When running back Thurman Thomas begins launching his familiar barbs in the locker room or on the field, his Buffalo Bill teammates know it's time to take cover. Thomas delights in goading the other Bills into performing at their best, and while his words may be delivered in a joking manner, there is an edge to them, a hint of truth. "Hey, Jim, I'm better than you," Thomas tells quarterback Jim Kelly. "Admit it. I'm the franchise."
"You're getting old, James," Thomas reminds 36-year-old wide receiver James Lofton. "This might be your last year, especially if you keep dropping balls."
But Thomas's outspokenness goes far beyond locker-room banter. Question authority is his motto. Never settle for mediocrity is his creed. He's a team leader who is not afraid to speak his mind. On road trips Thomas has complained about the location of the Bills' hotel, about the food not being hot enough at the pregame meal, about the team bus being late. No wonder the Bills call him Grumpy.
When he senses that his teammates are biting their tongues, Thomas will do the talking for them. Take the time in 1989, after the Bills had been humiliated 37-14 by the Indianapolis Colts and Kelly blasted Buffalo tackle Howard Ballard, saying that Ballard's poor blocking was the reason Kelly had suffered a separated left shoulder. Neither coach Marv Levy nor any of the other Bill players jumped on Kelly for singling out Ballard, so Thomas took matters into his own hands. Asked in a TV interview where Buffalo could most improve, Thomas said, "Quarterback."
Nobody else on the Bills gets away with saying the things Thomas does. Nobody else would dare try.
"Thurman has more respect professionally than any other guy in the locker room," says special teams captain Steve Tasker. "Nobody is a bigger team player. That's why he can get away with it. There isn't a guy here who doesn't like him."
"I love my teammates, and I see it as my role to protect them," Thomas says. "I'm never out to hurt anybody's feelings. I'm just out to express myself, to have fun and to be serious, to push my teammates and, bottom line, to win. To be the best, you have to be totally honest with yourself. No one is more honest than me."
But Thomas's blunt style often has not worked to his benefit. In fact, he buried himself in controversy at last year's Super Bowl with actions and comments that, he says, were misinterpreted by the media. "People think I'm arrogant, cocky and selfish," Thomas says. "To me some of that might be right. You can't tell me that's not true of every athlete who wants to be the best. But if I were a bad guy, I wouldn't still be here."
After five NFL seasons Thomas, 26, may be the best all-purpose running back who has ever played the game. He was the league's Most Valuable Player in 1991. This season he led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage for the fourth consecutive year (2,113 yards, including a career-high 1.487 yards rushing), breaking Jim Brown's record of three straight.
But until recently the 5'10", 197-pound Thomas had an aversion to being labeled the best all-purpose back in football. Last January, at Super Bowl XXVI, he moaned about how Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions and Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys were regularly hailed as the NFL's best pure runners. Only another great running back could understand the disappointment Thomas was trying to convey when he said being known as the best all-around back "is a title I'll just have to live with."
"When you talk about great running backs, you talk about breakaway producers," explains Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson, the Bills' alltime leading rusher, with 10,183 yards from 1969 to '77. "These guys all grew up as runners. 'All-around back' has always had a negative connotation, like, 'He's a great all-around back, but....' The category of being a great runner is on a different level—on a pedestal almost. Because Thurman is so versatile, he's overlooked. He compares favorably to the best runners of all time."
Thomas's grumbling about his rightful place among today's elite backs was only one spark in a sequence of events that turned the media against him during Super Bowl week a year ago. He bolted from a Wednesday press conference after waiting 20-odd minutes as Kelly enraptured reporters with colorful responses. Thomas, weary of waiting his turn at the podium, departed in a huff, leaving behind the impression that he was jealous of the attention given to his superstar teammate.
"To tell me I'm going to do something, and then not do it, is a lack of respect for me." Thomas says now. "It wasn't that Jim was ahead of me. It was that he went over the scheduled time limit."
At the next day's press conference, Thomas stood before hundreds of indignant members of the media, who put him on the defensive with a harsh line of questioning. Then, just when he thought his public image couldn't get any worse, Thomas became the laughingstock of the Super Bowl when he misplaced his helmet and backup Kenneth Davis had to start the game in his place. Thomas had put his helmet on one end of the bench, and he now believes that a teammate had picked up the helmet by mistake and then pitched it to the side when he realized it wasn't his. What made matters worse was that once he was in the game, Thomas had his most embarrassing day as a pro: 10 carries for 13 yards and four receptions for 27 yards as the Bills got ripped.
"Coming into this season, every magazine, newspaper and sports talk show mentioned two things about me—my attitude at the Super Bowl and my losing my helmet," says Thomas. "God, that stuff hurt. To be remembered for losing my helmet in the Super Bowl? I've accomplished too much for that. People always remember the worst times."
