helicopter rides to and from remote military bases were memorable, it was the reactions of the troops that left a lasting impression.
"They hadn't seen anybody but military members and local Afghans for six months," Thomas said. "A lot of guys would tell us that it helps them get through their tour. It gives them a little reminder of home."
Upon returning to Cleveland, Thomas raved about the experience – and still does to this day. His stories inspired fellow offensive lineman Alex Mack to start applying – "You have to be selected," Mack said. "It's hard to get on these things." – every year.
Mack was selected for his first NFL-USO Tour in 2012, and also participated this past summer. Like Thomas, he lights up when recalling the experience.
"Its a great opportunity to get out there and see people in their everyday lives and get to bring a little piece of home to them," Mack said. "They were just really appreciative of us coming out in our offseason and saying thank you – it was really fun to be out there."
It's that attitude and dedicaiton to those who serve that makes Mack a natural choice as the Browns nominee for the NFL's Salute to Service Award. This year's nomination marks the second year in a row that his name has been put forth by the Browns organization, and he's been a fixture at First and Ten military personnel visits since being drafted in 2009.
While Thomas and Mack are the only active Browns who have been on the NFL-USO Tours, their appreciation for the military is far from an anomaly. Head coach Mike Pettine frequently invites military families to the team facility – hosting more than 75 former and active duty military members for Memorial Day and nearly 100 more for a training camp session.
Both times, players were eager to mingle with the troops – even if that meant staying on the field well after a tough training camp practice on a sweltering August afternoon. And today, they'll get another chance, as the Browns are hosting more than 90 military guests representing all five branches at practice to celebrate Veterans Day.
For the Browns organzation, these are not isolated incidents – honoring and working with military members is a year round priority – and a big part of the First and Ten initiative.
The Browns game on Nov. 1 against the Arizona Cardinals marked their designated Salute to Service game – and that respect was on full display throughout gameday – from HM1 Reggie Burton, who serves with both the Navy and Marines, being honored as the First and Ten Coin Toss Captain to the more than 30 active Ohio National Guard members who were on the field pregame to hold the American flag. Plus, after the game, game-used items were auctioned on NFL Auction, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the Pat Tillman Foundation, USO and the Wounded Warrior Project.
Other recurrining initiatives, such as the First and Ten Hats Off to Our Heroes Honor Row recognize and salute military members during the game, in addition to providing tickets.
Citing Cleveland's large military population, Thomas also started a ticket program of his own a few years back – "Thomas' Troops" – to support Northeast Ohio military families who may not typically have much of a chance to spend time together. He partnered with the USO of Northern Ohio, an organization that the Browns have worked with frequently throughout the years.
"We've done a lot of military visits in the years that I've been here," Thomas said. "It's really special to be part of an organization that's willing to take time and give back to these people."