The best all-around runner in team history.
by Rick Anderson, webmaster of Bills Thunder
January 21, 2002
"Think about it, 300 carries a season. Yes, a great ball carrier on first downs, but superior on third-and-long yardage situations as well. Show me another back that did the dirty work like picking up the blitz from ugly 250-pound linebackers any better. You can't. I just tell you, you can't." The speaker was Marv Levy, the newly enshrined NFL Hall of Fame coach. The running back he was talking about is a legend in Buffalo sports history and it would be a travesty if he didn't join Levy in Canton.
There may have been flashier running backs in the Buffalo Bills storied history. Surely there was one who had the best season ever for the team. But there was no runner who was better all-round than Thurman Thomas.
The great ESPN commentator, Chris Berman, called him the "Thurmanator" and would always add colorful nouns and verbiage to describe the explosive running style of Thomas. Behrman was one of the first people to call the Bills resilient, and Thomas, along with Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, was the most resilient of the crew.
Thomas epitomized the heart and soul of the Buffalo Bills during their glory years in the early 90s. His heart bled the red, white and blue colors of the Bills throughout his smashing career in Buffalo. O. J. Simpson set all the marks for running backs in Buffalo. He ran for 2,003 yards back in 1973. However, Thomas chipped away at Simpson's total career yardage in Buffalo and finally surpassed it. He also had one other component that Simpson didn't even come close to and that was his total commitment to the team.
There were other great running backs in Bills history like Joe Cribbs, Cookie Gilchrist, Wray Carlton and Jim Braxton. None of them even came close to the total package Thomas gave the Bills. He set the all-time Bills rushing mark with 11,938 yards. He also was the second all-time leading receiver in Bills history with 4,341 yards and was 4th overall in team scoring. Thomas was the leading playoff rusher for Buffalo hands down.
Statistics still don't give justice to what Thomas meant to the Bills. Along with Kelly and receiver Andre Reed, Thomas formed a trilogy with those two great offensive stars which was unstoppable on the gridiron. The Bills went to four Super Bowls from 1991 to 1994. Without Thomas plugged in the backfield behind Kelly, the Bills would have had a hard time going to even one.
When Thomas accepted a one day contract with the Bills to retire from football with the team he played every year but one, Levy could not make the retirement ceremonies. However, he wrote a magnificent letter in true Marvism. "Although your magnificent career comes to a conclusion today, your legacy and memories by your presence and performances here will be eternal," wrote Levy. "Beginning the day you arrived here as a rookie from Oklahoma State University, Buffalo Bills football was energized as never before."
Thomas was born on May 16, 1966 in Houston, Texas. By the time he was three years old, his parents got divorced. They both remarried someone else around a year later. When Thurman was seven, his father and uncles taught him both baseball and football. Football would turn out to be his true love in sports. His family moved to Missouri when he began junior high school and joined the Missouri City Junior High School football team. After that, he starred with the Willowridge High School team.
Thomas chose Oklahoma State because he liked the coach there. However, Thomas was bitterly disappointed when that coach left. Thomas decided to stay with Oklahoma anyway, and it turned out to be a wise choice. Thomas blossomed into one of the top running backs in college and he was so good that he started in front of the great Barry Sanders.
In college carried the ball 897 times for 4,595 yards and 43 scores. In the history of the Big Eight, he was second only to Mike Rozier's 4,780 at Nebraska. However, if Thomas hadn't had a serious left knee injury during his junior year, he probably would have broken that record.
Thomas had other records while playing in the Big Eight. He owns the Oklahoma record for most yards in a game with 293 yards rushing against Iowa State. He broke a Sun Bowl record by scoring four touchdowns. Thomas also had twenty-one 100-yard games in his college career and finished 7th in the Heisman Trophy balloting his final year at Oklahoma.
For most NFL fans, their first glimpse of Thurman Thomas was during the 1988 NFL Draft. Thomas was projected to go in the first round, but as more and more teams passed him by, ESPN Sports would show a disappointed Thomas in his front room glaring at the television screen. Thomas completely slipped through the first round untouched. The reason teams passed him over was because he suffered a serious knee injury in his junior year and they didn't want to take a chance on him. That really upset Thomas and he used that as motivation during games against teams that passed him up.
When the Bills second round selection came up, they promptly chose Thomas. One could sense the relief in Thurman's eyes when he finally was chosen. There were 39 players selected in front of him, but he would prove to one and to all that he certainly could have been the No. 1 selection overall that year.
From that day on, Thomas would dedicate his life to disproving the experts who thought he couldn't make it in the NFL because of his knee. His mission in life was to stick it in the faces of those who bypassed him in the draft. He used to psyche himself up week in and week out with those thoughts. There were many a team who wished they could have relived that draft day back in April of ‘88 just to get him off the Bills roster and onto theirs.