Ever since he was young, Thomas has carried a chip on his shoulder. He was an only child, and his parents divorced when he was four. His mother, Terlisha, remarried eight years later, but Thurman was doted on endlessly by relatives. "Thurman was spoiled," his mother says. "If he didn't get what he wanted, he'd go into his bedroom and pout."
Being the smallest kid in the neighborhood didn't help either. Thurman often was the last boy picked when it was time to choose up sides for games. "The other kids liked to say, 'You can't do this, you can't do that,' " he says. "I thought, The heck with you. When I'm challenged, I can do anything." Thurman became an all-state running back and also played defensive back at Willowridge High in Missouri City, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Nevertheless, recruiters from Southwest Conference schools took one look at his smallish size and told him they would be interested in him only as a defensive back.
But Oklahoma State coach Jimmy Johnson—who now happens to be the coach of the Dallas Cowboys—promised Thomas he could play running back, and Thomas wound up being the school's all-time leading rusher despite a knee injury, suffered in a pickup basketball game, that slowed him his junior year. The injury, which required arthroscopic surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament, dampened the interest of pro scouts, causing Thomas to slip in the 1988 NFL draft from a projected high first-round pick all the way down to the middle of the second round, No. 40 overall.
His draft day humiliation was recorded by ESPN, which had set up cameras in the living room of his Stillwater, Okla., apartment. It was a painful experience he could not forget: To fire himself up before games in his first few seasons as a pro, Thomas, who has yet to miss an NFL game because of a knee injury, often replayed the tape of that broadcast.
Two weeks ago, Thomas didn't need any of his own devices to whip himself into a frenzy before the AFC Championship Game against the Miami Dolphins. Safety Louis Oliver of the Dolphins had had T-shirts made for the Houston Oilers to wear in their regular-season finale against the Bills. The T-shirts read A DOLPHIN'S FAVORITE CHRISTMAS CAROL? DECK THE BILLS, WE'LL ALL BE JOLLY, because an Oiler win would enable Miami to beat out Buffalo for the AFC East title. Oliver even sent some of the T-shirts to Thomas and other Buffalo players.
Two days before the AFC title game, Dolphin linebacker Bryan Cox further provoked Thomas when he proclaimed, "Kenneth Davis is a better running back than Thurman Thomas. What sets Thomas apart is his ability to catch the ball." Despite a painful hip pointer and groin pull, Thomas carried 20 times for 96 yards and caught five passes for 70 yards and one touchdown in the Bills' 29-10 win.
"All it takes is one little negative," Thurman's mother says. "I'll say, 'Thurman, it's time to leave that alone.' I tell him he doesn't need this, that he's a good player. But he'll say, 'Mom, they said such and such about me.' And I'll say, 'Quit reading those articles.' "
Though he projects the image of an angry young man, Thomas is something very much different when he's away from football. He is one of the most community-minded players on the Bills. Thomas divided the $30,000 he was awarded as the Miller Lite Player of the Year in 1991 equally among the United Negro College Fund and Buffalo-area chapters of the YMCA and the Special Olympics. He has also donated $125,000 to Oklahoma State, to repay his football scholarship, and made the school the beneficiary of a $750,000 life insurance policy.
Last summer he established the Thurman Thomas Foundation, which provides inner-city youths with scholarships to Eric County Community College in Buffalo. For every yard he gains, he donates $5 to the scholarship fund. With pledges from corporations and private citizens, the foundation raised enough money to fund 10 scholarships this year.
Still, the image Thomas conveys is not that of a benevolent hero. According to Thomas's longtime girlfriend, Patti Mariacher, the reason Thomas projects a false impression is partly rooted in his being an only child. "Every day of his life I can tell he's an only child," she says. "It's hard for Thurman to have a relationship and to rely on others. There's something about growing up with somebody other than your parents, with brothers or sisters, having them there for you." Not only was Thomas spoiled by his mother and relatives, but as a gifted athlete he was pampered by his teachers and coaches in high school and college, so he was late in developing the necessary social skills to be able to interact gracefully with others.
Thomas has had to do most of his growing up since joining the Bills, while in the public eye, and that hasn't been easy for someone so fiercely independent and strong-minded. Mariacher, with whom Thomas has two children—Olivia, 3, and Angelica, 1—has noticed a change in Thomas since they began living together a year and a half ago. "After the second baby, something changed in Thurman," Patti says. "He's really a concerned person. He likes to feel responsible for us."
"The girls bring out different emotions in me," Thomas says. "Angelica is the first to greet me at the door at the end of the day. Just hearing her say 'Dah-dee' touches me. Patti and the kids are a stabilizing force in my life."
Even as he learns to choose his words more carefully, to share his feelings more openly and to thrive in close relationships, Thomas promises he won't ever cease being brutally honest. He will always be his own man.
"I have a good grip on who I am," he says. "I know I can't completely change my image, and I realize that not everyone is going to like me. What's important is to be true to myself, to my football talent and to my teammates. I'll stay focused straight ahead, driven by my goal of being the best running back who has ever played the game. I won't let anything stop me."