There are only a couple of places Joe Thomas knows his way around better than Cleveland. Right up there with his off-season residence in Wisconsin and the campus of the University of Wisconsin is Honolulu, Hawaii.
It's the site of yet another Pro Bowl where Thomas will be among the star attractions. He knows the area well enough to rattle off a laundry list of what he's done there during his free time and is able to rank his top five recommendations as swiftly as he's able to read a defense.
The Browns' veteran left tackle hasn't missed a game or even a single snap since he entered the NFL in 2007. That's one of the main reasons why he hasn't missed a Pro Bowl, either, and his latest invitation put him in some exclusive, elite company that wasn't lost on him.
Near the end of a disappointing season, Thomas can take solace in the fact he's accomplished a feat that's only been done by members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nine seasons, nine Pro Bowls.
"Pro Bowl never gets old. It is always a really big blessing. It is really humbling when you do get invited to a Pro Bowl," Thomas said. ""It is a weird feeling reading the other names that are up there making the Pro Bowl their first nine seasons. You are talking about all-time, all-time NFL greats. It is really special, and it is also very humbling."
Browns coach Mike Pettine has a special appreciation for Thomas, and it goes beyond the fact he's coaching a future Hall of Famer. As a defensive assistant in Baltimore and a defensive coordinator for the New York Jets, Browns coach Mike Pettine was often tasked with the conundrum many in his position face on a weekly basis as they map out their game plan. He equated it to what opponents faced when they game-planned for Baltimore's Jonathan Ogden, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.
Pettine doesn't have to do it anymore, and that's a relief. He compared the task to "banging your head into a stump."
"Joe has seen it all, whether it's the end going first, the tackle going first," Pettine said. "All of those games, he's seen them all so it's very difficult to scheme against him. You're almost better off saying, 'We'll trade one for one over there. Let's see if we can find a better matchup somewhere else.'"
This was the kind of career Thomas envisioned when the Browns selected him with the third overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. His confidence has always been high, and it's a byproduct of the preparation and drive he has to be better on every one of his thousands of consecutive snaps.
When he discusses the left tackle position, Thomas treats it like a fine art, a science. He jokingly called himself "one of the weakest offensive linemen in the NFL," but has found a way to thrive because of his good feet, knowledge of angles and ability to maximize his leverage on every snap.
It's what he's done between the 143 games he's played that has made all the difference.
"I'm always trying to improve," Thomas said. "I'm always looking at what I do and try to make it better. Even if you make the block successfully, I'm always wondering if I could have done it easier or better. Technique-wise, how could I improve that? I think that constant striving for improvement has helped me get better as my career's gone on."
As long as this continues, Thomas can bank on his annual visit to Honolulu or wherever else the Pro Bowl is played to extend far beyond 2016.
"From his play to his preparation, to the way he treats people, to the way he approaches each day – there is a reason why he is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer because he just does everything right," offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said. "He understands that (he) has a lot of God-given talent. There is no doubt, but (he) uses it in a way where he is still going to prepare and get better and look forward to getting better each day.
"I can't say enough great things about Joe."
NFL PLAYERS TO BEGIN THEIR CAREERS WITH NINE OR MORE CONSECUTIVE PRO BOWL APPEARANCES