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Joe Thomas, Loyal Lineman

The offensive lineman wants to be there when the Cleveland Browns become the Chicago Cubs. He'll have earned it -- the likely Hall of Famer has never missed a snap.

The 106th loss of Joe Thomas' NFL career was, predictably, melancholic. It came on an unseasonably warm November day in Cleveland, in a stadium overrun by acres of silver-and-blue Dallas Cowboys gear. A woman in Browns apparel fell asleep in her seat. There was a fight on the field at the beginning and a spirited first-quarter Cleveland drive, but inevitably, cold reality settled in like winters on Lake Erie.

Did anyone notice what Thomas did? Down there in that mess, he played his 9,500th straight snap. He's never sat out one single play, according to the Browns. It's a stunning stat, especially when you consider that Thomas, arguably the NFL's best left tackle, has spent his entire career in Cleveland, a place in which there is generally nothing to play for by December. The things Thomas has seen in 10 seasons would make your chinstrap curl: Johnny Manziel's off-the-wagon spiral, the Rob Chudzinski experiment (all 12 months of it), the winter wearing-of-the-paper-bags ritual. Through it all, the one true thing that has endured is Thomas, whose streak (now at 9,684) has survived six head coaches and 18 starting quarterbacks.

Soon, Thomas could be playing through the saddest footnote of all: 0-16.

The Browns have 12 losses and zero victories, and could become just the fifth team since the end of World War II and the second since the 2008 Detroit Lions to go winless during an NFL season. Big, tough men have cried, including first-year Browns coach Hue Jackson, but Thomas exhibits the no-nonsense demeanor of a factory worker.

Take, for example, that 35-10 loss to the Cowboys on Nov. 6. Thomas trudged off the field, past the painted letters in the hallway that say, "Expect to Win," and broke the tension of the locker room by contemplating how his 312-pound body would look in the uniform for the next game.

"It's going to be rough next week," Thomas told a teammate. "All-whites.

"I'm going to be on low-carb diet."

Laughter is his coping mechanism, a way to get through this. Joe Thomas won't lose it, because the whole team is watching. But when he gets home, his wife, Annie, says she can "see the pain and sadness after every game."

It doesn't seem fair. Thomas has been named to nine Pro Bowls, and likely will get to the Hall of Fame someday, but he can't get a whiff of the playoffs.

The closest he came was last season. The trade deadline approached in early November, and Denver was interested. But the deal fell through -- his agent, Peter Schaffer, says the negotiations "ran out of time" -- and the Broncos won a Super Bowl and Thomas wound up at home, saddled with the anxiety of another coaching change, a new front office and a whole batch of new teammates.

"He's given a lot of himself, physically, emotionally and spiritually to that team and organization," former teammate Scott Fujita said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say that when I hear trade rumors about Joe, sometimes I hope they're true."

But Thomas isn't going anywhere. He believes, even in these difficult days, that Cleveland is exactly where he needs to be.


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Joe Thomas knows the pain of losing

Joe Thomas excels for the Cleveland Browns, but how long will he stick around to start winning? Senior writer Liz Merrill offers insight.Andrew Hetherington for ESPN

There is something romantic, or maybe maniacal, about a man who comes to work every day, pours his heart and soul into preparing for a game and does so well that he grades off the charts, but loses that game nearly every week and still comes back every Monday for more.

In Greek mythology, a guy named Sisyphus was punished by being forced to roll a gigantic boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back repeatedly, for eternity. That's Joe Thomas, seemingly. But Thomas didn't do anything wrong to warrant his boulder.

He is so genuine, so real, that when he sits at his locker and explains why he's glad that he wasn't traded, why he wants to be in Cleveland, you wind up believing him, even though he's about to get crushed again.

"I'm a Clevelander," he says. "I've spent the majority of my adult life here. Every day when I come to work, it's 'Let's turn this team into a consistent winner.' Because it would be such a special story. It would be like when the Cubs won the World Series. Everybody in the country has probably been cheering for them for so long because they've been suffering for so long. And you want to cheer for teams like the Browns.

"It's a blue-collar city, and for a blue-collar guy like myself, it's easy to fall in love with the people and kind of the chip on the shoulder that a lot of people have because they feel like they've been slighted for so long. It's so important for me to be here for the turnaround. I don't want to just get a Super Bowl ring [by] being traded to a dream team. It would feel unsatisfying. Unfulfilling."

It's human nature for a player to check out, at least mentally, when his team is out of the playoff picture by Halloween. Thomas has practically had to beg to stay in on a couple of occasions.

In 2014, the Browns were beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, manhandling them, actually, when then-coach Mike Pettine told backup Vinston Painter to go in and replace Thomas; the coach didn't want his best player getting hurt in mop-up duty. Pettine was in his first year, and didn't know any better. Thomas did a double take when he saw Painter.

"Get the f--- out of here," he told Painter.

The poor backup went down the line to see whether anyone else wanted to be spelled before sadly heading back to the sideline.

"Why didn't you come out?" Pettine asked Thomas when the offense came off the field.

