Browns tackle Thomas doubles as outdoors TV host
ESPN.com's James Walker offers a first-person account of what it's like to fish Lake Erie with Browns tackle Joe Thomas, who filmed the adventure for his Ohio cable TV show.
LORAIN, Ohio -- When you think of potential television stars for the Cleveland Browns, what names come to mind?Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn are the high-profile quarterbacks. Tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and receiver Braylon Edwards are the most charismatic. Linebacker Willie McGinest has three Super Bowl rings. Yet the biggest tube star for the Browns this offseason also happens to be one of the most unassuming players in their locker room. It's second-year left tackle Joe Thomas. Yes, that Joe Thomas. The player who famously turned down the NFL's invitation to New York's Radio City Music Hall because he'd rather spend the 2007 draft weekend on a boat fishing with a small group of family and friends. Recently, Thomas was fishing once again while filming his television series "Outdoors Ohio with D'Arcy Egan and Joe Thomas," which airs throughout the Buckeye State on SportsTime Ohio. This particular show is scheduled to air on Tuesday, July 1 at 10 p.m. ET. This time, ESPN.com tagged along to get a first-person account of the Pro Bowl left tackle doing something other than football.
June 1, 2008, 7:50 a.m.
Browns center Hank Fraley is already on site prepping his 34-foot boat as the rest of the crew arrives. Thomas pulls up in his SUV while Egan, the show's co-star and longtime outdoors writer for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, is not far behind with his film crew of Wes Morgan and Tracy Anderson.Everyone is energized. The beautiful weather certainly helps, with clear skies and an early hint of sun sparkling off the waters of Lake Erie. Thomas greets Fraley, then introduces his teammate to the rest of the crew. Thomas also brings soda for the cooler, and on board are potato chips, sandwiches and protein bars. "Looks like it's going to be a good day,'' Thomas says excitedly. Country music is blasting on the radio.
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8:20 a.m.Filming begins as the crew leaves the shore.
9 a.m.A location has been chosen and Thomas is testing the waters. He baits his hook with a worm and casts for the first time as the other members of the group are putting their rigs together. "Is it running good?" Egan asks Thomas. "It's running good," Thomas responds. Meanwhile, the camera crew swiftly gets in position and Fraley is passing out rods right and left. "Anybody want a pink rod?" he shouts. "That's my wife's and it's actually pretty good. She uses it all the time."
People are really hungry for what we're doing outside of football. Because it's human interest stories and everyone can relate to it.
--Joe Thomas, on the audience he has for his cable TV exploits
Thomas adds that he's getting excellent feedback and the show's ratings are higher than they've ever been."People are really hungry for what we're doing outside of football," Thomas says. "Because it's human interest stories and everyone can relate to it."
Filming resumes and everyone is waiting for the first catch.With the constant ebb and flow of the waves, the two most inexperienced boaters are flying all over the place while everyone else is perfectly balanced. "Don't worry, you'll get your sea legs pretty quick," Thomas says encouragingly to the ESPN.com writer and photographer. The jokes keep coming as everyone waits for walleye. Someone on the film crew mentions Fraley's age. "What do you mean old? I'm like 24," says Fraley, 30, while everyone bursts into laughter. "But seriously, having Joe around keeps me young. A guy like Joe will keep me in the league a lot longer." Soon after, Fraley gets the first fish but not the walleye everyone is anticipating. Thomas catches a very small zebra mussel seconds later and shows it off for the camera. "Me and Hank got animals. D'Arcy, what about you?" Thomas says.
Ten minutes later, Egan catches the first walleye with one hand while on the cell phone. He is that skilled."Hold on. Let me call you back!" he says.
I'm about to throw this rod. If this rod were golf clubs, they'd be in the water by now!
--Browns center Hank Fraley
Fraley grabs the net, bags the fish, and there is a collective cheer from all on board and great footage for the show. "I'm getting hungry just looking at him," Thomas says into the camera. "I'm glad someone caught one. We're all in this together, right?" Fraley adds, hoping Egan shares the spoils. Thomas assures Fraley that the first catch is the hardest and the rest will bite soon. On cue, Fraley's line jumps. He has a big one and the cameras start rolling again! Fraley gets excited and yanks the rod so hard that he loses the fish. Egan turns to him and offers some advice to Fraley. "You have to be gentle," he says. "Don't yank his lips off." Thomas then joins in and asks Egan on camera for tips on catching walleye. Meanwhile, Fraley is experiencing frustration because that was his second close call. Naturally, he blames the tools. "I'm about to throw this rod," Fraley warns. "If this rod were golf clubs, they'd be in the water by now!" Rodenhauser catches his first walleye from his position in the stern. Everyone on board runs to get a glimpse of the catch. Another collective cheer follows. There are four people fishing and the two NFL players have nothing to show at the moment. Their competitive juices start to percolate. "All right Hank, it's you and I," Thomas says. "We got to put one in the boat."
