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Joe Thomas - Hall of Fame 2023

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Eric Thomas recalls memories from his son's famous draft day fishing story

Joe Thomas famously decided to go fishing with his dad on the day he was drafted by the Browns. Here’s how the story unfolded from the eyes of his father, Eric.


As Eric Thomas climbed aboard a boat with his son, Joe, and began a morning of fishing on April 28, 2007 — the day Joe was expected to be drafted into the NFL — all he could think about was if their cell phones were working.

The morning was supposed to be leisurely for Eric and Joe and an unforgettable father-son memory during the most important day of Joe's football career. Joe, of course, was considered the best offensive lineman in the 2007 draft after a wonderful college career at Wisconsin, but he turned in the opportunity to wear a suit and face the cameras on the NFL's draft stage in New York City for a fishing rod.

For Eric, however, it wasn't going to feel leisurely until he could confirm they had cell phone reception out on Lake Michigan. Joe's phone was the first device a team should call, and if that failed, Eric's phone was provided as a backup number.

"I was probably the only one that was nervous because I felt like this was the most important phone call he was going to have in his life," Eric said. "It was my job to make sure he gets the call. We were out there, and I'm picking up my phone every 15 minutes. I've got no cell reception. 

"Joe was having a good time, but I was scared to death."

The boat's crew, composed of Joe, Eric, a few other friends and family members and a two-man camera crew from the NFL, had to make a sacrifice: move closer to the shore and back near where they departed at Port Washington, Wisconsin, where the odds of catching fish fell dramatically.

The decision, of course, was an easy one to make — they all wanted to catch fish, but the real thought on everyone's mind was finding out where Joe was going to play in the NFL.

After initially traveling four miles offshore, the crew traveled back in a few miles. Eric checked his phone again, saw the bars on the screen indicating reception and took a sign of relief. The crew also turned on a radio tapped into the draft coverage to ensure they wouldn't miss a beat.

Then, everyone cast their lines in the water.

"Once I knew we would know what was happening in the draft and our phones were working, I was able to relax," Eric said. "And that's when we started actually catching fish, too."

For the next two hours, Eric and Joe were living a lifestyle Joe had missed as his college football career blossomed. Spring practices, the actual football season and school life had prevented him from attending the frequent fishing trips he used to take with his father, and he often had to skip out on some of the best trips in March and April, two prime fishing months for Lake Michigan.

"It was always like, 'Joe, can you join us on our spring trip to Canada?' and he'd go, 'I'd love to, but I can't,'" Eric said. "Or like, 'Joe, we're going up to Door County for some brown trout,' and he'd go, 'Ahh, I can't make that. We've got this spring practice.'"

So when the invite was sent from the NFL to enjoy the red carpet experience laid out for draft prospects at Radio City Music Hall, Joe instead remembered all the moments he missed with his dad because he was busy carving a path to the league.

Joe informed the draft organizers his seat would be vacant. He wanted to be on a fishing boat instead, but the league pushed back.

"His agent had just talked to the NFL," Eric said. "He told Joe, 'They think you should be there. It's going to be a great event, and people are thinking that if you don't show up, that means you've got a bad attitude and you won't be a good employee.'

"Joe was like, 'Dad, I've been thinking about this. This might be the last chance we have to go fishing for a long time. I'd rather be with you.'"

Joe was going to be authentic, and if a team couldn't see that in his decision to not attend, that wasn't of his concern. 

The league finally acquiesced, but with one more request — they wanted a camera crew on the boat, which Joe was reluctant to accept but ultimately allowed.

With a small crew on-board, cell phones in service and blue skies above them, Joe's ideal draft day had come to life. Eric could see that his son was at peace not only with his decision, but also with embracing the unknown of where his NFL career would begin.

"He was really enjoying it because it had been a long time since we had gotten to go fishing together," Eric said. "He kept telling stories about the times he was out near Port Washington, the time caught a 26-pound chinook, the time he went up to Canada with his uncle and me — all the fisherman type of stories."

Believe it or not, football rarely came up in their conversations that day. 

That changed, however, when Joe heard his phone ringing in his pocket.

"The boat went dead silent," Eric said.

And all that was left to hear were Joe's first words after picking up and saying, "hello."

"I'm thrilled, coach," he said. "I'm really excited. I think I'm going to fit in great with the Cleveland Browns." 

The boat was full of claps and cheers, but the call didn't last long. Neither did the rest of their fishing day.

After a couple hours in the water and three fish reeled in — including two brown trouts, a fitting catch for the day — Joe needed to navigate back to shore and hop on a plane to Cleveland, but not before he was greeted by a swarm of local reporters, eager to speak with him before he departed to his new home.

"I got to see Joe's first big media interaction, and I was just amazed with how well he did," Eric said. "He was authentic. He told them how he felt and how excited he was and then he told them what we were doing next — changing out of his fishing clothes and heading to Cleveland."

The day on the water was over, and for Browns fans eager to learn about their new draft pick, Joe's decision to spend the day with a rod in hand told them all they needed to know about who he was: an easygoing, outdoor-loving type of guy who was also pretty darn good at shoving away edge rushers. 

For Eric, however, the day was a lifelong memory of watching his son enjoy the final moments before a Hall of Fame career began.

"The whole day, he was kind of like a guy who knows his life is changing," Eric said, "and he knew these are the memories you're going to carry until you can do it again."

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