CLEVELAND, Ohio — Joe Thomas didn’t drop a “I can row a boat, canoe?” joke on Annie Nelson when trying to woo her, but he was close.
It was the night before Annie’s 21st birthday, and she was enjoying a night out on the town in Madison, Wisconsin, with a guy she was dating and a bunch of friends. A star basketball player for the Badgers, Annie stood out wherever she went with her 6-foot-1 height, long blonde hair and supermodel looks.
The fact that Annie was holding hands with her date outside of the bar wasn’t enough to deter Joe, the 6-6, strapping offensive tackle for the Badgers. With his ability to block hulking, snorting 300-pound rushers, the poor guy had no chance.
“Joe pulled me away and asked for my number,” Annie said. “My boyfriend at the time was a little smaller than Joe, to say the least. He did not stand in the way.”
Joe argues that “the details are in dispute to this day, but I feel like I was the gentleman in the situation and used my size to my caveman advantage, and realized that he was no match for me.”
Then he said the first thing to Annie that came to his mind.
“Of course it was, ‘Hey, let me take you out on my canoe sometime,’” Thomas said. “I knew I would at least get a laugh.”
What he also got, surprisingly, was her number. Not a yes yet, but it was a start.
“I didn’t want to date a football player,” Annie said. “I was adamant against that.”
But her friends on the men’s basketball team, some of whom knew Thomas from high school hoops, talked her into it.
“They said, ‘He’s definitely a good one,’” Annie said. “‘He’s nothing like the reputation of the football guys.’”
After a few phone chats, he picked her up at her apartment to go for a walk, and they talked for hours.
“I knew right away he was the one,” Annie said. “I told my friends, ‘I’ll never go on another first date again.’”
But Joe had her beat on the whole “forever” thing.
“I was thunderstruck even before we met,” Joe said. “Obviously she’s cute, so that works. And the fact that she could wear some heels and almost be eye-to-eye with me was pretty good. I was on board with that. And being an athletic person, I always felt that having a partner, a girlfriend, it was important that they understood what I did, what I enjoyed, and we had those things in common.”
Recommended Browns stories
- Think NFL preseason doesn’t matter? Don’t tell this Browns running back
- Browns DE Isaiah Thomas has matured on and off the field this year thanks to major life events
- Browns rookie QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson ready for another step in development Thursday night
- Who is Jilly Anais, Deshaun Watson’s long-time girlfriend?
He also scouted Annie thoroughly through some of her friends, who gave her high grades on “fun, happy, optimistic, outgoing and funny.” Definitely first-round potential.
“As soon as I had a chance to go on a date with her and I got to see her type of humor — she just had this really, quick-witted, funny way of seeing life,” Thomas said. “To me, she was the total package. After that first date, I was like, ‘If I don’t screw this up, there’s no way that she is not the one for me.’”
The canoe ride, which she agreed to, confirmed it. Joe lived in an apartment on Lake Mendota that summer called The Surfside, and Annie lived across the street. He had a little aluminum canoe docked right there, and fished almost every day with his buddies “before class, or instead of class, which happened a few times in the summer” he said.
What a better way to vet Annie, he thought, than to get her out on the aluminum gondola.
“I figured that’d be the perfect romantic date,” he said. “I was hoping that I could win her over with my self-deprecating goofiness.”
But Annie was quickly onto him.
“Little did I know he just needed somebody to row him around to get him to the perfect fishing spot,” she said. “I think it was a little bit of both needing a partner and wanting to go on a date.”
Joe doesn’t dispute it.
“Well, yeah, it was hard to control the canoe by myself while I was casting, so I needed somebody who wasn’t as big into fishing as I was,” he said.
When they officially started dating, they took a canoe trip on the Wisconsin River, the first of many. They repeated it the weekend before their wedding, as a married couple and with their four children.
“It’s a special place for us,” Annie said.
No horsing around
With college athletes congregating in Madison in the summers, Joe often spotted Annie at the training center before they were dating.
“And of course at the bars and restaurants occasionally when you needed that one drink just before bed,” Joe said.
“And the library,” said Annie.
“And the churches,” Joe said.
