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  • Steve Serby

The humble origins of one of NFL’s most impressive streaks

Eric Thomas is a recently retired banker. Never missed a day of work in 39 years.

“I remember one time we had an 18-inch snowfall, and I put on my cross-country skis and skied to work ’cause I didn’t want to miss a day,” he says.

How far?

“Two miles.”

Sally Thomas is his wife.

“Our family has a summer home on this lake, and every Memorial Day we put the pier in, and every Labor Day we took it out,” Sally said. “And I remember one Memorial Day it felt like it was about 30 degrees outside, but Eric had a kidney infection and like 102 fever and he’d go out there and do something, then come sit by the fire with a hat.”

And Eric said: “I still had to put all the sections together standing waist deep in the water.”

But how does he explain 39 years without missing a day of work?

“It’s your job,” he said. “They may find out they can do without ya if you miss a day.”

Eric and Sally’s son, Joe Thomas, has played 10,062 consecutive snaps for the Browns since entering the NFL in 2007.

“I’m just unbelievably impressed, because up until maybe two years ago, I wasn’t aware of that, and I feel there’ve been some games where the Browns haven’t been in it, and it’s like, ‘OK, why don’t they take Joe out?’ I never understood what was going on, and now I know it was Joe saying, ‘I’m not coming out,’ ” Eric said. “So it was amazing because it happened so quietly, and he certainly never told us. It was the reading about it in the media that told us that there was a long streak of continuous snaps, and of course here in Wisconsin with Brett Favre, it wasn’t continuous snaps, it was continuous starts.”

Then the proud parents start taking turns over the speaker phone:

Sally: “I don’t think Joseph started playing in the NFL and said to himself, ‘I’m gonna see what kind of a streak I can set for how durable I am.’ He went to work, he did his thing. He was paid a boatload of money to give his best and put his best foot forward, and I think that’s what he did, and then all of a sudden, I truly don’t think he even knew at the beginning that this was some big streak, and then people started talking about it, then it took on a life of its own, I think. I think he just went to do the best job that he could, and bless his heart, he was able to do this.

“He’s super-durable. He does have the constitution of a horse. He was never really sick as a kid. He’s got his dad’s bones, which are freakishly thick. He’s just a healthy kid, and always has been.”

Eric: “But there have been times when we’d go visit [Joe’s wife] Annie and the girls in Ohio, and you’d see evidence that Joe’s coming down with a cold or has the flu, and then you watch him out there in practice and you can see before the game that he’s kind of dragging. Then he plays every snap and you’re like, ‘I can’t believe he was able to do that.’ ”

Sally: “When he was in college, I remember him telling us at the end of the game, he said, ‘Ma, every time you play a game of football, it’s like you’ve been in a bad car accident. You’re sore, you’re stiff.’ That’s why I think this is such a big deal, because everybody who’s played in the NFL knows you really get beat up in this game and you have to be ready to play in the next week. He has a hugely high threshold for pain, that’s for sure, but he’s just a sturdy guy. He always has been a sturdy guy.”

Eric: “He’s got a real stick-to-it-iveness, and the ability to focus on the present. In high school, and to an extent in college [at Wisconsin], he played multiple sports, and you get done with the football season, and the switch gets flipped and now he’s in basketball season. He’s not thinking about football, he’s focused on basketball. And then basketball would be over, he’d flip a switch and he wouldn’t think basketball or football, he’d be doing track, and I think that carried over into the NFL, so he could not look backwards at the last game or the last snap. That focus is what keeps him in there, the stick to-itiveness is what keeps the drive to finish what he started.”

Sally: “He hates to lose, he just hates to lose, and I think that’s pretty typical of a professional athlete. You have that mindset, you’re not a slacker. You want to give your best effort all the time.”

Joe Thomas’ first Pop Warner team was the Junior Lancers. He was 12. He played fullback, tight end and outside linebacker.

“I was 139 pounds at 6-3,” he said, and laughed. He had played soccer, and his mother was reluctant for him to play football.

“The only time I’ve ever missed a play because of injury was my junior year in college, it was the second half of our [2006 Capital One Bowl] game and I tore my ACL playing defense, and I missed a quarter-and-a-half of that game,” Joe said. “But other than that, since I’ve started playing sports in third grade, I’ve never missed a game on any level at any sport for injury.”

It killed him watching.

“Sitting there and watching that last quarter-and-a-half was really tough, and I felt like I was letting my teammates down from not being out there for ’em to help ’em win the game,” Joe said. “They ended up actually winning the game [24-10 over Auburn], and it was Barry Alvarez’s last game as a head coach. I just had that feeling that I wasn’t there for my guys, and it was a difficult feeling to deal with.”

Joe has endured a revolving door at quarterback for the Browns, and too much losing, and he chose to stay.

“When I was a rookie, I made the goal in my head that I wanted to turn this Cleveland Browns organization into a consistent winner, and that’s sort of been a mission during my career,” Joe said. “I still feel like we have unfinished business there, and so it’s easy for me to sit here and just keep grinding away.”

He was lucky an LCL tear came at the end of the 2012 season.

“If it had not been the final game of the season, I would have been on the shelf for about a month,” Joe said. More lucky: “I’ve never been diagnosed with a concussion.”

Favre started 297 consecutive games.

“Growing up in Wisconsin, I certainly admired his toughness, his resolve. … It did leave a mark on me seeing a guy in so much pain, and dealing with the injuries that he dealt with in games, still going out there, still fighting for his teammates, still doing anything he could to be out there to help his team win,” Joe said.

Even Ironman Cal Ripken Jr., played 2,632 consecutive games with the Orioles, was singing Thomas’ praises:

“What Joe Thomas achieved is nothing short of remarkable,” Ripkin said. “It would have been amazing enough had he never missed a game, but to never miss a snap in such an incredibly demanding sport at such a physical position is a true testament to his strength, toughness, resolve and love of football. I certainly appreciate his mindset and his approach to the game.”

Joe said, “I remember him talking about how he was just kind of tired. And he was happy to get it over with so that people could stop talking about it, he could stop thinking about it, he could just kind of focus back on baseball. In some ways, I kind of feel the same way as he did. I’m happy that we made the 10,000 straight and we’re able to move on and take the attention off of me and put it back on my teammates.”

Missing work just isn’t something taught in the Thomas household.

“I can’t ever remember [my dad] missing a day of work,” Joe said. “Both him and my mom instilled in me that you just get up and you go to work and you don’t make a big deal about it.”

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