It may come as an embarrassment to the rest of the National Football League and as ridicule to the legion of doubting Thomases, but Duane Thomas will play for the Washington Redskins this season.
Thomas, you will recall, is a running back of exceptional gifts, not the least of which is an almost perfect reticence. He was traded to San Diego last season from Dallas, which he had led to the 1972 Super Bowl and victory therein over the Miami Dolphins. At the same time he lost Coach Tom Landry, many of his teammates and most NFL fans with his protracted silences and other specimens of antisocial behavior. At San Diego he not only wasn't heard, he wasn't seen; he suited up for only one game, but didn't play.
Thomas came to the Redskins last month in a trade in which Coach George Allen, whose affinity for the wretched refuse of the NFL shores is renowned, gave the Chargers two of the draft choices he still owned in this decade—his No. 1 pick for 1975 and his No. 2 for 1976. Ever since Thomas arrived at the Skins' training camp in Carlisle, Pa., Allen has shielded him from fans, reporters, photographers and any other offensive distractions. So far Allen's solicitousness has paid off.
Last Friday night against the Buffalo Bills, who had the temerity to invite the Redskins to the opening of their brand-new stadium, Thomas ran for 70 yards on 16 carries, scored one touchdown and caught three passes for 42 yards—all in a half night's work. More important, he rushed with the deceptive, long loping stride that had been his trademark as a Cowboy. He changed speeds, broke tackles, blocked well and used his blockers efficiently. The performance earned Thomas a game ball and gave further hope to Washington fans who have been anticipating with relish the ground attack the team will launch if Thomas occupies the same backfield as Larry Brown, who didn't play in Buffalo but was the NFC rushing leader last season.
Sad to relate, Thomas' nifty work appealed to the baser instincts of some of the sellout crowd of 80,020. Frustrated by the Bills' ineptness, which was evident from the very first play—the Skins' Herb Mul-Key returned the opening kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown—and with O. J. Simpson sidelined by a cracked rib, the fans had little to cheer about. So they resorted to the hooliganism that used to mark games at War Memorial Stadium, a dilapidated edifice that still holds the NFL record for pigeon guano and sideline muggings. Near the end of the game, which the Redskins won 37-21, Thomas went after one abusive lout. "He got one leg over a six-foot-high concrete wall," said teammate Ron McDole, "but we got him down." "A few people threw things at him and called him obscene names," said Allen. "Let's face it, you or I wouldn't have stood for it." On his way to the locker room, Thomas was again bombarded with obscenities and garbage. The fans were suitably rewarded by the worst traffic jam in Buffalo history, seemingly hexed on them by Thomas' hate-filled gaze.
If the kind of revilement Thomas got doesn't give Allen new cause for grinding his teeth, the prospect of his being cornered by the press does, for the worry persists that Duane will freak out for the slightest reason.
"When the time comes," Allen says, "when he's had more success, when he's ingrained into the Redskins' family, then he'll be open to the media. He's had a lot of bad publicity. He's been misrepresented and he probably views the press as people he can't trust. I don't blame him. The main thing is for him to succeed. I'm just hoping we can have Duane through the whole season. He's a very sensitive person who wants to be left alone. I respect that, and the type of team we have, a mature team, understands. I don't know what's in his mind, I just know he isn't ready for that yet. Something might make him withdraw. A lot of guys are more interested in getting a story than they are in seeing someone saved."
For the salvation of Duane Thomas, Allen has thus discouraged all interviews. This policy may be academic, since Thomas hasn't shown an inclination to hold press conferences, but to those attempting to cover the Redskins it is another indication of Allen's unreasonableness. In contrast to many other NFL camps, the locker room, players' rooms and practice fields, apart from the running track, are off-limits to reporters. Allen also has a rule against the working press sitting on his treasured running track during practice, presumably because he does not regard it as seemly for some to sit while others toil.
Whether such restrictions have helped or not, Thomas has been the hardest-working Redskin. Preparing for the Buffalo exhibition, Allen sent his team through 2½-hour workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday, then watched Thomas spend an extra 30 minutes on his own conditioning and warm-down drills. Like the eagerest rookie, Thomas has volunteered to play on the special teams and he has also gone out in the mornings to run himself back into condition, much to the delight of Charlie Waller, who coaches the offensive backs.
"He's been giving himself two-a-days," Waller marvels. "I got out here the other morning and he was sweating like a horse. I was quoted as saying, 'You don't just park a brand-new Cadillac in the garage for a year and expect it to start right up again a year later,' but he's making great progress. He's an ideal guy to work with. He's a hard worker who's putting everything into it. You know all the things you've heard about this guy. It's all been negative. People said it would be impossible, and that only sharpened the challenge but, frankly, I haven't done anything. He's done it all himself."
