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Joe Thomas thanks Browns fans for showing him 'what it means to be a Clevelander'

Joe Thomas kept it his composure through the majority of his memorable retirement press conference Monday inside the Casey Coleman Field House.

It just got a little tougher when he moved on to the largest group he needed to thank: the hundreds of thousands of Browns fans who "took me in as one of your own."

"The grit, passion, toughness and determination that you display on a daily basis is an inspiration for myself and for all of my teammates and all of the people that wear 'Cleveland' across their chest," Thomas said. "You guys taught me what it means to be a Clevelander. Playing in front of the greatest fans in the NFL is easily the greatest honor that I have had in my 11-year career."

Thomas paused, doing everything he could to hold back the emotions.

"I hope I was able to make you guys proud in the way that I was always proud when I told people boldly that I am a Cleveland Brown," he said. "The excitement I had for my team and my city never wavered, no matter what the circumstances. It is with all of this, that I must say goodbye."

The future Hall of Famer spoke with media at the Browns practice facility.

Born and raised in Brookfield, Wisconsin, Thomas arrived in Cleveland at the age of 22 having never lived outside of his home state. As a rookie, he immediately seized a role at left tackle and played a vital role in the best season of the new Browns era, when Cleveland went 10-6 but fell short of the playoffs.

This was the Browns town he'd heard all about, and then some.

As his career progressed, the wins didn't quite come as easy, but his ties to the community grew stronger and stronger. Thomas and his wife, Annie -- whom he married shortly after he was drafted -- impacted countless lives as major contributors to the Cleveland Kids in Need Resource Center, the Providence House, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, the Cleveland Animal Protective League (APL) and numerous other organizations.

Thomas, now a father of three, bought a house and, because of extensive rehabilitation from multiple injuries, spent more and more of his offseason in the Cleveland area. A former high school basketball player, Thomas latched on to the Cavs and went viral when he pumped up the crowd during the 2015 playoffs. On Monday afternoon, he acknowledged a tweet LeBron James sent him after he logged his 10,000th consecutive snap was a highlight of his career. Later in the night, the two embraced during a timeout at The Q.

Just a few years ago, Thomas would have never known LeBron had acknowledged him on social media. In the final few years of his career, Thomas opened up a bit, both through his weekly interviews with the media and on Twitter, giving fans a closer look into the mind under the helmet of the player who simply did his job the best he could, snap after snap.

"I got good advice when I was a rookie to keep your mouth shut and your eyes open so that is what I did," Thomas said. "As your career wears on and you start to feel more comfortable in front of a microphone in front of a camera, you start to see there is a large, positive opportunity there for you to kind of get your message out here to the fans to be able to talk directly to the fans through the media. I just started embracing that and opening up a little more and showing my personality a little bit more."

A question that might have been a no-brainer to answer 11 years ago -- Where do you plan to live full-time when your NFL career comes to an end? -- wasn't so simple for Thomas on Monday. His love of Cleveland and strong connection with the Browns and their diehard fan base are part of the reason why his decision won't be an immediate one.

"We love it here in Cleveland," Thomas said.

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