In Annie’s senior year and Joe’s junior year, the football team and women’s basketball team both had games in Hawaii at the same time. By then, they were a couple.
“It was kind of kismet,” Annie said. “We had three games and they had one. These guys were going out having so much fun after their game, and then they would all pack the stands for our basketball games.”
When Joe finally attended one of Annie’s basketball games after they started dating, he quickly realized that games of horse in the driveway against the three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection would be humbling.
“I knew I was going to lose,” he said. “She was a pretty dead-eye shot. I would go to her games on Sundays — which was awesome because we played on Saturday — and seeing her shooting percentage in the handouts, like 65%, I knew I wasn’t going to win a game of horse.”
“And to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever beat you at horse,” Joe said.
“No,” Annie said.
“As long as the rules are normal,” Joe said.
“No dunking,” said Annie.
Countered Joe, “But then I usually say, ‘You can’t shoot an elbow jumper’ because that must have been the shot she practiced the most. I’ve never seen her miss one.”
She says yes
By his senior year, Joe knew he was ready to marry Annie, and scoped out ring preferences from her friends. He planned to propose in New York City while they were there for the Draddy Trophy ceremony, one of many awards for which Joe was a finalist.
“I was going to take her on a carriage ride in Central Park and ask her to marry me there,” Joe said. “It was perfect. Of course, she can’t say no to that.”
“That would be awkward,” Annie said.
“It would be impossible,” Joe said. “At least she’ll say yes then and tell me a week later, ‘Yeah, that yes that I said? That’s turned into a no.’”
From New York, they were scheduled to fly to Orlando for the college football awards, were Joe won the Outland Trophy for the nation’s best interior lineman on offense or defense. But a huge snowstorm hit and their flights got delayed. They arrived in New York just as the Draddy ceremony was starting, and Joe didn’t have time for the romantic proposal.
“The can got kicked down the road until we went to Orlando a couple days later,” he said. “We had to make the best of a tough situation. I found some time to take her out in Disney, and they had this big, beautiful lake and they had a nice little boardwalk pier area. I got down on one knee to propose. I think she was caught off guard.”
“I was,” Annie said.
During the flight delay in Milwaukee, she thought he was acting strange.
“I remember saying to my mom, ‘He’s either really nervous about getting this Draddy Award – which I had never heard him talk about — or something’s going on with him,” Annie said. “I was still shocked when he asked me because we had been dating for a while, but with everything coming up, him entering the draft and possibly moving, me graduating, there was so much going on.”
In the end, Joe loved the the way it played out. Besides, a Disney engagement was only fitting for the 16 years they’ve shared.
“Sometimes it feels like Disney,” Annie said. “Most of the time it feels like a circus.”
The engagement was followed by a bowl game and then preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine. Annie was also finishing school, graduating, and planning a wedding.
“Then draft day happened, and we started to try to find a place to live in Cleveland,” Annie said. “We got married and moved a week after. And it was a whirlwind. But looking back, it was perfect. It was very much us in our personality. We’re very much have a list, check the list off and go forward.”
They got married on July 7, 2007 in Madison.
“It was 7/7/07,” Joe said. “Hopefully I won’t forget that one for a long time.”
“You won’t,” Annie said.
They were living in Madison at the time, and it was a short commute for their family and friends. Besides, it was the scene of that initial arm pull, the decisive first walk and the first canoe ride.
As everyone knows, Joe eschewed the pageantry of the NFL Draft in New York City that year and went fishing on the big day with his dad, his father-in-law Greg Nelson, his friend, former high school coach and mentor Joe Panos, “and a couple people from NFL Network,” Joe said.
He got the call from the Browns that they had drafted him No. 3 overall while out on Lake Michigan being an average Joe — the perfect way to start his Hall of Fame career.
And then there were six
Joe and Annie went on to have four kids — three girls and a boy — who will present him for the Hall of Fame along with Annie. They are Logan (10), Camryn (8), Jack (7), and Reese (4).
Fortunately for Annie, Joe was present for the births of all of them despite one being due the day of an opener in Pittsburgh.
“I was a nervous wreck because I knew I needed him there and I wanted him there,” he said. “They had a car ready for him to be whisked away if I went into labor in the middle of the night.”
