Joe Thomas is the MVP of Catch Phrase.
He wants you to know this. He’s proud of his party-game aptitude — a Pro Bowl ability with gestures, charades and clues. He lets out a deep, booming laugh as he repeats it: “MVP of Catch Phrase.” He even makes me write it down, though I’m recording the whole conversation with three different tape recorders. On top of that, he says he’s considering a run for president of his homeowners association.
That’s Thomas, your average rather-be-fishing-than-in-NYC Joe. He also just happens to be one of this year’s most talked about NFL rookies. Yet, you’d likely walk right past him without realizing it.
This is the case on a mid-November Tuesday evening at Blake’s Seafood Restaurant & Bar in Crocker Park. It’s supposed to be a slow night. But news that Brady Quinn and Joe Thomas would be eating dinner here tonight while doing an interview and a photo shoot has apparently leaked. The bar is packed.
Thomas arrives first, parking in a lot across the street and carrying a shirt on a hanger. He doesn’t notice all the people, and they don’t notice him either.
“I wasn’t sure what to wear,” he says, looking at me for some fashion guidance. As Thomas ponders the gray T-shirt he’s wearing versus the striped button-down in his hand, a black Hummer flashes by the windows and then stops at the valet. Brady Quinn enters — taller and slimmer than you’d expect and even more good looking in person if that’s possible. His brown eyes squint slightly as he smiles, his short hair tousled perfectly.
Everyone watches him as we walk to the back of the restaurant, every person waiting for someone else to make the first move. Finally, a middle-aged man walks up to the table and shakes Quinn’s hand, oblivious to the photo shoot that’s going on. He pats him on the back and whispers some words of encouragement in his ear. Two boys and their mother linger in the background with a football and jerseys. After Quinn signs them, the mother thanks him, trying to keep her composure. She launches nervously into a story about how her family just bought a brand-new house and decorated the basement in Browns and Buckeyes memorabilia. He smiles, nods and tells her that’s amazing.
She keeps talking, fully aware that she is interrupting his dinner. “Get used to it,” she says. “You’ll have a lot more people intruding on you.”
He’s almost used to it already. The former Notre Dame quarterback was hyped as a member of the next generation of great NFL quarterbacks. That media attention has prepped him for the tough questions he’s faced with today. Like the one on everybody’s mind.
“I’m the No. 2 quarterback, so the only thing I can do is prepare myself the best I can every week in case something were to happen,” he says after a long pause. He’s quieter than you’d expect, warming up slowly at first, like the way a football inflates. He thinks about each word, selecting them carefully. “You have to remember the reason you’re here and that reason is to one day lead a team.” He could have chosen another path — law school or a circus clown. He’s thought about both, one more seriously than the other. But he loves football. And when you’re this good, you learn how to deal with everything that goes along with it.
Since the Browns’ highly publicized draft-day deal, Quinn and Thomas have spent a lot of time together (the NBA Finals, Indians games and being roomies during training camp for example). That bond has continued, and over dinner the two friends and road roommates talk about life as the team’s highest-profile rookies, fighting over the TV remote control, reading what the media writes (they promised to read this story) and what it’s going to take to bring a championship to Cleveland.
Joe Thomas• So this is for Cleveland Magazine’s Most Interesting People article? We’re the most interesting people in Cleveland? Wow! That’s awesome. I am going to take that to my grave.
Brady Quinn • That’s so cool.
JT • I didn’t know that — I’m interesting.
BQ • You are interesting. He went to a homeowners association meeting the other night because he wants to be involved. He actually ended up being an instrumental part in that conversation.
JT • I’m going to be counting ballots for our next neighborhood executive board.
Cleveland Magazine • Are you going to run for president?
JT • Maybe this year.
BQ • I’ll put on the campaign.
JT • We’ll put up signs. [They both laugh.]
CM • So you first met during an All-American game for high school seniors? You were on the same team?
BQ • Kind of weird, huh?
JT • We killed them, 50-3.
BQ • It was a blowout.
JT • It was a really busy week. We practiced twice a day. They constantly had us doing stuff, so we never really got any downtime.
BQ • I’m not going to go into details, but Joe was a lot quieter. Joe’s blossomed since he went to college. He’s opened up a little bit. At [Browns] rookie mini-camp, we roomed together.
CM • What did you think of Brady as a roommate?
JT • He’s a great guy. We really hit it off. We have a lot of the same ideas, beliefs, things we think are funny, you know. We both love playing football — [Quinn coughs and whispers “Snoring.”]
CM • Snoring?
JT • The only thing I didn’t like about Brady was I barely got any sleep that weekend because he snored so darn much.
BQ • My dad snores really bad, and I was never really under the assumption I snored.
JT • The worst part about it is that’s the first thing he says to me before we go to bed, “You don’t snore, do you?” like all worried that I was going to keep him up all night snoring or something. And then we find out he’s Mr. Big Snorer, and he’s the one keeping me up all night.
BQ • Yeah, it’s true. I was.
JT • If I ever play bad, I’m just going to blame Brady, because I probably didn’t get any sleep the night before.
BQ • We room together still.
JT • Yeah, we room together the night before away games.
