Club 46

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Club 46: How Joe Thomas realized he was a different kind of elite athlete

Thomas knew from an early age he had legendary talents

Joe Thomas knew he was a different breed of an athlete as soon as he started playing tackle football with his neighbors as a young boy.

Thomas, who was born in Brookfield, Wisconsin, was always the biggest kid of his friend group. That helped with being able to reach over everyone to make a catch or elude a tackle. Thomas couldn't be stopped no matter where he played on the field.

His size also led to a lot of, well, injuries.

Not to him, though. Thomas often sent friends home crying in pain. He was a brick wall, after all, and his friends almost always received the brunt of the pain in any sort of collision.

"I always knew that I was different because I kept hurting my friends," he said. "My poor next door neighbor ... I think every time we played, his mom had to take him to the hospital when I was done. I broke his collarbone. I broke his fingers. I gave him a concussion. 

"I realized I was bigger than people pretty early, and I can keep up with them athletically."

That observation remained true for most of Thomas' sparkling athletic career, which included 11 seasons and 10 Pro Bowls with the Cleveland Browns. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest offensive linemen of all time, and his streak of 10,363 consecutive snaps played, which started his rookie season and ended in his final season in 2017, is the longest streak in NFL history since the league began recording snap counts in 1999.

But before there was Joe Thomas, the perennial Pro Football Hall of Famer, there was Joe Thomas, the big kid from Wisconsin that every football coach wanted on their team.

He had to wait, however, until he could start a football career outside of games in the backyard. Football players in Thomas' hometown didn't start playing in recreational leagues until fifth grade, but his mom didn't want him to start playing until seventh grade — she didn't want Thomas to get hurt.

"Which is kind of funny," Thomas said, "because I never got hurt."

Thomas primarily played fullback and tight end when he could finally strap on the pads and was dominant from the start. He was nearly impossible to tackle every time he touched the ball, and that often led to troves of angry parents who questioned whether he was under the weight limit for the league.

So in the middle of Thomas' first season, the league commissioner brought a scale and weighed him for all of the angry parents to see. 

The weight limit was 140 pounds. Thomas, who was 6-foot-2, weighed in at 139.

"I knew that I was maybe better and stronger than kids in seventh and eighth grade," he said, "but I had no idea how that would translate."

The Cleveland Browns Presents: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football

He got that answer his freshman year in high school. He was 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds and had no longer had to worry about a weight limit. As Thomas got bigger in high school, he received more scholarship offers and soon became one of the top recruits in the country. He could take his pick on where to play college football.

At first, he thought he'd love to attend college out of his home state. He had rarely traveled outside Wisconsin, and he viewed college as an opportunity to see another part of the country. But when he finally began to make visits to Colorado State, Nebraska, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, he actually thought the opposite.

Wisconsin was in Thomas' blood. He was made for Madison.

"I started getting that feeling of like, 'Wow, now I know why I love the things that I see every day at Wisconsin so much,'" he said. "I think it was that finally learning a lot about what Wisconsin was more than just, 'Hey, it's a football team I like to cheer for.' That made me realize that this is the place for me."

Thomas began rising up the depth chart only a few days into his first fall camp. Coach Barry Alvarez slotted him at tackle and quickly realized how much of a force Thomas could be when he began winning pass rush battles against some of his top seniors. Alvarez still wanted to give him time to develop, but he also wanted to use him as an asset.

So Thomas became the first true freshman to play under Alvarez. He was the backup tackle to begin the season and received playing time as the third tight end in jumbo sets. 

By his sophomore season, Thomas was ready to see the field for every snap. By his junior year, scouts were ready to slap a first-round label on him.

Thomas, though, never believed that. He was always full of self-doubt, which fueled him to get better. He kept his vision focused on each day at a time, but at the end of his third college season, his offensive line coach gave him advice.

"Hey, I think you should petition the board, just to see where you're at," he told him. He wanted Thomas to see what scouts were thinking about him, and Thomas was stunned.

"Wait, what?" he said. "Like, to go out to the draft?"

"A lot of these scouts that are coming in are saying that you're going to be a first-round draft pick." 

Thomas' jaw hit the floor.

"What?"

Thomas had the talent to go to the NFL after his junior season and become a star.

One play, though, nearly changed all of that. 

It happened in the Auburn Capital One Bowl. Thomas wasn't even playing as an offensive lineman — he was at defensive end. Wisconsin needed him to play defense due to injuries, and Thomas always wanted to be available for anything the team needed. He was an Iron Man, after all, and had never suffered a major injury in his career. He could take on anything.

Within his first few defensive snaps, Thomas was done for the game. He angled himself to attempt to make a tackle on the running back, and his knee buckled. He suffered a torn ACL.

His first-round draft status, at least for the 2006 draft, was no longer a foregone conclusion.

"I'm crying, my parents are crying, and I'm like, 'Did I die?'" Thomas said. "I really had that feeling, like, maybe I'm dead, because I just didn't know at that point."

Thomas elected to stay for his senior season. He wanted to prove at the college level that his ACL injury wasn't going to stop him from becoming one of the best offensive linemen in the country, and he used the injury as motivation to get even better. 

When he couldn't do lower-body workouts after surgery, he doubled down on his upper body strength. He put in more effort to gain healthy weight and become an even stiffer offensive lineman, and it paid off. He rehabbed in time to open the season and became the starter for each game in his final season.

Thomas knocked his recovery out of the park. He was truly built differently, and NFL teams took even more notice. He was going to be a star, and whichever team would draft him first was going to have a legendary player for years to come.

"I knew that just by focusing on being a great teammate and being the best left tackle that I could be," he said, "that stuff would take care of itself down the line."

In Cleveland, it did.

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