The first time Joel Bitonio truly believed he could play in the NFL came during his sophomore season at Nevada.
That year, the Wolf Pack opened the season at Oregon, and while the result for the team wasn't pretty — the Ducks drubbed the Wolf Pack, 69-20 — Bitonio learned he might have an NFL future.
"It's funny because I didn't think that in high school," Bitonio said on NSN Daily this week. "I just thought I wanted to play college football, I wanted to get a scholarship. And when I began starting my sophomore year, I remember we played against Oregon and we lost pretty handily. But I didn't feel out of it. I felt like I competed with those guys, and they had a guy named Dion Jordan, who the next year ended up being a top-five pick in the draft. I thought, 'I blocked that guy pretty good.' I felt like I could compete with those guys. And after that moment, I was, like, 'All right, there might be a chance for me.'"
That game against Oregon was played a little over 10 years ago, and in the decade since, Bitonio has not only proven he can play in the NFL. He's excelled there. Now in his eighth season in the league, Bitonio is a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time AP All-Pro, a record among Wolf Pack alums. Bitonio was voted one of the league's top-100 players before the start of this season and last week locked into a contract extension with the Cleveland Browns, which drafted him in the second round in 2014.
"It's been really cool," Bitonio said of his recent three-year, $48 million extension. "I got drafted here and we've spent our first eight years here, but me and my family, my wife and we have two kids now, we've had some big life moments in Cleveland. Our kids are both born here, and the community around us has always rallied with us, even if we've had some bad years. But we've always had that support. And it's been really special. We talked about it and we're like, 'We could wait and see what happens in a couple of years.' But Cleveland has been so special. They've taken care of us. It's really been a blessing to be here. And the fans are great, and it's somewhere we wanted to end our career."
Bitonio is the longest actively tenured member of the franchise and the first player since the organization was reborn in 1999 to sign three deals with the team. He's been the Browns' anchor in recent seasons, enduring the down 2016 and 2017 campaigns in which Cleveland went 1-31, and the more recent up times, including last year's postseason berth and playoff win over the rival Steelers.
When Cleveland clinched a playoff spot last season, head coach Kevin Stefanski gave Bitonio the game ball, with Stefanski saying it was one of the highlights of his coaching career.
"That was surreal," Bitonio said. "In the moment, it's kind of a big blur, but to look back on it and grab that ball from him and say, 'Hey, we brought Cleveland Browns to the playoffs as a team' was pretty special. I look back on it, and I always think of myself as I am a left guard for this team and I've been here a while. I feel like I'm a leader. But to get called out like that, singled out, I'm not used to that, so it was pretty special. And then you look back on the bad times. There was really a long stretch of football where either I was hurt or we hadn't won a game. It was, like, three years or something like that, so I almost lost that feeling of winning. So now I take every win and I just get as excited as possible because I had so many times where we didn't win games. So even if we win a game against Detroit this last weekend 13-10 and we should have beaten them by a little bit more, I'll take that win any time I can get it."
Bitonio is one of three Wolf Pack alums playing in the NFL this season, the others being Austin Corbett of the Los Angeles Rams and Malik Reed of the Denver Broncos. That trio should get company next year with current Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong, tight end Cole Turner and wideout Romeo Doubs poised to break into the league. Bitonio has enjoyed watching those players this season and predicts big things for them at the next level.
"I think Carson Strong is a really special quarterback, and to see him kind of operate in that offense has been special," Bitonio said. "But Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner, these guys are huge weapons. These guys are great players. I think all of those guys have a future in the NFL, but it's special. The defense stepped up at times, and unfortunately a few close losses that I've been a part of in my career, too. They've had three two-point losses in the conference, and you look back on those and those are tough, but hopefully they finish the year strong, go to a bowl game and can be remembered as one of the better teams in Wolf Pack history."
The 30-year-old Bitonio has grown his own family in recent years, welcoming daughter Zoey in January 2019 and son Benjamin in March after marrying his college sweetheart, Courtney, in 2016. Bitonio said becoming a father has been transformational.
"Honestly, it's more amazing than anything you can imagine," Bitonio said. "I get out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and I don't get home until 6, 6:30, sometimes 7. And I walk in the door and my daughter, Zoey, is there and she's, like, 'Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!' And no matter how bad my practice was, you just come home and it's, 'All right, they don't care about Joel Bitonio the football player or Joel Bitonio anything else.' They just want you to be dad, to read them a story and play with them. Honestly, the coolest thing is seeing them grow. These kids just grow so fast, and it's truly special to be a parent. We just had Halloween, and I just remember how excited I was when I was a kid, and to see your kids kind of go through that, it's pretty cool."
Life is indeed good for Bitonio, the next thing on his to-do list being bringing home a championship for the Browns, which has been a star-crossed franchise since rejoining the NFL in 1999 after the team moved to Baltimore in 1996. In the 23 seasons since restarting, the Browns have just two playoff appearances and is one of four NFL teams to never reach a Super Bowl. Bitonio was able to witness how Cleveland reacted to the Cavaliers' 2106 NBA title, and believes a Browns championship would galvanize the city even more.
"It was very cool," Bitonio said of the Cavs' title. "I was here when they won a championship. The parade was epic. The fans rallied so much around the Cavs that year. It was pretty cool to see. But everybody always says it's a Browns town, that football is No. 1, and if the Browns do something special and find a way to win a Super Bowl you'll never have to buy a meal for yourself again. And I think we'd probably break parade records. Teams like the Patriots get it every year. So if we get the first championship since 1964, things would go off the deep end out here, but it'd be worth it."
You can watch Joel Bitonio's full NSN Daily interview below.