Even though Jake Wood knew Browns Pro Bowl offensive lineman Joe Thomas would inevitably beat him for the starting left tackle job at the University of Wisconsin, he took Thomas under his wing and supported him as he evolved into a star.
Now Thomas has his former teammate’s back, and he’s using his status as a finalist for the 2012 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award to show it.
Wood is the president and co-founder of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that uses military veterans for disaster response throughout the world. Since Wood and fellow Marine William McNulty started the group three years ago, it has helped veterans adjust to returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and assisted victims of catastrophic events such as Hurricane Sandy and the Haiti earthquake in 2010.
“I think the charity work they do is phenomenal,” Thomas said in a recent phone interview. “I think they maximize the dollars they get, and I think they’re kind of filling a niche and a void that really wasn’t covered by any charity that existed. By them coming in and filling a hole and helping military veterans who are coming back readjust to civilian life and try to use some of their abilities to help other people in disaster situations, putting them together with doctors and medical personnel to help people that are in dire situations, it’s a great charity and a great thing to be involved in.”
Thomas joins Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten as the finalists for the Man of the Year Award, which recognizes community service as well as playing excellence and is named after Payton, the legendary Chicago Bears running back who died in 1999. The winner will be announced in New Orleans during the second annual NFL Honors, which will air on CBS from 9-11 p.m. Saturday.
Thomas, Fitzgerald and Witten were chosen from 32 team nominees, all of whom will receive a $1,000 donation from the NFL Foundation for the charity of their choice. The three finalists will receive an additional $5,000 donation in their names, and the winner will receive an additional $20,000 donation in his name.
Thomas selected Team Rubicon as the recipient of his donation.
“Joe’s a great guy,” Wood said in a recent phone interview. “He’s got a great heart. With as much money as Joe’s making, I’m sure he’s being hit up from all different angles to support all sorts of different charities and nonprofits and causes, so it is pretty special to know that he’s got a place in his heart for veterans. I know he’s supported the Pat Tillman Foundation in the past as well, which is a military scholarship program.”
Thomas said his interest in helping those who serve in the military stems from having several cousins and friends who are veterans. He founded the “Thomas’ Troops” season-ticket program, which hosted military men and women during Browns home games last season and provided tickets, apparel and food to the USO of Northern Ohio.
“I was always impressed with the job that they do protecting our country, and I think it’s one of the jobs of all Americans to do everything they can to give back to the military and show the appreciation that they deserve, especially from the people in this country that aren’t serving in the military,” said Thomas, who has been elected to the Pro Bowl in each of his six NFL seasons. “It’s important to make sure those people know how appreciated they are.”
Thomas visited the Pentagon last year and participated in the Military-NFL Culture Change Campaign focus group, helping educate people about the dangers of traumatic brain injuries. Two years ago, he visited troops in Afghanistan through the NFL-USO Tour.
“It was an incredible experience,” Thomas said. “It was something that I’ll never forget. Being so embedded and close to the military and being able to see what they go through on a day-to-day basis was pretty special and being able to go over there and put smiles on some of those military members faces was really something that will stay with me for a long time.”
Thomas has told Wood he’d like to join Team Rubicon on a mission sometime, and Wood intends to hold his old friend to his word.
“I’m still open to being able to do that in the future,” Thomas said. “Obviously what they do is a lot more dangerous than your regular going to the food pantry and helping out ’cause a lot of their volunteer stuff happens in war zones or areas that are unstable, and we just haven’t been able to work it out yet. But certainly it’s something that I’d really, really enjoy and hopefully one day get to do.”
Thomas and his wife, Annie, have become involved in other causes, too, including the Cleveland Animal Protective League and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Thomas also donated to the Cleveland Kids in Need Resource Center, which helps provide supplies for schools in impoverished areas. He also founded the “Blue Collar Corner” season-ticket program, which provided tickets, apparel and food for families through the Cleveland Building and Construction Trades Council.
It all contributed to him being named a finalist for the Man of the Year Award.
“It’s probably one of the greatest distinctions I’ve ever had in my athletic career,” Thomas said. “Rarely do you get an award that’s more for your off-the-field stuff. It’s really special. You just look at the two other guys that are named finalists and you look at the things they’ve done in their NFL career and in their off-the-field, community-service career. It’s just pretty special to be in that same group of players, and also to be up for Walter Payton’s award, it’s really humbling because of the person and player he was in the NFL for so many years.”