BQ • Still roommates.
JT • Through and through.
CM • So do you guys play video games when you’re on the road together?
JT • I like to read. [Quinn cracks up.] Once we’re in the hotel, I like to read a little bit and control the TV remote a lot. And a lot of times he doesn’t like what I have to watch.
BQ • First off, usually, usually, it’s me controlling the remote because he’s reading, so he really has no choice. Or he’s on the phone. So I’ll give him the privilege button to use the remote.
CM • What do you guys like to watch, what are you fighting over?
JT • I like news sometimes. I like to watch Discovery Channel, National Geographic. “Man vs. Wild” is a good show.
BQ • Those are some good shows.
JT • Then sometimes there’s other stuff that I watch that’s a little more abstract, more on the level of a 70-year-old man or something.
CM • Do you guys pay attention to the media?
BQ • No.
JT • No. [They both laugh.]
BQ • I learned early when I was at Notre Dame, whatever they write about you good or bad, you are never going to stay focused on what you want to accomplish.
JT • You are never as good as they say you are and you are never as bad as they say you are.
CM • Do you enjoy all the attention?
BQ • I’m to the point where I don’t mind it. I don’t want to say it’s good or bad. I think it comes with the position I’m in from what I did in college. And it’s followed me here now.
JT • That’s the perception. Like Brady said, the media attention and being in the limelight more comes from being the star quarterback at Notre Dame, being an All-American, setting the records that he did and then being one of the top NFL picks and one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, getting drafted by the Cleveland Browns and being a quarterback. I think that’s what draws the attention more than the type of person he is or the personality he has. He does have a good personality. People do want to talk to him and people do want to hear from him and know what’s going on with him. I think that’s what brings the attention to him more than he seeks it out. It’s like me being a lineman. Nobody cares what I’m doing, nobody wants to talk to me. And that’s fine with me. That’s just the way it is being a lineman versus a quarterback.
BQ • The funny thing about that, though, linemen are the most interesting people you will ever meet. [Thomas laughs.] Because nobody is ever going to come up hugging them, giving them high-fives for touchdowns and saying good job and everything. If you sit down and talk to them and get to know them, there are always funny things going on with the O-line.
CM • It’s just funny, because everywhere you go there’s Brady Quinn merchandise, even a T-shirt with just your face.
BQ • Yeah, that’s a horrible T-shirt.
JT • I haven’t seen that one. I have to buy that one. [He laughs.]
BQ • It’s an awful, awful shirt.
JT • What does it say on it?
CM • It doesn’t say anything.
JT • It should say, “Brady Is God.” [He laughs.]
CM • We couldn’t find a Joe Thomas jersey anywhere.
JT • That’s because they were all sold out. [They both laugh.]
CM • Does it ever get to you, Joe, that people don’t really know who you are?
JT • No, I love it. For me I’m just a normal, average person. And the more people who see me like that ...
BQ • All the better.
JT • I get recognized as a model a lot. [They both laugh.]
CM • Brady, do you ever get tired of all the attention?
BQ • It gets wearing. After the draft, I was glad it was over. It was a long week. That day was just a roller-coaster ride. Again, if you aren’t mentally prepared to handle this, then you are in the wrong profession, at least being in the quarterback’s shoes — it’s what you are going to deal with every day as long as you play the position and do well. It’s almost something you should hope to have.
CM • How was it coming to Cleveland during the NBA Finals?
BQ • It was a great atmosphere. We went to the Cavs Finals for a couple of those games. We threw out the first pitch at the Indians game. They had great seasons, so it left us with, this is what we should expect not only with the Cavs and Indians but also with the Browns as well.
JT • As soon as we got here, Cleveland opened their arms, wrapped us up and treated us so well. I almost feel like a celebrity around here sometimes. [They both laugh.]
BQ • The reception at the Cavs game was just awesome.
JT • That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of, when the Cavs gave Brady, myself and Eric Wright Cavs jerseys with our names on it.
CM • Who had the better first pitch at the Indians game? [Long pause. They both look at each other.]
BQ • Want to tell the story? Tell the truth.
JT • Before I go out there, the guy tells me, “You’re going to be on a mound so you got to throw it higher than you think, because everyone that goes out there throws it into the dirt.” And I’m thinking,OK, I don’t want to embarrass myself or anything. I’m going to go out there and show how good an arm I have.I go out there and let one loose. I threw it high — a little too high, because it goes right over the catcher’s mitt and hits the backstop. It had a lot of heat on it.
BQ • A lot of heat.
JT • That’s all I was worried about. I may not be accurate, but I’ve got a good arm.
BQ • There’s still a dent in the backstop right now. [They both laugh.] True story.
JT • He had an excellent pitch though.
BQ • My shoe came off. You could literally say I threw out of my shoe. I was trying to put a little something on it. It was a little stiff, but it was all right.
CM • How fast do you think yours was going?
BQ • 64 maybe. [He looks at Thomas.] I topped out at 64 ... 65.
JT • He’s a knuckleball pitcher. He doesn’t throw a lot of heat, good movement though.
CM • Let’s talk about being rookies and hazing. How did it feel to have your heads shaved?
