There isn’t so much as a scintilla of a hint that Joe Thomas has suffered any ill effects from the profession he has mastered in what surely will turn out to be a Hall of Fame career. The Browns’ 32-year-old tackle speaks clearly and authoritatively about a wide range of topics — from how he thinks the Browns finally are about to turn the corner to respectability, to being impressed with how rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer has carried himself, to the latest international soccer match.
But Thomas acknowledges that there are times when he questions whether the cumulative impact of the thousands of collisions he has absorbed during a lifetime of playing football, the last 10 years of which have been for the Browns, will cause problems later in life.
There already have been some instances of short-term memory loss. He forgets where he puts his keys, he forgets the items he’s supposed to get at the grocery store. Thomas — who acknowledged concerns about some memory loss during a television interview earlier this year with Graham Bensinger — is unwilling to make a definitive link to the role football may have played in these episodes. But given the increased awareness of the long-term impact of the repeated contact football players experience, the All-Pro left tackle simply can’t ignore potential warning signs.
“I think the brain side of football, what it does to your brain, has been overlooked for a long time,” Thomas said during an expansive interview at the Browns’ training facility. “The physical toll that it takes on your body is something that people have understood for a while — we see former players that are in tough shape physically — and I think that’s something most players accept the risk. The mental toll that it takes is not as well understood, and it’s more recent that people have started to study that and started to make a correlation with playing the game of football.”
Thomas says he can’t be certain that his bouts of forgetfulness are the result of helmet-to-helmet hits.
“If you’re a guy that never played football and you couldn’t remember where you put your keys, you wouldn’t think twice about it,” he said. “If you’re a football player, you might think, ‘Maybe it’s because I got hit in the head a lot.’ Also, when you get older, you have kids, you’ve got a lot of stuff going on in your brain, and you only have a certain capacity to remember a certain number of short-term things. If you forget the small stuff that you may have remembered when you were a kid and you didn’t have a lot going on, you can be alarmed and say, ‘Whoa, I can’t remember this little stuff that my wife told me a little while ago.’ Well, maybe it’s because you’re thinking about [defensive end] Dwight Freeney coming off the edge, or thinking that I’ve got to take my kids to school at this time, and thinking about what we’re doing for dinner. You’ve got a lot of stuff going on, so it’s important to understand there could be a lot of cause for simple forgetfulness.”
But . . .
“But as an NFL player,” he said, “you have to be more vigilant in monitoring these things.”
AWARE OF THE RESEARCH
Thomas has been aware of the potential impact of head trauma for several years, well before the more intense focus recently on football and brain health. He has followed the research being done at Boston University’s CTE Center, particularly its latest study released two weeks ago, which showed that 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players showed signs of the neurodegenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Thomas said he is willing to donate his brain to help researchers. He is particularly concerned about fellow offensive linemen and other positions at which contact is especially frequent.
“Offensive linemen take a number of hits on a daily basis,” Thomas said. “Most other positions — quarterbacks, receivers, running backs — the only time they get hit is on game day. Nobody’s getting tackled in practice during the season. It just doesn’t happen. The guys that are getting hit every day are offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers. They’re the guys bumping heads. So having that awareness is really important.
“There could be other reasons besides playing football that you lost your keys. So I walk [a fine] line, saying it’s not a major concern yet, but it’s certainly something I’m monitoring. Try to use the best science and the best doctors available to help you understand where you are and help you understand whether it’s something to be concerned about, or whether it’s something you don’t have to worry about. That’s the way you’re going to get the best available treatment.”
Thomas retains a very pragmatic approach to the game he loves, treating his craft with all the seriousness of a fine artist yet understanding that it’s still a game. That comes with wisdom and experience, something Thomas hopes all players can achieve.
That includes Jets rookie safety Jamal Adams, who called the football field “the perfect place to die” during a fan forum Tuesday. Adams later said he was trying to convey his passion for the game, but Thomas understands the mentality behind a comment like that.
“Hopefully, he wasn’t being serious, that it was hyperbole,” Thomas said. “But it’s certainly the type of person that coaches try to mold you into from the time you start playing peewee football. Coaches want that warrior mentality, because that’s how they bring the best out of you as a player and they want you to see football as the most important thing in your life, and that you want to be a warrior, and you’d die for your cause, because that’s the way they get the most out of a player. Hopefully, all players can step back and understand that, in the end, we’re playing a kid’s game for entertainment purposes and we need to do everything we can to protect our health and safety as well as we can while maintaining this great sport as the great entertainment as it is. It’s important to love [football], it’s important to give everything you’ve got on the field, but nobody wants to die out there.”
IT’S NOT JUST CONCUSSIONS
The NFL’s attention to and awareness of treating concussions has taken on greater emphasis in recent years, but Thomas said concussions aren’t the only problem. In fact, he hasn’t missed a game since coming into the NFL in 2007, but he still is impacted by all the hits he takes.
“As a lineman, you’re talking about the sub-concussive hits that are the problem,” he said. “It’s the guys that are taking all those boxer punches. You’re not getting a concussion, but your brain is getting rattled every time you get hit. That’s what leads to the CTE. It’s not the concussions. You have to treat concussions properly so that you don’t have major symptoms and issues down the line, but when you’re talking averages, the guys that have the most problems are the guys that get hit in the head every day.”
Thomas therefore remains unconvinced that improvements made in helmets will solve the problem.
“You’ve got basic physics — two big objects [players] are moving at each other,” he said. “When they stop, the brain is going to shake. There’s no way around it unless you slow the acceleration down, but you can’t do that when two helmets are hitting.”
Thomas remains at the top of his game, and he said as long as he feels healthy, he’ll play as long as he enjoys the game. He doesn’t want to scare anyone away from football and certainly isn’t panicking about any symptoms he might be experiencing now — or in the future — that might be related to the sport. In fact, there’s nothing he’d love more than to be a part of a Browns team that becomes a perennial playoff contender.
“I’m still enjoying it, and I definitely think the arrow is pointed in the right direction for the Browns,” said Thomas, who is signed through the 2018 season. “We have excellent leadership, staff, the head coach [Hue Jackson] is as good as any I’ve ever been around. We’ve got the right people in place, the front office has made methodical, informed decisions through the draft and free agency. I just don’t see any reason why we can’t turn this team into a contender.”
Thomas would love to be a part of it well into the future, but he takes nothing for granted.
“I take my career one day at a time,” he said. “That’s what you have to do when you get up there in double digits [years in the NFL]. It’s impossible to know where I’ll be in three years. You hope you have enough gas left in the tank, but nobody really knows. It’s fun to just enjoy the day you’re working on.”