CLEVELAND — As Joe Thomas crashed to his knees and grabbed his left arm, instinctively pulling his injured limb tightly to his body while screaming in pain, an audible gasp flowed through the crowd inside FirstEnergy Stadium.

This couldn't be happening. Not to Thomas. Not to Cleveland's unbreakable iron man left tackle.

High above the field in the radio broadcast booth, Doug Dieken, the team's venerable color commentator who made 203 consecutive starts at left tackle and also wore No. 73 for the Browns uttered words that reverberated across the NFL.

"Oh, no," Dieken said, his voice a jumble of shock and dread while watching his close friend.

While blocking on a routine running play he had completed thousands of times without incident or injury, Thomas tore a tendon, ending his season and pushing his career to unexpected crossroads.

Without warning, an extraordinary run of durability forged by good luck, hard work and other-worldly toughness — it drew comparisons this week to other notable streaks like Cal Ripken playing in 2,632 consecutive games and Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight — was over.

Thomas had never missed a snap in his career. When the enormously popular 6-foot-6, 312-pounder trotted to the sideline as Cleveland's offense continued its drive, he was not part of the action for the first time in 10,363 consecutive plays, a stretch that almost defies logic.

"Unreal," said former NFL offensive tackle Tony Boselli, whose career was cut short by injury.

Boselli wasn't alone as players, coaches and fans around the league reflected on Thomas' accomplishment, which has gone under appreciated because he's played on so many losing teams with Cleveland. In an innately violent sport, where collisions and injuries rule, Thomas has been the exception — the outlier.

"So many things are out of your control, guys getting rolled up from behind, just the crazy stuff that can happen, let alone just the wear and tear on your body," Boselli said. "He's remarkable. He's been a great player and I hated to see him get hurt. But it's pretty special what he's done."

While the Browns will adopt the next-man-up philosophy, plugging second-year lineman Spencer Drango into Thomas' spot this week against Minnesota in London, coach Hue Jackson is realistic about what's missing.

"We all know those shoes won't be filled," he said. "Let's just be honest, that is Joe Thomas we are talking about."

To truly grasp how Thomas, 32, suited up each week and made 167 consecutive starts, a look behind the curtain is necessary.

He played through injuries, including a torn knee ligament, several knee strains and two high ankle sprains. Thomas also trained smartly, never pushing too hard while incorporating stretching exercises that made him more pliable than many peers.

His work ethic, dedication to his craft and selflessness endeared Thomas to teammates, some of whom have moved on but look back on their time with him as significant in their own development.


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