Thomas' face lights up when he feels the pull on his rod. In the clutch, he reels in his first walleye with just enough force and finesse. "I'm in the boat!" Thomas declares with relief. Fraley's disappointment grows. There is a certain pressure that comes with being the only fisherman on board without a catch, and right now Fraley is that guy. On the other hand, Thomas is euphoric after his first catch. "I just love this," Thomas tells everyone. "This is what I fell in love with: me and my dad [Eric Thomas] just fishing all day."
Thomas loves the outdoors because he grew up in Brookfield, Wisc., where hunting and fishing are popular. Thomas and his father fished in Lake Michigan often.
Egan decides it's time to change location to catch more fish. Everyone moves to the stern -- in travel position -- to sail several miles down the lake. Thomas, meanwhile, explains why he passed up New York City on draft day in 2007 to go fishing."My dad and I told my agent that I didn't want to go to New York, and my agent agreed," Thomas says. "Going there wasn't going to change anything. So I figured it would be a great way to relive my childhood and do something with my dad. I knew my life would be different after that day, at least for the next year."
The boat settles and the crew puts up outriggers. Still pitching a shutout, Fraley puts up his rod and commands the wheel full time. "I'm Captain Hank now," he says. "Captain Hank!" everyone immediately salutes to the skipper. "The funny thing is he's captain on the team, too," Thomas tells everyone. "Now he has dual captain roles." "Captain Hank" describes how operating a boat is different from driving a car or truck. "You have no brakes," Fraley says. "Basically your brake is paying attention and making sure you don't run into anybody." At this point stomachs begin to growl. Egan is the first to grab a turkey-and-swiss sandwich. Several minutes later, everyone is snacking on something. The crew decides trolling is easier and sets up eight rods at different depths in the water. The strategy works. Thomas catches his second walleye and the look of pure joy takes over his face once again. "It's just very cool," Thomas says of fishing. "You don't know what you're catching. Sometimes you don't even get it in the boat. So it makes that thrill when you do catch a big fish that much more exciting."
As the food settles, something goes terribly wrong.
The writer is feeling seasick.More than three hours of constant rocking and shaking suddenly take their toll. It's been 21 years since the writer last went fishing. Who knew this would happen? Seasickness feels like a headache, motion sickness and a queasy stomach all at once. And when you see nothing but water on each side of you, it doesn't help. Fraley notices the change in demeanor. "You don't get seasick do you?" he asks. "Nah, I'm fine." the writer says, lying. When you're on a boat with two guys who maul defensive linemen for a living, claiming seasickness doesn't win you much sympathy. "If you [throw up], we got the cameras!" Fraley jokes. After poking fun at Fraley's struggle to catch fish earlier, the writer understands his plight certainly is fair game.
After awhile, the queasiness becomes more manageable.Fraley is back on the rods and catches his first walleye. Everyone is happy Fraley got the monkey off his back. Now the four fishermen have at least one catch each, so the crew is playing with house money the rest of the afternoon. Thomas' rod jumps again as he leads the group with three walleyes. This particular catch is his biggest of the day. "This is a dandy!" Thomas says. "This is what we all come out here for." Thomas estimates this particular walleye weighs seven pounds. "You can probably feed six people -- or one Hank Fraley," he jokes. The conversation quickly turns to how much Thomas and Fraley can eat in one sitting. Thomas recalls a time the two recently ate together. Thomas tried to keep up with Fraley to no avail.
With enough fish and footage in tow, everyone sits down and relaxes.
The satellite radio is turned back on and the comedy channel is blasting."I just told my therapist I have multiple personalities," the comedian says, " so I could get a group rate." The Coast Guard zooms by the boat as Fraley had predicted. But the guardsmen are traveling too fast and far away to notice the Browns on the boat. Egan sits next to the writer and explains how impressed he is with Thomas' passion for the outdoors. He says Thomas was shy at first but really started to display his personality by the third episode and is improving with every show. "I'm surprised how well it's going because this is the first year he's been doing it," Egan says. "I thought, 'I'm 63 and he's 23, how are we going to get along?' But from day one, he's been really good to deal with. A lot of players are big on themselves, but Joe is a just good, humble kid. I don't know anyone who has anything bad to say about him."
After a slow period, everyone is thinking of heading back to shore.
The boat speeds up and attacks the waves with furor. Everyone is enjoying the rush from the jumps in the waves and the stiff breeze. Thomas is sitting with his hands behind his head and a smile on his face as he sums up today's experience that includes seven walleye catches."It was a good day," Thomas says. "We caught some good fish and took Hank's boat out for the first time. It's always good to go out with friends, and we get to film a television show as a bonus."
The boat slows as it approaches the docks. Fraley backs it in like a pro, and Egan and Anderson jump off to grab the ropes.As the crew begins to tie the boat, Fraley has an epiphany. He realizes the day is still young. "What time is it?" he asks. "I think I'm going back out today. I have nothing better to do." Thomas & Co. are all in agreement: Enough fish and sunlight remain for a second voyage.
James Walker covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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