Thomas, Thurman

views updated

Thurman Thomas


American football player

Thurman Thomas was a running back and pass receiver who, although short, was graceful and elusive on the gridiron. He was also powerful, breaking through the line and racking up yardage, becoming one of the premier offensive players in the National Football League (NFL). While playing with the Buffalo Bills, Thomas led the league in total yards for four consecutive seasons (1989-92), breaking the previous record held by Jim Brown . Thomas was also a key factor in propelling the Bills into four straight Super Bowls. Unfortunately, he was part of a Bills team that lost all four of those championships.

Growing Up

Thurman Thomas was born on May 16, 1966, in Houston, Texas, the only child of parents who would end up divorcing when he was four. His mother, Terlisha,

who would remarry eight years later, and claimed that Thomas was spoiled by relatives who constantly gave him what he wanted.

As a boy, Thomas was often the smallest one to participate in sports, and developed early on an attitude that compensated- or overcompensated-for what he lacked in size. He would later tell the Pioneer Press that people who made remarks about his stature getting in the way of his success "always motivated me toward doing something that I know I can do when other people say I can't."

Thomas was All-State running back and defensive back at Willowridge High in Missouri City, Texas (a suburb of Houston), and he played with a chip on his shoulder. He led his school to two state championship games and one state title. "I was raised in the ghetto and I have a tough attitude," Thomas told the Washington Post. "I'm not going to let anyone take advantage of me and I'm not going to take advantage of anybody else. I let people know how I feel. That's just the way I am."

By the end of high school, Thomas had rushed for just under 4,000 yards and forty-eight touchdowns. With his small stature, many college recruiters didn't look at him closely. Many told him that if he came to play for their teams, he could only play defensive back. But Thomas, determined to do what he was told he couldn't, sought out a school where he could carry the ball. Oklahoma State coach Jimmy Johnsonwho would later go on to coach the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphinspromised Thomas that he could run if he came to play for Oklahoma State. Thomas did, and went on to become one of the nation's premier runners.

Size Doesn't Matter

Thomas' NFL draft day was one that he thought he'd like to forget. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, Thomas was one of the smaller running backs in the draft. That fact, combined with a knee injury in his senior season, dropped him lower on the list, and he didn't go until the middle of the second round. ESPN, anticipating Thomas would go earlier, wanted to capture Thomas' reaction and sent a camera crew to his house. As Thomas watched the draft, and as player after player went before him, ESPN captured for a national audience Thurman Thomas' growing disappointment. Thomas later took a copy of that tape with him and watched it for motivation during his first few seasons in the NFL, vowing never to forget all of those teams that passed him up.

In spite of his physical hardship that rookie season, Thomas rushed for 881 yards on 207 carries on the season, even though he missed two games with a sore knee. He had found a home with Buffalo and a friend in head coach Marv Levy. Levy's famed "no-huddle" offense and the team's ability to keep the game moving quickly suited Thomas' style, and he became a versatile player, used as both a running back and a receiver. He would amass 1,913 yards in 1989, good enough to lead the league, and then repeat as league leader for the next three seasons.

With Thomas on their team, the Bills had a strong arsenal and began to compete for national championships. In four years prior to Thomas' arrival, the Buffalo Bills had a combined record of 15-40. But things started to click. They went 13-3 in 1990, making it into their first of four straight Super Bowls. Thomas had come off of a stellar season, rushing for 1297 yards, catching forty-nine passes for another 532 yards. Yet despite his combined effort for 190 yards in the title game, the Bills lost 20-19 in the final four seconds on a missed field goal. It would be an omen of bad things to come.

Thomas and the Bills compiled yet another winning season in 1991, going 13-3 again, and making it into Super Bowl XXVI. Thomas' combined yards for the season surpassed 2000, making him only the eleventh player in NFL history to do so, earning him the NFL's Most Valuable Player. But the Bills would lose the Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins.

For the next two seasons Thomas continued to excel on offense. 1992 was his best season, and he led the league in total yards gained, once more surpassing 2000 total yards, and once more making it into the playoffs and to Super Bowl XXVII. But the Bills would lose in a poor performance, getting hammered by the Dallas Cowboys, 52-17.

Thomas finished 1995 with the lowest totals of his career. The Bills would enter their fourth consecutive Super Bowl and hope to walk away with a victory and break whatever curse had been placed on them. But it was not to be.

Thurman Thomas struggled in 1996, though he surpassed 10,000 career yards and gained just over 1000 yards, becoming only the second player to do so in eight consecutive seasons. At the season's end, quarterback Jim Kelly announced his retirement, and Thomas started to think about his own NFL mortality.