"I haven't missed a snap, and I'm not coming out when we're finally winning a game," Thomas told him. "I'm going to enjoy this."

A few years ago, Thomas remembers hurting his knee in a game and limping around for at least two quarters. When he got an MRI, it showed that he'd torn his lateral collateral ligament. Luckily for him, it was the last game of the season. The Browns' doctors surely would have made him sit out for a while.

"My mentality from the day I started playing sports was that you get up, you dust yourself off and you do it again," Thomas says. "Some people lay on the ground after they get hurt and they say, 'Boy, that hurts. I wonder if I'm hurt. I'd better get it checked out.' That's not part of my thought process.

"My mind is going to tell my body I can do this, and if my body can't do it and I fall to the ground, then you know it's time to get it checked out."

Thomas has started all 155 games of his career, the longest active streak of any offensive lineman, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Entering Week 12 this season, only Eli Manning (193), Philip Rivers (170) and Jason Witten (157) had longer streaks. The difference? Those are skill-position players. Among the four, only Thomas has to manhandle a 280-pound defensive end on virtually every play. Rivers and Manning might take contact a dozen times in a game. Thomas takes it on every play.

It used to be that Sundays and Mondays were the worst days for Thomas because the biggest pain he felt was from the losing. Now that he's 32, Tuesdays by far are the hardest. All of his joints ache. His shoulders hurt so badly that it feels as if he's been hit by a car. Tuesdays are off-days, so the loss is still smacking him in the face, too.

But by Wednesday, when the team meets for practice, Thomas is reinvigorated. He's ready to prepare for the next opponent. For nearly 10 years, he's always believed the same thing: The Browns will beat their next opponent.


Thomas' unbroken snap streak has survived six head coaches and 18 starting quarterbacks. David Richard/AP Photo

The best season, no doubt, was 2007, his rookie year. The Browns went 10-6, came oh-so-close to making the playoffs, and Thomas must have figured it would always be like that, because he'd always played on winning teams. He went to the state tournament a combined five times alone in basketball and football at Brookfield Central High in Wisconsin, roughly 15 minutes from J.J. Watt's hometown of Pewaukee.

Thomas went on to play for the University of Wisconsin, a perennial Big Ten power. His senior year, the Badgers went 12-1 and were ranked seventh in the country. So, naturally, Thomas expected more of the same in Cleveland, especially after 2007. The Browns haven't had a winning season since.

The 2008 team failed to score an offensive touchdown in 24 consecutive quarters, but that wasn't even the worst season. Thomas insists that came in 2009. Eric Mangini had just taken over as head coach.

"Eric runs a ship similar to like a Bill Parcells or a Bill Belichick, where everyone kind of walks around miserable even when you're winning," Thomas says. "To start 1-11, with all the rumors about coaches getting fired in the first year, it was a really, really difficult year."

Thomas dreads coaching changes more than anything. It means that everything the team has studied for two years is meaningless and that the "middle class," all of the good role players, are usually cut, replaced by ones the new coach trusts. But most of all, it means the team is probably another two or three years away from winning again.

Thomas has soldiered through countless new faces and team slogans, but in January 2016, he finally lost patience. The Browns fired Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer after the season, and Manziel, the team's supposed quarterback of the future, had disappeared on a trip to Las Vegas. Thomas was starting all over again, right after his 31st birthday.

And the news got worse. Within a few months, the Browns let linemates Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz, two of Thomas' best friends, walk away. Mack went to Atlanta, Schwartz to Kansas City. Thomas was bummed. They'd been together for years, swapping stories and bad jokes. No matter how bad things got, Thomas could always look forward to going to work and seeing his friends in the locker room. They were in it together.

"[Thomas] told me he'd like me to be around because I'm his friend and a good player," Mack says. "Without a doubt, leaving the guys was the hardest part about leaving Cleveland. It was a good place, a good time, and I liked it there, but the friends on the team were what made it special. But there's no guarantee that [if] I had re-signed with Cleveland, they [wouldn't have] traded Joe the next day."

Most losses by active players

Thomas sees the Sunday scores and feels happy that Mack and Schwartz are on teams in the playoff hunt. But he still misses his boys. He looks around the room now, and all he sees are kids. The Browns drafted 14 players in 2016, and all of them made the 53-man roster in September.

It's like taking a bunch of kindergartners to calculus class, Thomas says. One of the starting quarterbacks, Cody Kessler, is a rookie who looks like he's in a boy band. In one game this season, Thomas estimates the Browns had at least 10 different offensive line combinations on the field.

Thomas tries to put a good spin on the situation. He says the season hasn't been dull.

"One of the positives of having a young team is they don't get discouraged like veterans do," Thomas says. "Rookies, they don't know what they don't know. For instance, in years past, when we've had more veteran teams, if we started 0-8 or something like that, there [would have been] a mutiny. But these guys are still in summer camp. They come in with energy. They're happy and eager to learn every single day.

"That kind of gives you new life and new energy. You see the young guys walking in here with a skip in their step and you're thinking, 'Why can't I do the same thing?'"


