Joe Thomas got a victory bigger than anything possible on the field.
Cleveland’s reliable left tackle, who never made the playoffs and endured so much losing, misery and turnover while playing 10,363 consecutive snaps over more than a decade with the Browns, was inducted Saturday into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His personal Super Bowl.
Cheered by a large contingent of barking Browns fans, Thomas, elected in his first year of eligibility, was presented by his wife, Annie, and their four children before delivering remarks that touched on family and his Midwest football journey.
After unveiling his bronze bust on the stage inside Tom Benson Stadium, Thomas wrestled with emotions during a 20-minute speech that included some self-deprecating humor and playful jabs at his time suiting up for bad Browns teams.
Cleveland went 48-119 in his 167 games, and Thomas’ .287 winning percentage is the worst of the Hall’s 369 inductees.
Proudly wearing the new gold jacket presented to him on Friday night by Steelers Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, Thomas thanked the six Browns coaches he played under for lessons “I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
He then addressed Cleveland’s absurd revolving door of quarterbacks during his tenure.
“To my quarterbacks, all 20 of them,” Thomas said, who made 10 straight Pro Bowls and was a six-time All-Pro. “Yes, I blocked for more different starting quarterbacks than any player in NFL history. What an honor.”
The enshrinement weekend also served as a Cleveland reunion, as dozens of Thomas’s former teammates — many of them fellow offensive linemen — returned to Northeast Ohio to celebrate and party with him.
“Thank you for always showing up for me,” he told his teammates in the audience. “Thank you for giving me the ability to always count on you guys. If you notice, I didn’t mention any of my backup left tackles. I’m sorry about that. I never gave you an opportunity to go on the field and show what you could do, but I did make you take all my practice reps.”
One of his closest teammates, current Browns All-Pro left guard Joel Bitonio, who lined up on the right side of Thomas for four seasons, arrived after practicing an hour away in Berea, Ohio, earlier in the day.
Even in the lean seasons, and there were many in Cleveland, former Browns’ punter Dave Zastudil said Thomas never wavered.
“He always brought some kind of humor to the locker room, even on days that maybe the team was down,” Zastudil said. “You always looked at Joe, he was smiling, always cracked jokes. But what I liked about Joe was whether it was the guy making eggs, the guy cleaning up the field afterwards, he always treated everybody the exact same.
“Football never got to his head, he was always the most humble successful person I think I’ve ever met.”
Thomas attributed his humility and more to his parents, Eric and Sally.
While pointing out his consecutive play streak, which ended when he tore a triceps during Cleveland’s 0-16 season in 2017, Thomas thanked his dad for showing him the value of hard work and loyalty.
“I remember you strapping cross country skis on your feet and going to work in a blizzard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” Thomas said to his father, who sat at a table in front of the stage with his wife and grandchildren. “Because, you know what? The calendar says it’s a workday, and we got work to do.
“At the time, I didn’t really know what the quote ‘availability is the most important ability’ meant, but that’s exactly what it meant to you and those were the values that I learned from you, buddy.”
Thomas would receive the same loyalty for Browns fans, who remained faithful to the team despite double-digit loss seasons.
“Even if we were losing, you guys were there on Sundays barking in the Dawg Pound and partying in the Muni Lot,” he said. “You guys are the heartbeat of the Cleveland Browns, and it was truly my honor to be able to represent you on and off the field for 11 seasons.”
During her introductory video, Annie Thomas focused on her husband’s steadiness.
“He’s the one you can rely on,” she said. “His legacy is he is consistent. You can count on him no matter what. If you need him, he will be there, and he will be perfect.”
Thomas was exactly that for the Browns.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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