I caught up with Stracka during the draft, and he was clearly delighted with the pick. "Joe Thomas is lucky because Cleveland is a great city and a great franchise, one of the classic organizations in the NFL. The fans and city support the Browns like no other."
Stracka still follows Wisconsin football closely and lives in the area. He's met Thomas a few times, but he knows him better as a player. "He will contribute his first year. He's obviously a very talented guy," Stracka said. "He's probably the most athletic tackle ever to come out of Wisconsin."
Conceding the difficulty of the left tackle position, Stracka still believes Thomas will have a "faster learning curve than most rookies coming into the league."
It was half a lifetime ago already, but Stracka remembers not just the feeling of excitement of getting drafted by the Browns, but also plenty of details about the whole experience. He anticipated being picked anywhere from the third to the eighth round. He got the news by phone from his future position coach with the Browns, Joe Daniels, now the quarterbacks coach at Ohio State.
He recalls celebrating the news at a Madison bar/burger joint then known as Jingles with his fellow Badger draftees, who included nose tackle Tim Krumrie, who somehow slid into the 11th round for Cincinnati, where he made the Pro Bowl twice in his 12-year career.
Stracka also looks back fondly on his arrival in Browns Town, meeting players like Brian Sipe and Ozzie Newsome, who, like Stracka, was a converted wide receiver. "Ozzie is just a super person. He's taken his football knowledge to another level," he added.
Browns fans were rightfully impressed by the 1,138 receiving yards posted by the tight ends last year. But in Stracka's rookie year, the unit amassed a team record 1,402, which was more than the combined total of team's top four wide receivers.
"I was the weaker link on that, I think," Stracka said with a laugh. For the record, Newsome led the team with 970 yards. Harry Holt, a newcomer from the Canadian Football League, added 420, and Stracka had one catch for 12 yards. The offensive change that year was to rely on one back rather than the then-conventional halfback/fullback tandem. That meant the Browns frequently had two tight ends on the field.
He subbed behind some strong talent, and his own rookie adjustments weren't always smooth. The Browns stood at 4-3 and were tied in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati, when Holt got dinged and Stracka strapped on his helmet. On his second play, he was called for pass interference. On the next play, Sipe fired a pass in his direction, but Stracka waited rather than coming back for the ball. Wily veteran cornerback Ken Riley stepped in front of him and returned the interception for the winning touchdown.
It was a tough lesson, but coach Sam Rutigliano remained supportive and hopeful that Stracka would develop his full potential. Stracka remembers Rutigliano as "a well spoken guy, very interesting to play for and a lot of fun, and he believed in his players."
Alas, it was not to be in 1984. Sipe took Donald Trump's USFL cash, Rutigliano was fired midway through the season, and Stracka suffered a variety of injuries, including a broken neck and leg. "I just couldn't stay healthy," he said, "It's a violent game."
He retired from football in the summer of 1985 with just two career receptions. But having used his scholarship to good effect, he began a 20-year career on Wall Street before moving back to his native Wisconsin and starting an investment management company in Milwaukee. "I had a plan all along," he said.
An underreported topic getting increasing media attention lately is the physical plight of many former players. Stracka said he probably would feel worse today had he continued his career. "I am a little beat up, but I'm better than most," he said. "I'm still working out and in pretty good shape." He said he sees former Wisconsin and Browns teammate Lawrence Johnson at least every year for a charity golf tournament.
Today's rookies striving to establish themselves in the NFL know how hard it is to get to this level, so he advises them to take their preparation seriously in order to maximize their chances at longevity. But nothing last forever, and this long-retired player knows how quickly these moments can pass. "The most important thing is to continue to enjoy the game and competition."