1966Born May 16 in Houston, Texas
1970Parents divorce
1982Put into starting lineup at Willowridge High School
1984Finishes high school with 3,918 yards and 48 touchdowns
1984Chooses Oklahoma State as college where he'll play football
1985Gains 1650 yards, scoring 15 touchdowns and finishes 10th in Heisman voting as a sophomore
1986Tears ACL in left knee during pick-up basketball game. Is out first few games of season
1989Leads NFL in combined total yards, the first of four consecutive seasons
1991Leads Bills to Super Bowl XXV, first of four consecutive trips (and four straight losses)
1991Donates $30,000 to the United Negro College Fund and Buffalo chapters of YMCA and Special Olympics
1992Establishes the Thurman Thomas Foundation, providing inner-city youth with scholarships to a local community college
1995Thomas has 155 yards rushing in a game against the Steelers, proving to his critics that he's not getting too old to perform
1996Quarterback Jim Kelly announces retirement, making Thomas think about his own NFL mortality
1997Bills head coach Marv Levy retires at end of season, and Thomas sees the end of his career approaching
1999Plays in only five games for the Bills. Leaves team at end of season
2000Finishes career in Miami
2002Heads up his business, Thurman Thomas Enterprises, based in Niagara Falls, NY

Awards and Accomplishments

1984Parade magazine All-American Player of the Year
1984Houston Touchdown Club's Texas Player of the Year
1984Gator Bowl Most Valuable Player (as a freshman)
1985, 1987College All-American
1989-93NFL Pro Bowl Team
1991Professional Football Writers Association Player of the Year
1991NFL's Most Valuable Player
1991Sporting News NFL Player of the Year
1991United Press International AFC Offensive Player of the Year
1991Miller Lite Player of the Year

The Bills picked up running back Antoine Smith in the 1997 draft, and that season, for the first time, Thomas failed to gain 1000 yards rushing. In 1999 he played in only five games for the Bills, and then in 2000 was traded to conference rival Miami, where he would retire at the end of the season.

Created A Loud Legacy

Often compared to other great running backs of his era, such as Emmitt Smith or Barry Sanders , Thomas felt unappreciated throughout much of his career, and he wasn't afraid to make those feelings known. His teammates knew he was volatile, but respected him nonetheless. "The thing about Thurman," Jim Kelly told the Los Angeles Times, "[is that] you never know what is going to come out of his mouth."

Thomas found himself irritated by the things the media focused on, such as his misplacing his helmet minutes before the start of Super Bowl XXVI and missing the first two plays of the game. "God, that stuff hurt," Thomas told Sports Illustrated. "To be remembered for losing my helmet in the Super Bowl? I've accomplished too much for that. People always remember the worst times."

Known as much for his mouth as for his abilities on the field, Thomas often spouted off in front of the press, however, giving them "the worst" to focus on. Combine that with a team that just couldn't win the Super Bowl, and in spite of his superior play, Thomas seemed destined to have bad raps placed upon him.

Despite the bad raps and the Super Bowl disappointments, Thurman Thomas is recognized as one of the greatest players of all time.

Career Statistics

BUF: Buffalo Bills; MIA: Miami Dolphins.

Where Is He Now?

Thurman Thomas and his wife Patti have two daughters, Olivia and Angelica. When he retired from professional football in 2000, Thurman Thomas began devoting much of his time to his business, Thurman Thomas Enterprises. Based in Niagara Falls, New York (just a short drive from Buffalo), Thomas remains close to the world of professional athletics. His company's mission is to provide guidance and trainingin the form of seminarsto athletes and coaches of all levels, focusing on professional, semiprofessional and college athletes in "precarious or personally challenging situations." The company helps them make "well-informed choices" and their seminars are "designed to prevent adverse events that could lead to legal violations, negative press, and potential litigation."


Email: [email protected]



Newsmakers 1993. Issue 4. Detroit: Gale Group, 1993.

Sports Stars. Series 1-4. UXL, 1994-98.


Buffalo News (November 30, 2000).

Buffalo News February 28, 2001).

Buffalo News (November 5, 2002).

Los Angeles Times (January 18, 1991).

Los Angeles Times (October 4, 1992).

"Mistaken Identity." Sports Illustrated (February 1, 1993): 18.

Palm Beach Post (August 10, 2000): 1C.

San Francisco Chronicle (February 28, 2001): B8.

Seattle Times (October 5, 2000): D4.

Sporting News (October 5, 1992): 29-30.


"Thurman Thomas Enterprises." Business Web site. (January 2, 2003)

"Thurman Thomas Web site." Official Web site. (January 2, 2003)

Sketch by Eric Lagergren