Joe Thomas looks back fondly over many stretches of his life as an athlete.
His years as a stellar three-sport athlete at Brookfield Central High School, his years of All-American line play at the University of Wisconsin and the years he spent building a sure-fire, Hall of Fame resume with the Cleveland Browns all are worthy of admiration.
As he recalls the moments of one nearly four-month span, the aggravation in his voice raises and the laughs come quickly as he discusses what he called “a colossal waste of time.” Thomas’ memories of the time between his final collegiate game and the night he was drafted by the Browns range from general annoyance to flat-out disdain.
“I would say, in general, I hated the combine, the pro day, the draft, because I thought most of it was pretty silly,” Thomas told the State Journal earlier this month.
The NFL draft season likely will be quiet for former Badgers this year, with just a few players expected to be selected. Thomas, whom Cleveland picked with the third overall pick in 2007, is the only UW product to be chosen in the top three of the draft since the AFL-NFL merger in 1966.
Thomas’ experience 14 years ago is a glimpse into the strange world of the draft, where even a player as universally agreed upon as Thomas gets challenged one way or another.
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Thomas likely would’ve been a high pick if he left UW after his junior season, but he tore his ACL in the Capital One Bowl against Auburn — Barry Alvarez’s last game as the Badgers’ full-time coach — and decided to return.
He dominated as a senior, winning the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country and earning unanimous All-American honors. He helped UW go 12-1 and win the Capital One Bowl for the second consecutive year.
Thomas’ recovery from the knee injury and stellar play solidified him as a top-five pick, but he still had to take part in the pre-draft proceedings of the NFL scouting combine, a pro day and visits to teams’ facilities. Thomas, who works as an analyst for the NFL Network, said that teams’ evaluations of players come 95% from game film. Thus, the emphasis on what prospects can do in workouts during the build-up to the draft confuses him.
“That stuff should just reinforce what they saw on film. Or if it was much better than what they saw on film, maybe it’ll have them go back and revisit some of your game film to try to figure out maybe where the discrepancy was,” Thomas said.
“But it does feel like, ‘Why am I spending so much time and stressing out so much about something that a team typically doesn’t put as much stock into? Let’s just get this over with so we can kind of move on to what’s important, which is getting ready for a football season where I’m actually going to put some shoulder pads on and go play a game.’”
Even though he wasn’t thrilled to participate, Thomas put together an impressive combine performance. He finished in the top five among offensive tackles in the vertical jump (33 inches, first), broad jump (9 feet, 2 inches, third), 40-yard dash (4.94 seconds, fourth) and the bench press (28 reps, fifth).
However, Thomas said the meetings and evaluations at the combine were strange experiences, including psychology tests that posed strange scenarios. One of the peculiar questions asked in these sessions had been in use for some time. Thomas’ agent, Peter Schaffer, actually prepped him for it.
“I’ll never forget, there was one question and it was, ‘Would you rather be a dog or a cat?’” Thomas said. “(Schaffer) was like, ‘All right, when they ask you this question, you can’t say cat, right? Because cats typically are conniving and they’ll go behind your back, and they’re not subservient to their masters. And so this team does not want to hear that you would be a cat, you have to say you’re a dog and the reasons why are because you would be willing to listen, you want to please your master.’
“He made this big thing and I just thought to myself, ‘This is the dumbest thing on Earth. How is this going to help me block Dwight Freeney? Or Von Miller when he’s coming off the edge?’ It’s not. It’s such a waste of time. And by the end of it … like I’m a person that hates inefficiency and hates wasting time. And it just felt like the whole thing was such a colossal waste of time.”
Thomas said he understands that teams are trying to learn as much as they can about a player before investing in him with a high draft pick, but the process seemed exploitative.
“They’re just intentionally putting you in compromising situations, trying to make you mentally uncomfortable and agitated just to see how you react in stressful situations,” he said. “And that’s not a lot of fun. They’re just trying to mess with you. It’s like, wait a second, just because you’re in a position of power and you can do this to me, doesn’t mean you should. Especially if we’re not gaining anything from this.”