There were many highlights in Thomas' career with the Bills. Against the New York Jets on Sept. 24, 1990, he ran for 214 yards. The same year, less than 2 months later, Thomas ripped the Cleveland Browns with 3 touchdowns. But just as Reggie Jackson was called Mr. October, Thurman was Mr. January for the Bills. He would come forward with his best games during the playoffs. None was better than when he had a hey day against the Kansas City Chiefs, as he rambled 189 yards on 33 rushes and scored three touchdowns in the 1993 AFC Championship game. By doing so, he not only set a team record, but he had the second most rushing yards in an AFC Championship game. That win enabled the Bills to advance to the Super Bowl for a record 4th consecutive time.
The year before, Thomas played a key role in helping the Bills beat their most hated arch-rivals, the Miami Dolphins 29-10. Jim Kelly, employed the screen pass to defuse the aggressive Dolphin pass rush and it worked to perfection. Thomas, along with alternate running back Kenneth Davis, were the dynamic duo for the Bills. They combined for 157 yards on the ground and 122 yards as receivers. Thomas had 96 yards on the ground and had 5 receptions for 70 yards.
Breaking in on top
Thomas had a whirlwind rookie year with the Bills. He signed his contract with the NFL team on July 14 and immediately joined the Bills in their training camp under head coach Levy. Thomas was an immediate impact for the Bills, gaining 881 yards on 207 rushes in the regular season, helping them gain home field advantage up to the AFC Championship game against the Bengals. The Bills lost to the Bengals in Cincinnati, but it was a sign of things to come. The Bills were just starting to flex their muscles in the American Football Conference.
The next year, Kelly began to go to Thomas more and more as a receiver out of the backfield. Thomas progressed to one of the best running back/receivers of all time. He grabbed 60 Kelly passes during the regular season and scored 12 times. For his great uprising, Thomas was voted to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl. In the AFC Wildcard game, Thomas and Kelly became a one-two punch that drove the Cleveland Browns crazy. Thomas had 13 receptions in that game and the Brows didn't know how to defend him. It a wild shootout, the Brown won when another Bill running back, Ronnie Harmon, dropped a sure touchdown in the last few seconds of the game.
1990 marked a breakout year for both Thomas and the Bills. Levy employed the "No Huddle offense" in which Kelly would line the Bills quickly to the line without going to a huddle. That kept opposing offenses off guard and helped the Bills win 12 games that year. Thomas led the conference with 1,297 yards rushing. He also led the AFC with 1,829 total yards from scrimmage. The only disappointment came when Scott Norwood missed that 47 yard field goal in Super Bowl XXV which would have made the Bills the World Champions.
In 1991, Thomas had an even better year. He was only the 11th player in league history to gain over 2,000 combined yards form scrimmage in a season. Thomas was voted the Most Valuable Player of the NFL, along with his usual All-Pro nomination. He even made the All-Madden team. Other records he broke were his team record of 62 receptions by a running back and became the first Bills player ever to break the century barrier in both receiving and rushing in a single game.
The next year, Thomas topped his all-purpose yards when he totaled 2,113 yards from scrimmage. On September 6 against the Los Angeles Rams, Thomas scored 4 touchdowns. Once again he was All-Pro and was named to the Pro Bowl for the AFC, but had to decline the invitation because of an injury.
Thurman led the AFC in rushing in 1993 by exploding for 1,315 yards and was third only behind Emmett Smith and Jerome Bettis in the entire league. That was the season when Thomas almost single handedly destroyed the KC Chiefs in the AFC Championship game, giving the Bills their 4th straight berth in the Super Bowl.
The 1994 season saw Thomas start to shatter O.J. Simpson's records. Thomas gained 1,000 yards rushing for the 6th straight year, breaking the 5-year record O.J. held for almost 20 years. He also finished third in the AFC with 1,442 all-purpose yards. The Bills failed to make the Super Bowl for the first time in five years and the slide was on. In both 1995 and 1996, Thomas gained over 1,000 yard rushing, making it 8 straight years performing that amazing feat. He also caught 16 passes for 254 yards. Thomas' 8 TDs put him at 82, which broke the old record.
Joining the enemy
Thomas, while he broke a major share of records and did a lot for the community, did have his moments of controversy. During Super Bowl XXVI, Thomas somehow misplaced his helmet and could not make it on the field for the Bills first play from scrimmage. He never lived that one down and people still joke about it today. Before the same Super Bowl, Thomas refused to show for a Super Bowl interview session as he felt miffed by the media.
The most controversial move by Thomas was when he suited up with the hated Miami Dolphins. The Bills, with their salary cap way out of synch, had to cut 3 of their most glorified players of all time. Bruce Smith, Andre Reed and Thomas were cut because the Bills could not simply afford their high salaries any more. That really upset Thomas and he listened to offers from a number of teams before accepting to join the Bills arch-rival Dolphins.