As luck would have it, she didn’t have the baby until the following week, and “Joe got to miss half of a Wednesday and the beginning of a Thursday, and he was very thankful to me because they called him out of practice.”
Now an analyst for NFL Network, Joe has turned down many full-time coaching and media jobs to be there for his kids after his grueling 11 years in the NFL.
“Balance is really key for anybody that’s making a transition, especially from pro athlete to not a pro athlete anymore,” Joe said. “You’ve got to find purpose. You’ve got to find something that gets you out of bed every single day. You’ve got to be able to come home and have the kids want to knock you over and give you a noogie and give you a big hug and say, ‘Hey dad, it’s going to be all right.’”
And on those occasions when you strut into the house thinking you’re stuff doesn’t stink, “your daughter yells, ‘I just went poo, Daddy, wipe my butt!’ And you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m just a butt-wiper.’”
Their legendary Halloween parties and a little something extra for Joel Bitonio
Joe and Annie were legendary for the Halloween parties they threw each year for teammates at their home in Westlake.
“I love to throw a party,” Annie said. “I love a theme. We love to dress up in costumes. And now our children are going down the same path.”
The idea was to provide a place for the players and their wives to let loose with no cameras or strangers. To bond as a team with everyone included.
“I’d spend two weeks beforehand, putting up black drapes everywhere, fog machines, karaoke, photo booths, you name it,” Annie said. “It’s nice that we always had something to look forward to it, especially after the start of the year if things weren’t going well.”
Annie remembers the year people kept coming into the house spooked and asked her why she scared the hell out of them like that. Turns out, former Browns tight end Gary Barnidge had dressed up as Pennywise from Stephen King’s “IT” and was jumping out of the bushes at his teammates with the fog machine between his feet.
“I don’t like to be scared, so I had to reprimand him,” Annie said. “But he was having so much fun that I really didn’t want to take the joy away from him.”
The Thomases also grew close to many players on the team including the Colt McCoy and his wife Rachel, and Joel Bitonio and his wife Courtney. The Bitonios have spent Thanksgiving with the Thomases, and one time, Bitonio had to bite the bullet, literally.
“We had a chef cook us duck one time that (Joe) hunted,” Bitonio said last season. “It was really good, except I did find a bullet in mine, which kind of scared me a little bit — but it was really good.”
Duck a l’bullet (pronounced boo-lay), if you will.
Joe’s mental breakdown
The agony of defeat, his beat-up body and the stress of pursuing perfection finally took its toll on Joe during the 2016 season, and he had what he describes as a “mental breakdown.” Eleven or more losses in nine seasons will do that to the toughest of men.
The Browns had just lost 33-13 to the Patriots on Oct. 9 to fall to 0-5, and Annie and Logan picked Joe up after the game in the players lot. The moment he climbed into the passenger seat, he broke down in tears.
“I had just played a perfect game,” he said. “There were no plays I’d take back, and that just doesn’t happen. And we still got our butts kicked. The emotional understanding and realization that what I do has impact but not a big impact positively took its toll. I had no control over the outcome.”
He felt “helpless and hopeless” on that ride home with Annie.
“I had a knee that was falling apart that I was getting drained every Monday,” he said. “I couldn’t even stand at practice. I couldn’t even kneel at practice my knee was so bad. I would literally just lay in the training room. I would just drag my leg down the hall like it was right out of surgery the whole week. And then on Sunday morning, I would shoot it up and wrap it up and go out and play ball.
“I was putting forth this enormous effort that was straining my body physically and mentally and I was getting nothing to show for it.”
Annie had never seen Joe like this and it broke her heart.
“He was so sad and in so much pain,” she said.
She suggested he seek professional help, and he took her up on it, talking to the Browns team psychologists.
“It took just a few sessions just be able to open up and let them understand where I was coming from,” he said earlier this year. “Giving me a few strategies to kind of cope with that anxiety and the helpless feeling was really powerful for me. I was able to finish the season and played really well.”
Annie appreciated the example he set for their kids and others.
“He’s the iron man. He’s the toughest guy that everybody knows and he still can be vulnerable and talk about his feelings and what the game did to him mentally,” Annie said. “It’s amazing for our children to see that.”
