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Eisenberg: Joe Thomas' Streak Rivals Baltimore's Ironman


I'm not into tooting my own horn, but for the purposes of this column, I can acknowledge that I do have bona fides as an expert on sports endurance.

A few months ago I published a book titled "The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Baseball's Most Historic Record." Four-and-a-half years in the making, it studies baseball's consecutive-game record from all angles. Ripken holds the record, probably forever, after playing in 2,632 straight games for the Orioles. That's more than 16 seasons of games.

The book doesn't get into Ironmen in other sports, but I've done many interviews while promoting it, and the question has arisen: How does Ripken's feat stack up against those of endurance record-setters in other sports?

Brett Favre started 297 straight games at quarterback, mostly for the Green Bay Packers. His streak lasted more than 18 years, and it's the NFL record -- a feat that certainly compares with Ripken's, especially when you consider Ripken's opponents weren't trying to take his head off.

Andrew Cogliano of the National Hockey League's Anaheim Ducks has played in 786 straight games, leaving him several years short of that sport's record of 964 straight, held by Doug Jarvis, a retired player who never missed a game in his 13-year career. Impressive.

But now I'm hearing about a streak that, in my opinion, can't possibly rank below any in terms of degree of difficulty – a streak that, coincidentally, will reach a major milestone Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, just across the parking lot from where Ripken played.

Joe Thomas, a 32-year-old tackle for the Cleveland Browns, has played in 161 straight games, all starts. He has never missed a start since joining the Browns in 2007 as their first-round draft pick.

That's obviously quite a run, but Thomas is still well short of Favre's record. What's so special about his streak?

Thomas has never missed a play in his career, now in its second decade. He has played 9,996 straight snaps for the Browns.

To be clear, he has *never come off the field *in more than 10 years in the NFL. Never rested even for one play as a pro.

A snap streak tests the limits of what statisticians can quantify, but Thomas' run is almost surely the longest ever. He'll reach 10,000 straight snaps Sunday if he participates in the Browns' first four offensive plays against the Ravens.

It's the understatement of the year to say he'll likely do it.

"Damn, that is legit," said the Ravens' Terrell Suggs, who lines up opposite Thomas, after learning about Thomas' streak earlier this week. "That is pretty amazing, especially in this league. It is a physical league for his position. That is a pretty awesome milestone, accomplishment."

I asked Marshal Yanda, the Ravens' All-Pro guard, if he knew Thomas was closing in on 10,000 straight snaps. Yanda started answering before I finished my question.

"Well aware. I would just say that is unreal," Yanda replied.

Thomas and Yanda have similar biographies. College ball in the Big Ten. Same draft class. Now they're All-Pros known for being tough, durable and very, very good.

"Joe is a Hall of Famer, no doubt," Yanda said.

Yanda might be, too. One of the few differences between them is Yanda has suffered enough serious injuries to miss 16 games since 2007.

"I'm trying to be like him, and it's a pain the ass. I can't do it," Yanda said. "You know he was injured at some point in those 11 years. He's been able to fight though it. It's just awesome."

Ripken didn't come off the field for more than five straight years early in his career, playing 8,264 straight innings. But his father, Cal Ripken Sr., then managing the Orioles, pulled him from a game and ended that streak one night in 1987 when the Orioles, already out of playoff contention, were 15 runs behind.

"He couldn't hit a 20-run homer," Ripken Sr. groused.

That's what makes Thomas' streak so remarkable. The lowly Browns are 48-113 since he joined them. They've changed regimes and quarterbacks, but not their results. Many of Thomas' snaps have come in discouraging defeats.

But he has never used that as an excuse for taking a rest. He has never used anything as an excuse.

It's really an apples-and-oranges comparison with Ripken's streak, but I have no doubt Ripken, a keen fan of other sports, would contemplate 10,000 straight NFL snaps and exclaim, "Wow, now THAT is an Ironman."

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