Joe Thomas never thought he'd make an attempt to befriend Andrew Hawkins when he first saw him in the Browns' locker room in 2014.
Thomas, a seven-year veteran and one of the best offensive tackles in the NFL at the time, didn't have much in common with Hawkins, whom the Browns added to their roster that offseason to bolster the wide receivers room.
Hawkins was a three-year veteran who joined the Browns after starting his career with the Cincinnati Bengals. Naturally, he was going to need time to mesh with his new teammates after previously playing with their AFC North rival.
They also played different positions, which meant less time together in meeting rooms and other off-the-field functions organized by their position groups. They might've been teammates, but they didn't need to be friends.
"Initially when he came into the locker room, I thought he was a jerk," Thomas said in a virtual panel discussion about social justice Friday with Andrews for the Diversity Thought Leadership Series, hosted by the The City Club of Cleveland. "He didn't mix and mingle with a lot of guys, and he was coming from the hated Cincinnati Bengals. It was easy to look at 'Hawk' from my perspective — as a big, white offensive lineman from suburban Wisconsin, and here's this short, black receiver from the Cincinnati Bengals — and think we have nothing in common."
But Thomas soon learned that none of those reasons were true barriers to forging a friendship with Hawkins. Their positions didn't have to stop them from speaking on or off the field. More importantly, their race and backgrounds offered a powerful opportunity to share perspectives and build a life-changing relationship.
"We liked to be serious on the football field," Thomas said. "We took this seriously because we were providing for our families, and my respect for how he went about his business really opened up the dialogue between the two of us.
"All of a sudden, as you peel back the onion, I found out that I have much more in common with this guy than I initially thought."
Eight years have passed since Thomas' realization, which has led to a friendship with Hawkins that has motivated each of them to use their platform, create dialogue and push others to explore different perspectives about social justice issues. Both Browns alums, who host "The ThomaHawk Show" podcast, are passionate about bridging the racial gap that's historically been common throughout the country and bringing more attention to social equality and opportunities in sports, education and the community.
That's precisely what Thomas and Hawkins did in their conversation Friday with Dan Moulthrop, CEO of the City Club of Cleveland, who asked Thomas and Hawkins to share stories about their relationship and show how they've used their voices to address racial inequality through their football platforms, social media and other communication methods.
"Me and Joe, do we agree on everything? Absolutely not," Hawkins said. "But when we played football, that showed us that we are a lot more like each other than we are different. Joe would look at me and say, 'I know he has pride, and I know he cares about what he's doing, and I'm that same way.' It started there."
Thomas and Hawkins' bond allows them to feel comfortable when they speak about uncomfortable topics, which covered the near entirety of their discussion Friday. Thomas, for example, shared his first eye-opening experience about race as one of two white players on his middle school AAU basketball team, which played in the city of Milwaukee.
"I remember the first day going into practice and how everyone around me was black," he said. "I thought about it, like, 'Wow, this makes me feel uncomfortable because I'm not like those kids and we may not share the same culture or come from the same cities.'"
Over time, Thomas learned that those feelings derived from personal racism. As someone who grew up in a mostly white town, previously played on mostly white athletic teams and grew up primarily surrounded by white people, he had developed preconceived feelings about others who didn't have his skin color.
He soon realized that those feelings were wrong.
"People call it 'micro-racism' or 'micro-aggression,' but it's just racism," Thomas said. "It's people not even realizing their subconscious bias toward somebody that looks a certain way."
That's why Thomas doesn't shy away now from taking time to hear different perspectives, and he knows Hawkins is willing to share them.
Hawkins experienced several encounters with racism growing up — he was often the only black student in class and lived in Johnston, Pennsylvania, a primarily-white town. When he was on the Browns, for example, he would purposely add three hours to his annual offseason drive to Tampa Bay, where he'd complete workouts, to avoid traveling through certain areas plagued with racist history.
He knows how it feels to walk into public places and be monitored by security. He knows how it feels to be singled out in a predominantly white room simply because of his skin color.
"I can recall at least one (instance of racism) from every single age up until now as a 35-year-old," Hawkins said. "That kind of stuff is something that is considered every day in life."
"It's an exhausting conversation. It's an exhausting topic."
But Hawkins shares his stories because he hopes his perspective will change the way people think about his race.
He knows it can work, and his friendship with Thomas is one prime example. Together, they've been able to hold several important conversations encouraging others to take a stand on racial inequality.
All it took was for Thomas to take time to understand Hawkins as a person when they became teammates. Now, they strive to use their platform and relationship as a way to create lifelong change in others.
"One-hundred years from now, no one's gonna care about Joe Thomas. No one's gonna care about Andrew Hawkins," Hawkins said, "but I'm hoping it'll be our grandkids or great grandkids living in a better place, and they can look back and say, 'Hey my great granddad, Joe or my great granddad, Hawk, they did what they could in the moment and used their voice to make things better for us.' I think that's our responsibility."