It was a strange scene when Thomas came out in a Dolphins uniform against his former Bills teammates on Oct. 8, 2000 in Miami. Thurman got himself revved up for the game by accusing Bills linebacker John Holecek and two other Bills of being disrespectful towards him during the week leading up to the game.
When Thomas got the ball against his former team, he made the most of it. On one play, he received a 15-yard screen pass and after getting up, signaled a first down right in front of Holecek, trying to tick him off. Thomas ran 7 times for only 24 yards, but he was effective as a receiver, catching 3 for 26 yards. Even though his numbers were not huge, he helped motivate the Dolphins to a 22-13 win over the Bills.
"I didn't make a lot of plays," admitted Thomas. "But I made enough plays." The Bills could not get used to seeing Thomas in the enemy's uniform. "I hate it," Bills defensive end Phil Hansen said about seeing Thomas in the enemy uniform. "It's like putting peanut butter and jelly on a hamburger. It's just not right."
Thomas spent a lot of time jawing with Holecek. After Leslie Shepherd caught a touchdown pass for the Dolphins, Thomas went on a rampage yapping at Holecek. "I'm sure John was going at me with a little extra," admitted Thomas. "I wasn't going out there looking for John until he said something to me, and that's when it really got going. From that point on, I was really looking forward to getting a shot at him and letting him know I was on the field."
Holecek said something to Thomas that upset him and got him going even more. When asked what Holecek said, Thomas said, "I can't repeat it here." As for his reply, Thomas said, "I can't repeat it here." Holecek was baffled why Thomas had singled him out. "What I don't understand is why he had to make an enemy of me," said Holecek. "But I guess I have to play that role. I guess all his talk worked for him, in retrospect. I mean, that's something he did when he was here."
When the game ended, Thomas went up to then Bills head coach Wade Phillips, fullback Jonathan Linton and defensive tackle Pat Williams to share old memories. Holecek, he avoided him like the plague. Holecek shared Thomas preclusion.
"No, I didn't (talk to him) nor do I care to," Holecek remarked.
That would be the last time Thomas would get his chance to stick it to his old teammates. On November 12 in San Diego, he suffered a knee injury which ended his NFL career.
Thomas Retires As A Bill
After much thinking about coming back, Thomas decided to hang up his cleats once and for all. But entwined in his decision was a thought to retire as a Buffalo Bill. He signed a one-day contract with the Bills so he could retire with the team he spent 12 years with.
On February 27, 2001, Thurman Thomas retired as a Buffalo Bill. He never wanted to leave in the first place, but his being cut by the Bills was too much to not go out without making one final statement. He made his statement loud and clear when he faced his former team for the first time. The Dolphins won and Thurman had a definite impact on that game. Now, he would hang up his cleats for the final time.
Just like the retirement receptions the Bills held at their practice facility when coach Marv Levy and quarterback Jim Kelly retired, the retirement ceremony was emotional. In attendance were Kelly, former Bills GM Bill Polian and a number of other teammates who accompanied Thomas to 4 straight Super Bowl appearances. A tearful Thomas was choked with emotion as he addressed the crowd. "As I sit here and announce my retirement from the Buffalo Bills, wow, it's been a great ride," said Thomas. "I've had a lot of fun. Even though I am retiring today, this is a place that I'll always remember, it will always be a special part of my heart."
Thomas defended his decision to sign with the hated Dolphins in what turned out to be his final year. "I just felt like I needed to prove to myself one more time that I could play this football game," reflected Thomas. "I've always stated that I would retire a Buffalo Bill. I just didn't know when it was going to happen, how it was going to happen. This is the way I wanted to be."
Thomas certainly left his cleat marks on the NFL record book. He finished ninth on the all-time for NFL rushers with 12,074 career yards rushing, only 46 yards behind former Steeler great Franco Harris. Also, Thomas was the only player ever top total yards from scrimmage four consecutive seasons in the NFL. He ended up sixth in the NFL for all-purpose yards.
Looking out to the crowd of familiar faces like Reed, Smith, Kelly and many others, Thomas took time to reminisce. "This is tough because I'll never be around a group of guys like that again," said a tearful Thomas. "Those are teammates I'll never forget."
What Bills fans will remember the most about Thomas are his clutch performances when it mattered the most. His outstanding performance against the Cleveland Browns in that 1989 Wild Card game, his dominating running games during the playoffs leading up to the 4 straight Super Bowls. In fact, without Thomas, the Bills may have not gotten to one Super Bowl. But the fact remains that the "Thurmanator" will go down in history as the greatest running back ever to wear a Buffalo Bills uniform.
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