Thurman Thomas never completely forgave teams that snubbed him in the first round of the 1988 NFL draft, and he definitely never forgot them. Twenty-seven other teams took 39 other players, including seven other running backs, before the Bills selected him in the second round.
Many in sports has played the “disrespect” card, but none quite like No. 34 during his dozen seasons with the Bills and nine forgettable games with the Dolphins. It was his ace in the hole, even when if it meant sometimes dealing from the bottom of the deck.
Other teams that overlooked him and other players selected before him became a source of inspiration, sharpening his competitive edge while calcifying the chip on his shoulder. For all the players Buffalo missed in the draft over the years, Phoenix must have spent a decade bemoaning the decision to take Tony Jeffery – who? – with the 38th pick.
“It was just a competitive fire that I had in me,” Thomas said on the Bucky & Sully Show on 1270 The Fan. “It started off with teams telling me they were going to take me in the first round, and they didn’t take me in the first round. It started off right from the jump, from the draft.”
By 1998, Thomas’ career had been established. He had led the league in total yards from scrimmage in four consecutive seasons, an NFL record that still stands. He had helped the Bills reach four Super Bowls. He had been given his due as one of the best backs in history.
He was going to the Hall of Fame, no questions asked.
Yet, there he was, the day after I wrote a story complimenting him for a terrific career and gaining perspective that comes with age and experience, that he took a moment in the middle of practice to rant about a headline suggesting he was older and wiser.
“What was I before,” Thomas screamed at me on the sideline, “young and stupid?”
It was nothing personal. Thomas would use any source of motivation he could find. He craved disrespect to help him maintain such a high level of performance. If there wasn’t an insult available, he would invent one. The Bills had higher standards in the 1990s than they do now. It was Thurman being Thurman.
One afternoon a few weeks later, Thurman showed his other side. I had time to kill, stopped at the Big Tree Inn and found Alex Van Pelt sitting at the bar. I saddled up next to him, not realizing someone else was sitting on the other side of Van Pelt, and ordered a beer.
“That’s on me,” the voice said.
Sure enough, it was Thomas. We shook hands and laughed over the incident, talked about baseball, talked about life, talked about anything and everything other than football, long after Van Pelt had gone home.
It was Thurman being Thurman, too.
If you had a beer with him, you had a friend for life. He had many in Buffalo during his playing days. Some 70,000 will celebrate with him Monday night in New Ere Field when the Bills officially remove his No. 34 jersey from circulation at halftime against the Patriots.
> "It's brought back a lot of good memories, but it's also brought back a lot of bad memories," Thomas said with a laugh. "You can't have one without the other when you're talking about the Buffalo Bills."
Thomas was a passionate player from the first minute he stepped on the field, and he remains a passionate person today. He spent a few years living in Florida after he retired and returned to Buffalo with his wife to raise their children. He cares deeply about his adopted hometown.
He'll join Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith as the only players in franchise history to have their numbers retired. All three have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with Andre Reed, making up the core of their Super Bowl teams.
“You’re around Jim. You’re around Bruce. You’re around Andre and see how these guys work. You want to win for those guys,” Thomas said. “I became that guy who wanted to keep everybody in line. I would talk about Jim. I would talk about Bruce at practice. It was an edge that we had to keep as a group. I just carried that chip on my shoulder.”
In my book, Kelly was the most important player in franchise history after leading the offense to four AFC titles. He instilled hope in a long-suffering football town. Smith was the most dominant player for the Bills and one of the best defensive ends in history.
Thomas? He was the Bills' best player ever, a dangerous player who could hurt opposing teams in numerous ways in the highest-powered offense of its time. He was a terrific runner, an outstanding receiver and great blocker. But he never embraced being described as the NFL’s best all-around back.
“I didn’t think at the time it was appreciated enough,” Thomas said. “At the time, the running back position was kind of separated. It was either Barry (Sanders) or Emmitt (Smith), and it was me having that other label as the all-around running back on the football field. In later years, I really did appreciate it a lot more.”
No other back has led league in yards from scrimmage more than twice in a row. Thomas’ feat of leading the NFL in that category for four straight seasons was underappreciated at the time. In fact, it’s still overlooked – like Thomas was in the draft – all these years later.
On Monday, he’ll be remembered while being surrounded by the most beloved players in Buffalo sports history. Thirty years after he was drafted, Thomas will be shown the ultimate sign of respect from the Bills. Indeed, there never will be another No. 34.
“For us guys to have leaders on that football team, it was amazing,” Thomas said. “We tried. We fought for each other. We did a lot of things to try to get that championship for the City of Buffalo. It didn’t happen, but we had a great time trying.”