Annie has a secret and Joe accidentally gets sloshed
Joe and Annie were vacationing in Mexico in January with the kids and her parents when the confidential call came from the Hall that Joe, a 10-time Pro Bowler and six-time first-team All-Pro, had been elected a first-ballot Hall of Famer. On the beach when the Hall called, she went back to the room and called them back, bawling and laughing over the news.
“I was in this room by myself listening to all of this information and I can’t tell anybody (for three weeks) and I was just a ball of nerves,” Annie said. “But I was also so excited.”
Joe and Annie had a date night that night, and he brought four beers for them to split on the hour-long taxi ride to the restaurant up in the mountains. The problem was, Annie was too nervous to drink.
“So he drank all four of them,” she said.
When they sat down to dinner, Joe ordered a bottle of wine, which Annie also couldn’t drink. Then he ordered a margarita and a couple of beers, which she also passed on. He knocked them back himself.
“It was so funny because it’s probably how he would’ve celebrated the Hall of Fame,” Annie said. “And I had this information all by myself and I was thinking, ‘He has no idea what we’re celebrating right now.’”
Needless to say, Joe was feeling no pain and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
“We had been there before and had their famous dessert, Bananas Foster, which they make tableside,” Annie said. “But they trimmed the menu post-COVID and didn’t have it. He was very upset. He kept asking this poor waiter — a teenage kid — every time he came back, ‘I wish you would have all the things just to make Bananas Foster.’”
Annie recently saw that their good friend and Cleveland chef Rocco Whelan just opened the new Fahrenheit restaurant downtown, and that they make the fancy dessert.
“As soon as we’re done celebrating at the Hall of Fame, we’re going to go to Fahrenheit and Joe’s going to finally get his Bananas Foster,” Annie said.
In his own defense, Joe jokingly blamed Annie for him being “overserved” that night.
“I was ordering drinks for two people and she wasn’t drinking her portion,” Joe kidded.
“It was his duty,” Annie said.
It wasn’t the romantic night Annie envisioned, but a perfect memory nonetheless.
The Knock and the Boxers
Annie stressed for three weeks about how to have all four children dressed and looking like the Von Trapps when the great left tackle Walter Jones — Joe’s idol and fellow Hall of Famer — surprised Joe with the hallowed knock on the door informing him of his selection.
What she didn’t anticipate was having to beg Joe to put his pants on.
Annie had concocted a story about having a family meeting and then she and Joe were supposed to go out to dinner afterward. He didn’t understand why he had to put pants on for the meeting. What’s a pair of boxers amongst family members?
But Annie insisted, trying not to sound panicked, and he obliged. Then came the thunderous knock on door, and Camryn saying, “There’s a big guy with a jacket at the door.”
“The next thing my son (Jack) says, as he’s like hopping like a jack rabbit, is ‘Dad, we made it! We made it!’” Joe said.
It took a few moments to sink in, but then Joe rounded the corner and “there’s big Walter Jones standing there with his gold jacket and about 15-20 people with cameras and microphones.”
They scrounged up a $12 bottle of Korbel Brut Rose — it’s all they had — and Joe and Jones shared a Gold Jacket toast.
“Then my daughter (Reese, 4) is like sitting next to him on the stairs reading him her books and they were best friends, her and big Walt. She didn’t want big Walt to leave,” Joe said. “She was like tugging on his coat like, ‘No, no, no, I’ve got one more story,’ and she gave him like a Peppa Pig book or something like that to go home with. It was so special.”
Annie, who somehow pulled it off, was just grateful Joe had his pants on.
The easiest decision Joe’s ever made
Choosing Annie and the kids as his presenter was as easy as choosing Annie as his wife.
“I’ve talked to her a lot about this and it’s something I may or may not be talking about in my speech, but she’s been such a rock for me,” Joe said. “She’s been that person that I can always lean on. And I think a lot of that goes back to just her personality, but also that our relationship started in the middle of my college career.
“She’s seen me grow, she’s seen me change as a person on the field, off the field, and her background in athletics, playing college basketball was a huge help for me because she understood the drudgery that sometimes happens with competitive sports, especially at that level.
