As Isaiah Thomas endured his first grind of training camp and preseason games as a rookie, he found himself thinking just as much about his family as he did football.
Thomas, a defensive end who was a seventh-round pick by the Browns, thought about his girlfriend Kelbi and their first child, Aubri, while he was at his locker, in meetings and even on the field between plays — and how could he not? Kelbi gave birth to Aubri on Aug. 22 while Thomas was fighting for his spot on the Browns' roster, and the anticipation and realization of fatherhood was never something he could simply brush aside.
"It was impossible, honestly," he said Wednesday at his locker at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. "Throughout the whole day, I'm just thinking about them. I was thinking about them during the Chicago game, on the bench like, 'Dang, I wish they could be here.' I wish they could've been at the house, watching us on TV. I was thinking about it the whole time."
Thomas has been able to keep his mind at ease in the last week.
Kelbi and Aubri joined Thomas in his apartment in Cleveland last weekend and have been in town as he prepares for Week 1. He last saw them when Aubri was born, spending three days away from the team to be in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his home state, for her arrival and returned to Cleveland the next day. The difficult but temporary "goodbye" only amplified how much he thought about them in the final week of the preseason.
Now that they're both in Cleveland with him, he's felt a renewed focus in the building.
"I can focus 100 percent on this while I'm here," he said, "and when I get home, I can give them all the attention."
He also learned last week that he made the Browns' final roster cut, clearing a benchmark not all players pass in their first taste of the NFL. His journey in reaching that goal, however, had several obstacles most rookies don't face.
At first, Thomas' preseason was off to a nearly perfect start. He recorded two sacks in his NFL preseason debut against Jacksonville, a performance every edge rusher dreams for in their first game. His stock was on the rise, and he knew he needed to keep it going after he was granted three excused days by head coach Kevin Stefanski and Browns GM Andrew Berry to be in Oklahoma for Aubri's arrival.
"It was a big relief," he said. "I wasn't surprised by it because I believe I'm truly here for a reason, and I know what I'm capable of. It was more of a finding and a feeling that I'm showing these guys that I'm meant to be here. This was the tip of the iceberg."
Two days after the Jacksonville game and eight days before he was set to leave for Tulsa, he felt a pinch in his right hand during one-on-one drills in practice.
The pain didn't subside as quickly as he initially thought, and X-Rays revealed a fracture.
He had no choice but to miss the next week of practice and the second preseason game against the Eagles, which bled into the time he carved to be with Kelbi for Aubri's arrival. He was missing more valuable chances for practice reps but was able to return to the field after he flew back from Tulsa, and since the injury didn't require surgery, he was able to wear a club — basically a giant, protective ball of plaster — around his hand so he could still play. He returned in time to play in the third preseason game, which was five days after Aubri was born, and led Browns edge rushers with three tackles.
Despite two strong preseason performances, Thomas still felt doubt about whether he'd crack the roster.
"It's impossible not to think of those things and circumstances," Thomas said. "You can have all the confidence and belief at the end of the day, but that stuff still creeps into your mind. Unfortunately, those moments did creep into my mind."
Kelbi and Aubri helped keep Thomas grounded.
Whenever the doubts trickled into his head, he'd think about how he'd always have his family waiting for him no matter what. He'd remember the joy he had in holding Aubri for the first time, and how all he needed to discover that feeling again was a quick FaceTime call to Kelbi or — soon enough — being able to see both of them again in-person.
"I thought to myself that this was for them," he said. "I never knew someone could impact you with so much emotion. I'd just sit there and hold (Aubri) and think to myself, 'I would literally do anything for you. I would die for you, if it came down to it.'"
With his family waiting for him at home and a 53-man roster spot secured, Thomas feels clear and focused as he prepares for the regular season.
He's peppered the Browns' two Pro Bowl edge rushers, Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, with questions about technique, such as how to adequately use a second pass rush move against blockers when the first move fails, or how to sell different moves to trick blockers into taking the wrong step.
"Growing up, I watched Myles and JD in college and was just trying to take things from them and other guys across the league," he said. "Now, I can actually learn from them in a one-on-one perspective, and I think I've gotten better at seeing the game and focusing on my job.
"I'm out there playing fast, and that's what I've learned from them — just doing my job."
The advice will certainly help, but the main motivation for Thomas has always come from his family.
The roller coaster of the preseason is over, and he has a newborn daughter and strong girlfriend to thank for pushing him through it all.
"It's been a lot of emotions," he said. "At the end of the day, things worked how I believe they should've worked out. I'm going to keep climbing from here."