"I'm a Clevelander," Thomas says. "I've spent the majority of my adult life here. Every day when I come to work, it's 'Let's turn this team into a consistent winner.' Because it would be such a special story." Tony Dejak/AP Photo

One of the first times they talked this past winter, Coach Jackson promised Thomas that he'd turn the team into a winner. Thomas has heard this from every new coach, but this time was different. Thomas believes him.

Jackson used to be an assistant in Cincinnati -- he helped revive Andy Dalton's career -- and Thomas always admired him from a distance. After games, they'd find each other on the field and chat about football.

Jackson is brash and detail-oriented and has a good feel for his players. He knows how badly Thomas wants to win, and that motivates Jackson. "I hate that he's part of any struggle," the coach says.

From the headlines, at least, tension appeared to be brewing between Thomas and the front office in late November. Cleveland had just been clobbered by Pittsburgh, and Kessler was knocked out of the game because of that shaky new line that does not include Mack and Schwartz. After the game, Thomas told reporters that the Browns have to "lie in the bed that you've made."

Jackson later talked to Thomas, who shrugs off the notion that the comments were controversial.

"I think [the media] made a big deal out of it because they could," Thomas says, "not because it actually was a big deal. If you say in life that you have consequences for your actions, that's the most no-duh statement of all time."

The Browns' new style of management is deeply rooted in the Moneyball strategy, but Jackson and Sashi Brown, the team's executive VP of football operations, know how important it is to have Thomas.

"We were obviously very aggressive in the draft, trading and positioning ourselves," Brown says. "The culture we're trying to build is to make sure these guys feel like this is a family, and Joe certainly is at least the big brother, if not the patriarch, of our locker room."


Thomas' dreams involve good health, a happy family and winning in the place he loves. Andrew Hetherington for ESPN

Some of Thomas' closest friends are the guys he played football and basketball with when he was a kid. Many of them hunt and fish together, and some of Thomas' best moments come when he is out of cellphone range, away from any noise.

Thomas was lanky and athletic as a kid, but he always leaned toward the cerebral parts of the game. Growing up, his dad was in banking, which is maybe where Thomas gets his steady and reliable demeanor. He does not act like a guy who has an $84 million contract.

True story: When Thomas got drafted and was leaving for the NFL, he decided he needed to settle all of his debts. The cable bill was in his name, so as he was packing, he told his roommate Ben Strickland that he owed $17.83 for the bill. Strickland was half asleep and thought his soon-to-be-millionaire friend was kidding, but the Badgers' cornerback wrote the check just so he could go back to bed. "A couple of days later," Strickland says, "I notice the check was cashed."

He is not a man with wild thoughts or unrealistic dreams. Thomas doesn't jet off to exotic places in the offseason. One of his favorite things to do is to work in his backyard garden. His dreams involve good health, a happy family and winning in the place he loves.

Strickland, now an assistant coach at Florida Atlantic, wonders whether Thomas is so determined not to miss a snap because it's one of the only ways he can still compete. He is fighting his body, the wave of younger players and time. In a world in which so much is out of his hands, the playing streak is something Thomas can control, something he can dominate.

When he and his Wisconsin buddies get together, it's like college all over again. Their old long-snapper, Steve Johnson, was busting on him recently about some thinning hair he noticed when he saw a picture of Thomas. Johnson implored him to shave his head and just be done with it.

A few days later, Thomas took to Twitter. "BREAKING NEWS," he tweeted. "Joe Thomas questionable with a receding hairline."

He is self-deprecating, and his teammates like that. It puts them at ease. Thomas was asked recently how he's dealing with the losing skid. "Lots of eggnog," he said.

If Thomas is lucky, he might have three or four years of football left in him. That should be enough, he hopes. But he tells the Browns to hurry up. He's running out of time.

"There are times that I'm admiring the loyalty," former Browns executive Joe Banner says, "and there are other times I'm sitting here going, 'Boy, when this guy retires, he's going to look back and really wish he had a chance to experience what it felt like to be on a good team and win in the NFL.'"


On Sunday nights, Thomas goes home, lies down with his wife and three kids and watches the late football games. He is happy that his children are all under the age of 4 and don't know whether he's won or lost. They kiss his wounds and take his mind off of the sacks and the scoreboard and the large bags of ice wrapped around his knees.

"I hope that someday the kids will think what he did for a living was pretty cool," Annie says in an email. "But for right now they just think he wears a funny helmet and tights."

Maybe someday, they'll know why Thomas did this, why he kept pushing that boulder up even though it kept crashing down on him.

"I'm hired to do a job," he says. "They expect me to do a job, and that job requires me to get my butt up and get back to the huddle, get the play and go do it another time. And until I can't physically get up, I'm going to do that.

"Until they pull me out of the game and say, 'You're not doing it well enough,' I'm going to just keep getting up."

Elizabeth MerrillMerrill is a senior writer in ESPN's features and enterprise unit. Before joining ESPN in 2007, she covered the NFL and wrote features for The Kansas City Star. She is based in the Midwest and can be reached at Elizabeth.Merrill@espn.com.

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