CLEVELAND — Kevin Zeitler wasn’t even halfway into the Browns’ season opener against Pittsburgh when he suffered a thumb injury so significant that the right guard needed surgery hours after the game.
But Zeitler, who came to Cleveland last spring in free agency after four seasons with the Bengals, played the next week in Baltimore and has yet to miss a snap this season.
Widely viewed as one of the NFL’s best right guards, he joined the Browns as a building block amid a comprehensive reshaping. So there was no way, Zeitler said, he was going to miss a play.
“We’re in the facility every day working hard, you don’t want to let anyone down,” he said. “You want to be out there playing with your teammates and doing whatever you can to help your team win. You don’t think about, you kind of just like ‘OK, let’s go, let’s do it.’”
For that, Zeitler was voted by his teammates to receive the 2017 Ed Block Courage Award, which is given annually to a member of each of the 32 NFL teams who exemplifies the qualities of Ed Block, the former head athletic trainer of the Baltimore Colts, based on courage, compassion, commitment and community.
Zeitler shrugged off the honor and pointed to teammates such as left guard Joel Bitonio, who has bounced back from a 2016 foot surgery.
“I was surprised. I guess in my mind, yes, I hurt my thumb and needed surgery and all that but there’s so many other guys who have gone through things that I would consider worse,” he said. “I'm honored but I was surprised.”
Zeitler, who has started 71 of 72 games in Cincinnati, has started all 12 games for the Browns this season and been an important veteran presence on a team that lost Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas to a season-ending triceps injury earlier this year.
“Kevin is an exceptional leader on our team through the example he provides his teammates of consistently doing things the right way with his consummate professionalism, steady demeanor and dedication to his craft,” coach Hue Jackson said. “Kevin will and has done everything in his power to be on the field battling alongside his teammates, and we are fortunate to have someone of his caliber represent the Browns both on and off the field.”
To be sure, Zeitler, a former first-round pick out of Wisconsin, said playing through his thumb injury was a new and challenging experience.
“I've never needed surgery before in my life. I've never not been able to use my hand before and, obviously as an offensive lineman, hands are a pretty big deal,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing was I didn't have too much time to think about it, we had to get it done and then it was game day right away again. I think kind of not thinking about it helped and you just go out there and make it work.”
Zeitler was presented the award at the Providence House Annual Deck the House Benefit Auction at FirstEnergy Stadium, where Annie and Joe Thomas served as honorary co-chairs for the event. Providence House, which fights to end child abuse and neglect by protecting at-risk children, empowering families in crisis and building safe communities for every child, has been the Cleveland Browns Courage House for Children since 1999.
“The Providence House is a great organization I’ve been involved with for a long time here, they do a great job of offering resources to babies and others in certain situations where a mother’s been taken away from her baby or vice versa and it provides excellent resources,” Thomas said.
The Providence House cares for roughly 400 children from the Greater Cleveland area, is privately funded and, as such, Tuesday night’s fundraiser is key in supporting the organization’s mission.
“Tonight’s event Deck the House is our No. 1 fundraiser, we’re entirely privately funded so it’s huge. But what’s really cool for us is how our mission and the focus of the Cleveland Browns come together,” said Providence House CEO & President Natalie Leek-Nelson.
“Year over year, we come together and watch it get bigger and better every year … Everyone rallying around our community’s kids is incredible and tonight is a huge fundraiser for us, but I also think it’s a huge message to the community that our organization and this team are here for our kids.”