No ordinary Joe: Browns' Thomas is an outdoorsman, prankster, future HOFer

Editor's note: The 33-year-old Thomas on Wednesday announced that he is retiring from the NFL. This story originally ran in November, 2014.

BEREA, Ohio -- Joe Thomas squinted through the autumn sun at the Cleveland Browns practice fields and looked 125 yards in the distance. He was staring at the trees that have grown to heights of 40 or 50 feet in neighboring yards.

"That's a burr oak right there," he said without flinching. "That's a quaking aspen; there's like eight or nine over there. There's a bunch of cottonwoods."

He continued to scan the branches, bark and trunks.

"It's kind of nerdy," he said, "but ... I love trees. Even going back to when I was in high school and college, we had these big oak trees on campus and I would take pictures of me hugging them."

That is Joe Thomas, literally a tree hugger.

On a different day, Thomas' wife, Annie, was on the phone, talking about the husband she met one summer when Wisconsin athletes stayed at school to train.

"I was reluctant to start dating him just because I didn't want to date an athlete," she said. "He approached and asked if he could take me out in his canoe sometime. I thought that was either the cheesiest pickup line ever or the sweetest thing I ever heard."

"I had to differentiate myself from the sea of men who were wooing her," Thomas said. "I knew it would either fail miserably or be the start of something great."

That is Joe Thomas, a romantic canoe dude.

Earlier this season, the Browns were ahead of the Steelers by 21 points, and late in the fourth quarter the Browns told Vinston Painter to go in for the 29-year-old left tackle.

"He wouldn't come out," Painter said. "He wanted to stay in for the end of the game. Usually guys are like, 'OK, I'm done, I'm out of the game.' But Joe, no, he wanted to finish the game out and finish strong."

Just like he had in the previous six seasons, when he refused to miss a play as miserable season after miserable season staggered to a finish.

"You still have to do your job," he said.

That is Joe Thomas, the ultimate professional.

This year is different, though. The Browns are off to their best start since Thomas' rookie season (when they also were 6-4), making the grind easier.

"Playing for a winning team is actually fun," he said. "Playing for a team that is not winning is awful. It's like running on a treadmill. You are expending energy and working hard, but it's not fun and you are going nowhere. There is nothing fun about playing on a team that's losing and out of the playoffs."

Thomas is an outdoorsman, a professional, a prankster, a nice guy and a superb player eventually headed for Canton. He has been to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons and hasn't missed a snap since the day he was drafted.

In an exclusive club

Only 10 players in NFL history have been to the Pro Bowl in each of their first seven seasons. Nine are in the Hall of Fame: Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Merlin Olsen, Mel Renfro, Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas.

Of the 10, only two didn't miss a game in their first seven seasons: Brown and Joe Thomas.

Of all the good things he has done on mostly bad teams, the streak of 7,574 snaps in a row, the longest active streak in the NFL, gives Thomas the most pride.

"The coolest thing I heard about him," rookie left guard Joel Bitonio said.

Cool, yes, and a testament to Thomas' toughness. But how much of it is luck?

"A lot," Thomas said before giving the laugh that follows many of his answers, as if he's gotten over himself before he even answers. Thomas has dealt with aches, pains and even sprains, but none that made him miss a play.

"I've torn my knee ligaments a few times. It depends on your definition of tear, though," Thomas said. "I think I've had three MCL sprains and one LCL that was pretty bad, actually."

That one came in the last game of the 2012 season. Thomas hurt his knee, was cleared by the doctor and finished the game. But the day after the season, an MRI showed the tear, which would have sidelined him three weeks. When the doctor told him he would have to miss the Pro Bowl, Thomas begged to play. He showed enough progress two weeks later that he was allowed to make the trip to Hawaii, where he played and finished the game without a problem.

To play every snap at the level Thomas plays makes the achievement that much more impressive. It's one thing to be on the field, another to excel. Thomas has done so in different systems and for different coaches.

"He's just so consistent," Browns head coach Mike Pettine said. "He works just as hard in practice as he does in the game, and it shows up. I always talk about, 'It's you against the grade sheet.' He's well into the 90s every single game."

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Thomas has allowed a league-low six pressures in 10 games. Six linemen allowed six or more pressures in Week 11 alone.

"Before I got here I used to hear about him," inside linebacker Karlos Dansby said. '"Joe Thomas is the best tackle in the game.' I said, 'Yeah?' I never saw him play, but that's what I heard.

"Now since I'm here, and I see his work ethic, what he's able to do in the game ... he takes it from the practice field to the game and it's real. It is real."

Six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, whose Ravens face the Browns twice a season, calls his matchups against Thomas "epic."