Annie understood that Joe didn’t always want to talk when he came home after a tough day.
“Maybe I just want to bury myself in the basement and cry into my pillow and eat some ice cream and some Girl Scout cookies,” he said. “It was really important to have that person in my life to be able to kind of balance the ups and downs of an NFL career with her background, understanding what it’s like to be a competitive athlete.”
Annie and the kids are his team now, Joe said.
“The most important thing in my life, the highest priority and thing I spent the most time on was football and trying to be the best left tackle I could be for 11 years,” he said. “When I retired, I wanted it to be Annie and the kids. They were my highest priority. That’s why I haven’t gotten into coaching. And I’ve turned down a lot of different media opportunities because I don’t want it to get in the way of being the best dad and husband that I can and to be a servant for them in their life.
“It gives me purpose just — like a team would — to when I’m feeling down and you feel maybe rudderless at times.”
Annie was shocked
Annie had “absolutely no idea” Joe would choose her and the kids for the important duty of presenting him at Saturday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“I’m still in shock and I still feel like something’s going to change,” she said. “I can’t believe it. He had so many amazing teammates and coaches and when he said earlier that we’re his team now, — I could cry just thinking about it. He’s the ultimate family man. Like I said, I fell in love with him the moment I met him because he’s just so genuine in his words. He doesn’t use a lot of fluff. He’s so kind. And the fact that he calls his family his team, that’s something that I know he doesn’t take lightly. I feel the same way about him and I know the kids feel the same about way about him. It’s just an absolute honor that he has selected us.”
The Hall sent a film crew and producer to the Thomas house to tape their presentation, the protocol for all presenters now. It’s one reason Joe felt comfortable including the kids.
“I emailed the producer beforehand and told her the things I wanted to say and the things the kids wanted to say,” Annie said. “It was almost like an interview. It actually worked out good for me and the kids because I have two of them that would (feel comfortable on stage) and two that would rather crawl into a hole.”
The topic of that pretend family meeting and what’s next
Annie pulled off the “family meeting” ruse on Walter Jones Day because they actually had an important topic to discuss.
The Thomases are planning to move to Munich for a few months in January, where Joe will help coach the Munich Ravens of the European League of Football.
“When we do a family trip, we tend to sit down and talk about what they want to see and all that,” Annie said. “So I had everything laid out, maps and all that stuff. So they were not surprised by the family meeting at all.”
If all goes as planned, the kids will go to school in Munich for a semester before the Ravens season starts in May.
“We can live the life over there for a little bit as a family of six in hopefully bigger than a two bedroom apartment,” Annie said. “This is kind of coaching light. They’re established, they have their O-line coach, they have their offensive coordinator. He’s just always said to anybody that will listen, ‘If there’s a connection in the European League of Football, my family and I want to do it.’”
Annie’s family of five lived in England for her dad’s job when she was in second grade, and it was one of their most memorable times.
“It was just us,” she said. “It’s such an amazing experience. We traveled a lot when we were over there and I’ve always been very vocal that it was just so wonderful. My sisters have the same feelings, and so Joe has always said that he wants to experience that with our family.”
During Hall of Fame weekend, he’ll also have the experience of a lifetime with Annie and the kids.
“They were the biggest part of my journey through the NFL to the Hall of Fame,” he said. “I had a lot of great teammates, a lot of awesome coaches, a lot of mentors, and they were huge parts of it. But the people that I came home to every day, Annie and the kids, they were my motivators. They were my ‘why’ as to why you would go out in the midst of a 1-15 season and still give your best effort.
“It was those kids, it was Annie, it was their support that gave me the will to go on in spite of some really challenging circumstances. And so for them to be up there, it was an easy choice for me. And it’s going to be the most exciting part of the weekend for me.”
And when all is said and done, don’t be surprised to see the Thomas’ cruising along the river in a canoe.
If you or a loved one has questions and needs to talk to a professional about gambling, call the Ohio Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-589-9966 or the National Council on Program Gambling Helpline (NCPG) at 1-800-522-4700 or visit 1800gambler.net for more information. 21+ and present in Ohio. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-Gambler.