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Not your average Joe
Joe Thomas steps up to the line 
for the Cleveland Browns


October 10, 2007

Joe Thomas practices his moves at summer training camp.

On the morning of the 2007 National Football League draft, one player awoke in a Manhattan hotel suite, put on a suit that cost the equivalent of a small nation’s gross national product, and waited uncomfortably for nearly three hours as team after team passed him by.

As the first player was getting dolled up, a second player threw on a pair of jeans, a comfortable shirt, and hopped into a car with his father, as the two would spend the day fishing the waters of Lake Michigan. This player, as well, had put together a pretty good case to be an early pick; a born-and-bred Wisconsin boy who helped turn his team into one of the best in the nation.

Joe Thomas already has a loyal Cleveland Browns following as fans line up for an autograph at training camp.

In time, maybe people will forget that it was the latter player, Brookfield native Joe Thomas, who was picked third overall by the Cleveland Browns, while the former Notre Dame quarterback, Brady Quinn, waited and waited and was eventually moved to Commissioner Roger Goodall’s private suite until he was taken 22nd overall.

And in the ultimate coincidence, Thomas, the burly offensive lineman who dominated the Big Ten Conference in four years at Wisconsin, will be blocking for Quinn.

Thomas may very well go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever don a Badgers’ uniform. The six-foot six-inch, 313-pound offensive tackle has won nearly every award possible, dating back to his days at Brookfield Central High School.

Much was made of his decision to skip the draft events in New York City. While it made for a great story on ESPN, it’s really nothing more than a guy wanting to spend time with his father doing something he loves. In a nutshell, it was Joe Thomas being Joe Thomas.

Joe Panos (left) does some one-on-one drills with Joe Thomas.

"That was a great day," Thomas says. "Some people that went to the draft didn’t have much fun for those four days. They got in Tuesday or Wednesday and were shuffled around. They’d meet and sign autographs for people with no chance to relax, be with their family, and just enjoy the process."

The Thomases spent the day casting lines on Lake Michigan — pulling in what he describes as a "good-sized brown trout" — with cell phone in hand, waiting for the call to come.

The down-to-earth personality is no marketing ploy. It’s simply the way he was raised and the way he continues to live. Parents Eric and Sally Thomas made sure of that.

"They’ve been a tremendous influence in my life," Thomas says. "The work ethic they instilled in me and just the way they’ve gone about life; they’ve been great role models for me."

As has been well-documented, Thomas is one big guy; and he always has been. But while the image of offensive lineman is one of a lumbering, brawny guy, Thomas is an athletic person by nature. In high school, he captained both the football and basketball teams, and very easily could have earned a scholarship to run track in college.

From Left: Romeo Crennel (Head Coach), QB Brady Quinn, CB Eric Wright, LT Joe Thomas and Phil Savage (General Manager) pose for a photo at the draft signing press conference.

He holds the school indoor shot put record, and qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2004, 2005 and 2006. He’s confident that, were it not for the dedication required for football, he could have made a name for himself in track and field. Some have suggested that Thomas may have had the ability to become an Olympian. Thomas, while humble, doesn’t disagree.

"There’s no doubt in my mind I could have at least made a run at it," Thomas says. "If I could have trained year-round and put four years of work into it, I think I could have at least made the Olympic trials and maybe made the Olympic team."

Still, it was football that he excelled in as an athlete and started to attract the attention of some of the nation’s most well-known and successful programs. Every day, there would be phone calls, letters and messages from places like Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. And as attractive as those places were, Thomas eventually decided on the Badgers.

"Basically, Wisconsin had the best blend of everything I was looking for," Thomas says. "In things that were high on my list, Wisconsin blew the other schools out of the water: academics, athletics and social. The football program had a great staff and the fans are phenomenal. School was a heck of a lot of fun."

Like Thomas, Joe Panos grew up in Brookfield and went on to play on the line at Wisconsin and eventually enjoyed a successful NFL career. He now owns NXLevel Fitness in Pewaukee and has no doubts that Thomas will become a force to be reckoned with in the pros, much like he was.

Panos has known Thomas since his senior year in high school and has helped him work on his football skills ever since. He sees a very unique player in Thomas.

"I’ve seen physical talent like Joe has before," Panos says. "I’ve seen kids who work on technique as hard as he does, and I’ve seen kids who take pride in their work. To have all three of those is very rare. The thing about him, not only is he big and strong; he has a good technique and takes pride in his trade. He puts it all together. Not many kids are able to do that."

Panos was able to watch Thomas develop into one of college football’s most dominant linemen. As the Badgers developed into a perennially-ranked program, he also saw the way that Thomas was able to handle the pressure of national attention and tough competition.

"That’s the great thing about him; he thrives under pressure," Panos says. "I told him my best games were against the better competition. I had better focus and better concentration. He knows and understands that, he builds off it, and hones in on his technique that much more."

Thomas credits Panos not just with providing physical and technical advice, but also being somebody who could share his experience in similar situations. It’s information that Thomas says has been more than useful.

"It’s nice just to talk to somebody who’s been through what I’m going through," Thomas says. "Being a rookie in the NFL, my first training camp, mini-camp, he’s gone through the draft.

"He knows what it’s like; it’s been great to be able to bounce ideas and concerns off him, and he can give me advice from somebody who’s been there."

He’s also made himself into a team leader. During the 2006 Capital One Bowl, the Badgers’ defensive line — which had been problematic all season — needed help. In stepped Thomas, switching positions to fill the hole. A junior at the time, he was already considered a top-ten draft prospect.

He performed effectively, making a defensive stop in the red zone that forced Auburn to kick a field goal, but slammed his knee on the ground during the next series, tearing his ACL.

Suddenly, it looked as if Thomas’ NFL dreams had taken a hit; but the injury was not as severe as first thought. Thomas returned for his senior season, won the Outland Trophy, was named All American, and led the Badgers to a No. 7 national ranking, a second consecutive Capital One Bowl Championship, and a 12-1 record.

Bret Bielema, who took over for Barry Alvarez as head coach before Thomas’ senior season, says that his ability to recover and continue to improve is what made Thomas such an important part of the Wisconsin program, as well as an indication of the type of person he is.

"Joe’s ability to come back from the knee injury and return later that year to be a leader and captain for us says all you need to know about the type of person he is," Bielema says. "He was a pleasure to coach and he is a terrific football player."

During that senior season, Thomas showed his teammates a lesson in humility. High school friend and teammate Luke Homan disappeared in La Crosse and Thomas quickly hopped in his car with several friends to help join the search.

By the time they arrived, Homan’s body had been discovered in the Mississippi River. While it was a painful experience, it was one that personified Thomas: selfless, humble and loyal.

"Joe joined the search for his friend because Joe cares deeply about his family and those close to him," Bielema says. "He knew he wanted to do whatever he could to help find Luke and he wanted to be there to comfort Luke’s family and friends. Again, it speaks to Joe’s character."

Thomas’ life goes on to the next chapter now. He married former Badger basketball player Annie Nelson this summer, and once the couple finds a house, she’ll move to Cleveland. In the meantime, he’s taking part in the Browns’ mini-camps, organized team activities and prepping for his first NFL training camp.

He’ll spend a lot of time working with the aforementioned Quinn, but doesn’t plan on poking fun at his teammate’s draft day dilemma.

At least, not quite yet.

"I’ve said very, very little about it," Thomas says. "It was a tough situation for him, obviously, and I don’t want to rub it in. He’s a teammate and good guy.

"But further down the road, I may give him a little bit.