On National Football League draft day in 2007, Joe Thomas was a first-round pick. But Joe, now an offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, wasn't among the other draftees in New York when he heard the news-he and his father were out enjoying a day of fishing on Lake Michigan.
Joe's passion for the outdoors and conservation started early. The Thomas family went camping and fishing together often. At age 12, an invitation to go hunting with his childhood friend Sam Donaldson introduced Joe to the hunting tradition. "That first day in the woods I felt like Tom Sawyer on one of his many adventures," Joe says, "and I still feel that way each time I return."
Joe's father noticed his enthusiasm and took him out deer and turkey hunting in the years that followed, but it wasn't until Joe moved to Cleveland that he first experienced waterfowling. The first fall in his new city, Joe hunted ducks at the famed Ottawa and Winous Point clubs on Lake Erie. There he learned what it truly means to be a sportsman-conservationist. "We have to protect, restore, and manage what we have left if our children are going to have the opportunity to enjoy the same experiences we've been fortunate enough to participate in," he says. "And it goes much further than just ducks, from improving water quality to providing habitat for hundreds of other species that depend on wetlands."
Joe's experience on Lake Erie sparked a relationship with Ducks Unlimited that continues today. He purchased recreation land in his home state of Wisconsin, and has worked with DU to improve it for waterfowl and other wildlife. He is also a strong supporter of DU's Big Rivers and Great Lakes Initiatives and the Badger student chapter at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.
But Joe's successful football career has allowed his philanthropy to extend far beyond conservation. He and his fellow Browns are passionate about America's armed forces, and they work through a variety of initiatives to benefit servicemen and women and their families. Joe founded Thomas' Troops to support the efforts of the USO in northern Ohio, and has traveled to Afghanistan to visit soldiers as part of the 2010 NFL-USO tour. He also supports the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and United Way. Joe's generosity led him to be a finalist for the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, which recognizes one player's outstanding volunteer and charity work. Ducks Unlimited is proud to call this talented athlete and committed philanthropist a member of Team DU.