BQ • I was pretty upset about that.
JT • After you stopped crying, how did you feel?
BQ • I don’t think there was any crying involved.
CM • Are you going to grow it back out?
BQ • Yes. Yes, I am.
JT • Even though Joe Theismann ripped on you for having long hair? [Thomas laughs.]
BQ • Joe [Theismann] had long hair back in the day. I was actually trying to be like a Joe Montana, Joe Theismann with the long hair. It’s kind of their era. I was trying to bring it back. He wasn’t too excited about it. I told my brother-in-law [Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk] that I was going to try to grow my hair out close to as long as his, and it never got close ’cause of the head shaving.
CM • How many people had to hold you down?
BQ • There were a few. Four, five, six. I tried to throw up my arm in hopes the boys would cut my arm, and I would maybe have the opportunity to get out of there without getting my hair cut. [He laughs.] It was really out of the blue. I was going back into the training room, and a couple of the bigger guys on defense said, “What’s up?” and I was like, “What’s up?” as I was trying to walk around them. I was like, “So, ah, are we dancing here, what’s going on?” And they were like, “No, what’s up, man?” I said, “I’m going to get iced up for a second. Be right back.” And a couple more guys came. One of the guys behind all of them had a pair of clippers, and I slowly started to realize what was going on.
CM • How about you, Joe?
JT • I didn’t really care. I just sat down and took it.
BQ • Wait a second, all right. I am sure he would have put up a little bit of a fight if he went first.
JT • They were going to shave my eyebrows because I didn’t really care if they buzzed my hair or not.
CM • What else did they do to you?
BQ • We all had to sing a song in the team meeting room. Mine was “Walking in Memphis.” I was a little upset because I was trying to get some of the guys to sing along with me, because I’m not as good, and they tried to act like they didn’t know the words. I asked around after and they knew the song. Then I got booed when I did the Notre Dame fight song.
JT • I sang “On, Wisconsin.” I was so good they didn’t want any more.
BQ • They had their fix.
CM • You guys have been called the future of the Browns. Do you believe that?
JT • I don’t worry about it. [He laughs.] I just go into work every day and say, “All right, what do I got to do today,” and I go do it.
BQ • If you’re working to obtain a goal and trying to achieve success, you can’t look to the future. You have to look right now and focus on getting better and better each day. Hopefully in the end that’s what people will say about us. That’s not necessarily our goal, our goal is to win and bring this city a championship.
JT • We’ve made great strides already. Who’s to say we can’t do it this year? A couple years back the Steelers won the Super Bowl as the wild card. In today’s NFL there’s so much parity, anybody can win any year no matter what city. Cleveland’s been down in a lot of sports, and people believe in jinxes and stuff like that, but as an athlete you can’t believe in that stuff.
Age • 23
Occupation • Football player
Playing favorites • He couldn’t choose his favorite songs so he gave us his top two: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and Poison’s “Nothin’ but a Good Time.” “They are just fun songs.”
His top three QBs • Joe Montana. “My No. 1. I grew up watching him. I love him. He’s another Notre Dame guy.” Bernie Kosar and Tom Brady.
Shoe-in • He usually wears a pair of Birkenstock clogs. “Your toes are higher than your heel. It’s a lot better for your back, it aligns you correctly.”
On Derek Anderson • “The way he’s played this year has been a tremendous lift in the way our organization has gone. The offensive line has done an unbelievable job. The offensive coordinators have done an unbelievable job. So has the rest of our team in surrounding him and stepping up to the next level.”
Favorite TV show • “The Office”
The patriot • “I’m about as patriotic as they get. I’d have a tattoo of the American flag on my back, but I just haven’t had time to get it.”
Steelers rivalry • “For some reason the second guys get here and put on a Browns uniform, the switch turns and they automatically hate Pittsburgh. I grew up with it and it’s ingrained in my blood.”
His Most Interesting Person • Joe Thomas. “He’s a very calm, laid-back guy. He’s very intelligent and worldly.”
Age • 23
Occupation• Football player
So you think you can dance? • His favorite song is Kevin Lyttle’s “Turn Me On.” While on his honeymoon in Switzerland, Thomas and his wife, Annie, taught the locals how to do “The Chicken Dance.” “I’m a dancing machine,” he says.
The Deer Hunter • “I like to read about the white-tailed deer, their tendencies, what they like to eat, where they like to sleep.”
Like Mike ... almost • “In high school, I was tall and skinny. I was sure I was going to play basketball, because I was like 6 feet 7 inches and 225 as a freshman.”
Agent alert • “During the draft he [his agent] would call me like three times a day, so I had to put a special ring on it so I knew when to ignore it,” he says with a laugh.
On the O-line • “Ryan Tucker has been helping a lot with the everyday stuff and technique,” he says. “Eric Steinbach knows what it takes to win, and he’s really taught me a lot.”
Favorite movie • “Saving Private Ryan”
His Most Interesting Person: Brady Quinn. “It’s fun to be around the type of person who [when he’s] on the football field all he wants to do is win, all he wants to be on is teams that win. It doesn’t matter if he’s the starting quarterback. He’s going to work his tail off either way.”