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  • Peter Schaffer

Browns legend Joe Thomas picks a Pittsburgh Steeler to present Hall of Fame gold jacket

CANTON — Joe Thomas has some explaining to do.

The Cleveland Browns great picked a Pittsburgh Steeler to put on his Hall of Fame jacket.

The Enshrinees Gold Jacket Dinner was coming to an end. Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 members Rondé Barber, Don Coryell, Chuck Howley, Joe Klecko, Darrelle Revis, Ken Riley, Zach Thomas and DeMarcus Ware all had been acknowledged.

Joe Thomas was saved for last with dramatic intent.

As the slimmed-down, post-football Thomas appeared in a doorway, emcee Rich Eisen said, "I think it's time to tear the roof off this dump."

The crowd went wild as Thomas worked his way through a gauntlet of men wearing the gold jackets they received when they went into the Hall of Fame.

Thomas climbed a stage in the middle of of Memorial Civic Center to get his gold jacket. Waiting for him was ex-Steeler Jerome Bettis.

They added a wrinkle to the dinner this year. The new Hall of Famers were to hand pick someone to present their gold jackets.

Joe Thomas picked Bettis, who watched Thomas take off a blue jacket, then slipped on the new gold one.

Why "The Bus?" Thomas wasn't a Browns' rookie until 2007, two years after the last of Bettis 10 seasons as a Pittsburgh running back.

A general tone of, "well that's different," arose.

But Thomas has an ornery sense of humor. He always has been unapologetically different, going back to when the Browns drafted him third overall, while he was out on a fishing boat with his dad instead of strutting across a stage in New York City.

It's doubtful whether anyone was too sore with Thomas for fraternizing with a Steeler.

Many times toward the end of his 11-plus-year Browns run at left tackle, he got stars in his eyes and described his biggest dream. It was to be on the field as a Brown for a playoff game in Cleveland.

"There would be no place like it," he would say.

The new Hall of Famers never speak at a Gold Jacket dinner. Thomas is saving the story behind choosing Bettis for Saturday's enshrinement.

The Gold Jacket Dinner made for quite a night.

Attendance was 4,000, the maximum that could be crammed in the assorted spaces that make up the 72-year-old Civic Center.

An early-arriving crowd soon got noisy in the sprawling outdoor area used for a 5 p.m. cocktail hour.

A veteran of these dinners said he wasn't seeing as many famous faces as usual, only to be told he was standing next to Cris Collinsworth.

When a cardboard sign reading "the bars are closed, enjoy dinner," was hoisted, the desired effect of turning the multitude toward the dinner doors was achieved.

The largest dinner space was the floor of the arena, which is known for some of the biggest basketball games in Stark County history. That floor was where families of the Class of 2023 dined at many dozens of round tables, packed so tight rubbing elbows broke out on a grand scale.

The men getting the gold jackets didn't have dinner at the Gold Jacket Dinner, supping somewhere secretly, needing only to show up in time for the 7:15 program.

Some Class of 2023 members are staying at The Doubletree in downtown Canton, but Joe Thomas is using a location that has been a well-kept secret.

Private parties starring the Class of 2023 will get started all over the place after Saturday's noon enshrinement - that's a throwback time for what has been a "night game" in most recent years.

The Bengals are honoring the late Ken Riley in a bash at The Quarry, best known as a golf course with a huge patio. Diana Ross sang at The Quarry last year at a party in honor of Cliff Branch.

Joe Thomas' party, whose location also is a secret, is supposed to be immense.

The Class of 2023 hadn't yet arrived Friday when the Canton Symphony orchestra played the Cleveland Browns theme song.

Two Congressional Medal of Honor winners in attendance drew a huge reaction, bigger even than when Joe Thomas' family was asked to stand.

After dinner, those who didn't eat on the floor of the arena filed in from the assorted other rooms, filling the seats in the dark. It was a good place to trip if you were climbing steps in high heels, and there were a lot of high heels at this formal-dress gala.

The event, known for decades as the Enshrinees Civic Dinner, always has been a hit. Friday's seemed as robust as it has ever been.

The only two tickets available on the floor via Ticketmaster Friday afternoon were offered as a pair for $700. Face value for a ticket with dinner in the McKinley Room, down the hall from the arena, was $150.

"It's funny who you see," said a man who had eaten in the McKinley Room. "I had dinner next to Zach Thomas' dentist."

An impressive crowd of returning enshrinees was introduced from the center stage by Hall of Famer Dan Fouts.

To receive his gold jacket, Zach Thomas picked Hall of Famer Jimmy Johnson, who coached him in Miami.

"Your hair still looks great, man," Fouts told a laughing Johnson.

Eisen kept the tone light all night, even getting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, seated next to him near the podium, to laugh at a few jokes.

Goodell and Hall of Fame President Jim Porter praised each other in ways that lead one to believe the Canton-NFL relationship is strong.

Age has weakened many of the 106 enshrinees who came back.

"Mean" Joe Greene, 76, and Ted "The Stork" Hendricks, 75, were troopers as the climbed to the center stage and descended to form the gauntlets greeting the new Hall of Famers.

A veritable quarterbacks club of enshrinees was in the house, including Peyton Manning, Jim Kelly, Warren Moon and Troy Aikman, nearly a year after Alliance legend Lenny Dawson died.

Paul Warfield, a Warren, Ohio State and Cleveland icon, drew a big ovation on the 40th anniversary of his enshrinement.

Fouts personally announced all 106 returning enshrinees.

Some of the biggest ovations went to Michael Strahan, Orlando Pace, Bill Cowher, Cris Carter and Tony Dungy.

Walter Jones, the Hall of Fame left tackle Joe Thomas emulated when he came through Wisconsin, was among those greeting big Joe.

After Thomas surprised the house with Jerome Bettis presenting him his gold jacket, his wife Annie and their four children quickly took the stage and walked into the night with him.

Saturday, presumably, would be a day when he talked all about the Cleveland Browns, and maybe did some explaining.

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