Waller attributes Thomas' success to Allen's respect for the individuality of his players, so long as they adhere to team rules. Thus Thomas, a loner and vegetarian, rooms by himself and concocts his own training-table diet from the salad and fruit trays. (Actually, a number of Redskins live alone, some because they snore. "We have a singular togetherness," says a team spokesman.) By the same token Thomas was fined like any other player for missing breakfast. He didn't realize that the Redskins are obliged to show up for breakfast whether they want to eat it or not.
"This is the perfect place and time for him," says Waller. "If he's ever going to make it anywhere, it's just got to be here. The way his mind was, he probably wouldn't have played for anyone a year ago. This year he probably would have given it a good shot wherever he went, but no place would have been as conducive as here."
"People say you have to treat everyone alike," Allen says, "but that's not necessarily true. You don't treat Diron Talbert the same as you'd treat Verlon Biggs. You don't treat Jerry Smith the same as Roy Jefferson. Everyone is an individual. If a guy has ability, I'm willing to tackle his problem. That's the coach I've tried to be, not a guy who would turn his team into a bunch of trained seals or something."
Thomas has been observed smiling and even chuckling at his teammates in practice, which may come as a shock to the nation, but whether he has found happiness as a Redskin is still questionable, because of "the stare." Thomas utilizes a laser-like look of pure malevolence toward those Washington writers who have the gall to try to chat with him. He can also turn off a teammate's conversation by the same device if the mood suits him.
"He can sometimes act like he didn't hear you," says Charley Taylor, the All-Pro wide receiver. "Or he'll give you that stare of his. He got that from his father. His father could go around the house for two weeks and not say anything. But he's friendly. He even went out and got some sandwiches for the linemen one time. I think he relates to the talent on Dallas quite a bit. We don't have people comparable to Rayfield Wright as blockers and this upsets him a little. He has to get used to the personnel we do have. I know one thing for sure and that is that he definitely wants to be a Washington Redskin and he's working hard to be one.
"Duane is a very religious person. He's not a God-squadder, but in his way he is religious. I think Duane realizes that he has a God-given talent and he can't let it go to waste. You can tell."
"He's not an easy guy to confront, with that stare of his," says Guard John Wilbur, like Thomas a disenchanted ex-Cowboy, reinforcing Taylor's opinion. "He's a powerful personality. He's got the power of his philosophical convictions and he's got a great football mind. You know, he tapes Charlie Waller at meetings. I think he's got a lot of Dallas left in him. Down there, you're brainwashed to believe you're superior to everyone else in the league. I was the same way for about a year after I left there. They make you believe that theirs is the best system there is, and with the personnel they have you've just got to be better than all the rest."
Either as a reaction to his disenchantment with Dallas (which began when he and the Cowboys couldn't come to terms on the renegotiation of his three-year contract, after an outstanding rookie year) or out of gratitude to Allen, Thomas is pushing hard to be better than the rest. After three exhibition games in which he has played three halves he leads the team in rushing and pass receiving and has scored two touchdowns. He has carried the ball 39 times for 166 yards and has caught nine passes for 89 yards.
But "the rest" may be a problem. "George Allen has built his whole program on togetherness," says a rival NFL coach. "If he's not getting it because of one guy, that can hurt his program. And for every down that Duane's running the ball, Larry Brown isn't. You can say it isn't a problem, but over the long haul it is."
Allen refuses to speculate on how he plans to use his two premier ballcarriers. "The worst thing I could say," he says, "is that three weeks from now I'm going to have Duane and Larry in the same backfield. We haven't advanced that far. Larry Brown is still No. 1. The only thing I count on is today. Your only future is the one you have now."
The conjecture that Allen will use both backs at the same time also ignores Charley Harraway, the Redskins' unsung fullback who is one of the finest blockers in the league and who teamed up with Thomas in Buffalo. Alternating Thomas and Brown, as Don Shula does with Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris, might be the best idea, both for the backs and the Redskins.
"Larry's taken a tremendous pounding every season," Allen says, giving credence to this prospect. "There's no one in all of football with more courage than Larry Brown. We now have the possibility of keeping him fresh and our offense at top efficiency through the entire season. That would lengthen Larry's career three or four years.
"One of my players [George Burman] told me it was inevitable that Duane Thomas would end up as a Redskin," Allen adds. "Every day that he has success, his chances to succeed become greater."
"Every day he's with us," says Waller, "he's becoming more one of us. It's like drawing interest at the bank."
As for the man himself, in a happier mood on his way to the Buffalo stadium than the one he would be in leaving it seven hours later, he answered questions with smiles and long pauses, giving the impression he was putting you on.
What does he think of George Allen?
How does he view his play thus far?
"I'm progressing," Thomas said, "but I'll wait until the end of the exhibition season, then I'll rate myself. There's too many things I'm trying to work on all at the same time right now."
Volunteering for the special teams? The extra work in practice?
"That's football. That's what you have to do."
"I don't get paid to talk to the press. There's too many other things I'm trying to do. While the people in Dallas were reading about individual players, there was a team going to the Super Bowl—and winning it."
That kind of a story, Allen hopes, Thomas will help write for him in Washington.