"One thing about going against Joe is he's very deceptive," Suggs said. "He's more athletic than he looks. He doesn't have traditional long arms like most left tackles. He has short arms, but he's one of the best tackles in the league. He always gives me trouble. He's a phenomenal player."

'He's always in a good mood'

And versatile, too. In his first season as the Browns' offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan said he expected a player with Thomas' résumé to be "standoffish" about the commitment to a new zone run scheme. But it's been the exact opposite.

"He's always in a good mood," Shanahan said. "Nothing's that big to him."

That includes the day he was drafted in 2007, when Thomas bypassed going to New York City to spend the day fishing with his father and a friend.

After the Browns took him third overall and he went through the typical gauntlet of draft interviews, he concluded the offseason by saying he was looking forward to training camp so he could be an offensive lineman again. Meaning: anonymous and unnoticed.

"[The fishing trip] says a lot about his makeup and mentality," said Houston defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, Thomas' first NFL head coach, "and I think he carries that into the league, and that's why he's such a good player."

Thomas loves the outdoors. He's hunted nilgai -- a large antelope -- with former Browns quarterback Ty Detmer in Texas, and he's hunted pigs and deer with Colt McCoy, another ex-Cleveland QB. He talks almost in awe of seeing two moose run down a hill in the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota, splashing through the water and going up a 70-yard hill in two or three strides.

"He just doesn't take himself too seriously," his wife said, adding that he also wears a straw hat while gardening at his home in Westlake, a Cleveland suburb.

Annie even wishes he would bring more of his professional life home. At Wisconsin, the pair had been dating for a year when his roommate asked if Thomas might leave early for the NFL. She had no idea Thomas would even be draftable.

She heard about him playing in his 100th consecutive game on the radio as she drove to the game.

"My jaw dropped," she said. "He didn't say anything to me. He loves football. He loves his teammates. All the personal success, he's grateful for it. But he's the type of guy who doesn't let the bad or good get to him. I think that's why he's so steady."

Keeping it light

Thomas developed a little game that the offensive line used to take part in every day: the word of the day. Each day one lineman was responsible for choosing a multisyllabic and/or rarely heard word. During stretching, the player would give the word. Each lineman would have to guess the definition.

"Oh yeah, that was fun," Thomas said as he leaned back and smiled. "We've got a lot of really smart guys on the offensive line. We've got a couple Cal guys. We've got a Toledo guy, which is just a bastion of academic excellence. I hear they call it the Harvard of Ohio. Then there's Wisconsin -- strong academics."

Thomas also came up with the "letter from the team" prank that was forged after the lineman knew a teammate had taken a drug test. Written on Browns letterhead, the note informed the player he had a non-life-threatening illness that nobody wants to have.

"We'd sit back and watch when they read them," Thomas said. "They realize pretty soon it's a joke, but we get a couple rookies on that every year."

Thomas rarely takes the long view of things. He admitted the Hall of Fame was a goal when he was drafted, but he's not thinking about it now. He just thinks about the next game.

"Going through as many losing seasons as I have had here," he said, "I think the only way you can get through a season where you're out of the playoffs is thinking about the very next game and worrying about being your best that week because if you start thinking too far ahead -- offseason, or what's going to happen here, or we're already out, it doesn't matter -- then your play slips."

One thing he was definite about: his desire to retire where his career began.

"I've never thought of myself as anything other than a Cleveland Brown," said Thomas, who is signed through 2018, which would be his 12th NFL season. "If I ever have to face that reality, if I want to continue my dream and I have to go somewhere else, it would take a lot of thinking."

He lives year-round in Westlake with Annie and his two young daughters (Logan turns 2 in February and Camryn was born in September) and loves the area, saying it's filled with the same good, kind people he grew up with in Wisconsin.

But he also acknowledged that his career might be getting closer to the end than the beginning. Thomas owns a farm in Southwest Wisconsin where corn grows and cattle grazes. He can see himself retiring there one day, taking his kids for hikes, showing them the farm, pointing out the trees.

The game, he said, has gotten both easier and harder over the years. Easier because he's more knowledgeable about the players and the defenses, harder because of the toll on his body. He admitted he really does not feel good after a game until the following Saturday. The last couple of years, he barely practiced the last month of the season. This season, Pettine gives him every Wednesday off, which Thomas calls his "Ferris Bueller" day.

His "word of the day" cohorts let him know about it.

"They tease me, and they should," Thomas said. "Because I tease them about stuff."

He then laughed that laugh and smiled that smile, unaware that most of his teammates are not teasing him about his "Ferris Bueller" day. The truest sign of respect for an NFL player is when he gets a perk and his teammates don't mind.

"If anyone on the team deserves a day off one day a week," tight end Jordan Cameron said, " I think it would be Joe Thomas."