A day on the lake
Thomas was over the draft process as the day approached. The draft was still a two-day event then, starting on Saturday, April 28.
ESPN, which televised the draft, was stunned when Thomas said he wasn’t interested in attending the spectacle in New York. Network executives tried to appeal to Thomas’ ego, describing how he’d get his moment to be in the spotlight and center of attention, but he saw through it.
“I kind of saw the whole draft day thing as a waste of time,” Thomas said. “Wait a second, so you want me to show up so that you guys can make millions of dollars? I get that, you want money. So you’re going to try to trick me as a college kid who doesn’t understand the business of football yet? And then you’re going to try to sell it to me as like, ‘Oh, this is a great experience for you so you can brand yourself.’ OK, I’m an offensive lineman, I don’t care about branding. I’m not going to make a cent on marketing anyway.”
When that tactic didn’t work, Thomas said ESPN reps tried warning him that not attending the draft could hurt his stock and make teams think the former Badger was “a prima donna.”
Thomas was also leery of how the telecast handles a player falling in the draft. The 2005 draft saw Aaron Rodgers drop and the broadcast often featured him. Thomas’ draft had a similar situation with Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn.
“If I do drop … now my misery becomes the story of the draft and having cameras in my face becomes the reason that the draft is getting eyeballs,” Thomas said. “I don’t want to do that.”
Gil Brandt, a UW product who was a longtime Dallas Cowboys scout and served in the NFL front office for decades, tried to convince Thomas to attend the draft as a final push. But Thomas’ mind was made up.
“They started trying to play bad cop,” Thomas said. “And it was only after the fact that my agent kind of let me know, they have millions of dollars on the line making sure that they try to get all you guys there. I’m like, that’s even more reason why I wouldn’t want to go because they’re trying to make money and be deceitful about it to me when they don’t want to just share it with the rookies.
“Then I got like, ‘OK, that’s how you think about it?’ I almost became like, ‘No, I’m going to prove (I won’t fall) and I’m definitely not going now.’
Instead of Radio City Music Hall, Thomas spent the day fishing with his father, Eric, and close friends. They got onto Lake Michigan in Port Washington, about 45 minutes north of his hometown of Brookfield, and — at the demand of Schaffer — stayed close enough to shore to get cell-phone reception and a clear enough radio signal to hear the draft broadcast.
An ESPN camera crew was on the shore that morning as well, documenting Thomas’ trip.
One of the anglers in Thomas’ party that day was Joe Panos, a former UW lineman who played in the league and a friend of the Thomas family. He had a hunch that Thomas was going to Cleveland, which he did after Oakland selected LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell and Detroit picked Georgia Tech wide out Calvin Johnson.
A Cleveland scout called a few minutes before the Browns submitted their draft card, ensuring Thomas hadn’t been injured or arrested since they’d last spoke — a customary safeguard teams employ.
Panos offered words of encouragement to Thomas, who knew he’d like Cleveland after visiting family in Toledo, Ohio, throughout his life.
“(Panos) was like, ‘Hey, one of my best friends in the world is Tarek Saleh, played with him at Wisconsin. He played in Cleveland with the Browns. … He just called me and he said this is going to be a perfect situation for you,’” Thomas recalled.
“People in Cleveland are one of the few fan bases that understand and respect offensive line play. If nearly any other franchise drafted a left tackle No. 3 overall when they needed a quarterback, they would have hated it, they would have hated you. But he’s like, ‘Cleveland, they’re going to love you. So congratulations.’ And so I’ll never forget that little tidbit that they gave me and it was true.”
Thomas had done as he said — he stayed in the top three of the draft despite not attending the event. More importantly, and fittingly, he caught a brown trout that afternoon.
“At the time, it was probably 10 pounds. But in memory, it’s grown a little over the years, now it’s like 15,” Thomas said. “If you talk to me next year it’s probably 20.”