Back in college at Nevada, the media scrum awaiting Joel Bitonio consisted of a beat reporter from the Reno Gazette-Journal, a few students from the school newspaper and maybe a couple of cameras depending on the day.
“It’s nothing like Cleveland,” the Browns left guard said Thursday with a smile, “when you have 40 people in here talking to you.”
That’s life in the big city, and Bitonio, who will finish his fourth NFL season this weekend, has become a regular voice in the team’s locker room in a year that’s been hard for players to discuss.
As Cleveland prepares for its season finale in Pittsburgh — the Browns must beat the Steelers to avoid the franchise’s first winless season — Bitonio’s professionalism hasn’t gone unnoticed. On Wednesday, the local news media honored him with the team’s annual ‘Good Guy Award,’ which is given annually to a player for his cooperation with the media and for the way the player carries himself in the community and with his teammates.
“I think for me it’s more of a respect thing. You know, they have a tough job to do and I’m sure they’d like to be reporting on a team that’s winning like we’d like to be talking about a winning team,” he said.
“For me to go in front of a mic, I just want to be respectful. It’s a tough job, so I try and answer truthfully and respectfully as possible. I think being here for my fourth year, you kind of develop a reputation with them and the last couple of years, I haven’t really been to keep that throughout the season so this was really the first year in a while I’ve played through a full year and I wanted to be able to keep that rapport with them.”
While the Browns have struggled this year, there have personal victories for Bitonio (though he recently offered to exchange them for a win). He was named a Pro Bowl alternate earlier this month. That achievement punctuates what's been a bounce-back season after missing most of 2016 with a Lisfranc injury and the final six weeks of 2015 with an ankle injury.
Those setbacks didn't shake Bitonio, but they did give the second-round NFL Draft pick pause. "My injuries were freak injuries, you know what I mean? So people are like, ‘Oh, he’s injury-prone’ and, honestly, I've been hurt for the last two years, so you can call me that, but anybody in my position was going to be the same way,” he said. “It was an unlucky draw and, this year, to prove that I can stay healthy for a whole year … the thought was in my head and I was like, ‘Maybe I just can’t,’ so it’s a tough process to go through.”
This year, Bitonio has started all 15 games and been a focal point on an offensive line that lost captain and Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas to a season-ending triceps injury in October. Not long after that happened, Browns coach Hue Jackson pointed to the 26-year-old Bitonio as a leader who could help fill the void.
“He’s been really a bright light for us all season long because he’s so positive. He works extremely hard, as do the rest of the guys up front,” run game coordinator Kirby Wilson said last week. “But he’s been a leader, especially when Joe went down. He’s kind of taken that role of being the next guy up. He’s always encouraging guys and never negative about anything. Whether we lose a yard or gain a yard, he’s the same.”
“Joel’s an awesome guy – awesome guy to have in the room, awesome teammate, awesome leader,” center JC Tretter recently told reporters. “Coming off of an injury, seeing the amount of work he put in in the offseason to get back and get healthy and then go out there and play to the level he is playing at has been impressive. He’s a very important part of the team both on the field and off the field. He's a pro’s pro and truly a perfect example of how you want to see guys act and guys perform at this level.”
Bitonio has embraced that role, whether it’s on the field or addressing reporters in the locker room.
“You just try and lead by example. We have players’ meetings and captains’ meetings on Fridays, you try and take a lead in that process,” he said. “We just try to show the guys what’s the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. Hopefully if you keep doing the right things, the wins will eventually pile up.”
In the meantime, Bitonio will almost certainly be available to answer more questions, regardless of what happens this weekend against the Steelers. There's an element of pride, he said, that keeps most NFL players going in seasons, even as disappointing as this one.
"This is our profession. And I know the O-line unit goes out every week and tries to prove we’re one of the best in the league. And on a personal note, you want to prove to the guy you’re playing against that I’m a good player and I’m going to do everything I can to get a win,” he said. “As an O-lineman, if you don't go out there and play your best, you’re going to get people hurt. It’s a pride thing. You want to prove to them you're a good football player, you want to protect your teammates. You're trying to do as much as you can to get a win and it’s just part of the game.
"It sucks that we’re losing, but that’s one thing I know for sure is I’m going to go out there every week and be the same guy every week if we’re winning games, losing games. Just play my best, play my hardest, and be the best I can for the team.”