Sports

Thurman Thomas

Thurman Thomas was a top running back, spending 12 years with the Buffalo Bills, before ending his career with the Miami Dolphins. He may not have been as good as Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith, but Thomas wasn’t that far off, gaining 1000 yards or more 8 straight times. The 5-time All-Pro is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In the football-crazed state of Texas, Thomas cut his teeth, becoming a high school standout in Houston. He was able to catch the attention of Oklahoma State, where he enrolled as a freshman. A two-time All-American, Thomas was one of the top backs in the country at Oklahoma State, gaining 4595 yards and scoring 43 touchdowns on the ground during his collegiate career.

The 1988 NFL Draft was a tough day for Thomas. The camera kept showing him visibly affected, as he kept tumbling down the board. With experts rating him as a surefire first-rounder, Thomas sat and waited, with teams worried about his knee, which he had injured. Finally, the Buffalo Bills chose Thomas in the second round with the 40th pick. Of all the running backs chosen ahead of him, Gaston Green, John Stephens, Lorenzo White, Brad Muster, Craig Heyward, Ickey Woods, and Tony Jeffrey, Thomas ended up with a better legacy than all of them combined.

Prior to Thomas’ arrival in Buffalo in 1988, the Bills hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1981. In the prior 4 seasons, they were 15-48. It’s no coincidence that Buffalo’s glory years began with the arrival of Thomas, who gave them their best production coming out of the backfield since the days of OJ Simpson. In Thomas’ first season, the Bills made it to the playoffs on the heels of a 12-4 record.

In 1989, Thomas began a phenomenal run of 8 consecutive 1000-yard seasons. Meanwhile, the Bills kept getting better. The offense ran by All-Pro Jim Kelly, was diverse in the pass and run, while the defense began to blossom. In Thomas’ second season, the Bills again made the playoffs. Thomas added 60 catches and was becoming one of the more-consistent offensive producers in the AFC.

Beginning in his second season, Thomas led the league in total yards for the next 4 seasons, making him the only player to ever accomplish that. In addition to putting up close to 1500 yards rushing each season, Thomas was usually good for about 600 yards receiving, making him one of the top double-threats ever to come out of the backfield.

Beginning in Thomas’ 3rd season, the Bills were the clear cream-of-the-crop of the conference and made an incredible 4 straight Super Bowls. In the first one, Super Bowl XXV against the Giants, Thomas ran for 135 yards and a touchdown, while catching 5 balls for 55 yards. A cinch for MVP honors, he lost that opportunity when Scott Norwood infamously missed a game-winning field goal to end the game.

The Bills have become subject to mockery for losing 4 straight Super Bowls and perhaps that is justified to a certain extent. Another way to look at it is that they are the only team to get to the big game 4 straight times. And as a tribute to Thomas, it’s doubtful that would have been accomplished without his standout service. During that 4-year stretch, the Bills were 49-15 in the regular season and did manage to notch 9 playoff wins. The most memorable was their remarkable comeback victory in 1992 over the Houston Oilers, where the Bills overcame a second-half 35-3 deficit. Thomas, however, was out due to an injury.

All told, the Bills made it to the playoffs 10 times in Thomas’ 12 seasons with the Bills, which is remarkable considering their absence from the postseason preceding and following Thomas’ tenure with the team. By 1997, Thomas had begun to slow. Following 8 consecutive 1000-yard seasons, Thomas only gained 643 in ’97 with just one touchdown.

As is the case with so many great NFL running backs, Thomas spent his final year wearing a uniform where he just looked out of place–as a member of the Dolphins in 2000. He only ran the ball 28 times, before a knee injury effectively ended his career. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. While Thomas and the Bills never got over the hump, Thomas is either the record-holder or right at the top of most postseason rushing categories. Thomas had a productive and memorable career.

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