In the 25 years since he retired from the NFL, former running back Duane Thomas has tried acting, various jobs in sales and hosting a sports talk-radio show--quite a turnabout after developing a reputation for reticence in the early 1970s. He got his "big break" in film when he played a prison inmate in Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype, a 1980 horror-comedy about an ugly, misshapen podiatrist who ingests an elixir that transforms him into an irresistible ladies' man. "You sure are one ugly little mutha," Thomas says to the podiatrist in one scene. "If you was a bug, I'd step on you, but I'm afraid of what might come out!"
More recently Thomas, a vegetarian and yoga enthusiast, grew avocados outside San Diego. Now he takes on light carpentry work and moving jobs while continuing to help others. In the 1990s he made appearances for the Children's Miracle Network and toured with the USO, visiting troops in Bosnia. This fall Thomas, 57, will go to Zambia with the SEVA Foundation for Children, which is breaking ground on a 10,000-unit housing development in Lusaka.
A first-round draft pick of his hometown Dallas Cowboys in 1970, Thomas was voted Rookie of the Year after rushing for 803 yards and five touchdowns as Dallas went to its first Super Bowl. When the club rejected his demand for a new contract before the '71 season and he perceived the media as taking management's side, Thomas did not talk to reporters for five months. "That was one of the hardest times in my life," says Thomas, "but winning helped dissipate some of the negativity." Dallas returned to the title game with Thomas rushing for 95 yards and scoring on a pass in a 24-3 win over the Miami Dolphins.
Fed up with Thomas after he skipped a preseason practice, the Cowboys traded him to the San Diego Chargers in '72. He missed practices in San Diego, too, and was benched for the entire year. "I wasn't going to report [to practice]," says Thomas, "without things being modified in my contract." He spent the next two seasons with the Washington Redskins, then hooked up with Hawaii in the World Football League. He tried comebacks with Dallas and Green Bay before calling it quits in '79.
In 1985 Thomas, who has seven grown children, married for the second time and moved to Hawaii. Four years later his wife, Tapzyana, suggested they return to California. "I've learned that the key to a happy marriage is to marry your second wife first," Thomas says with a laugh, "and that you can disagree without being disagreeable."
If only he had learned that lesson years earlier. --Andrew Lawrence
After helping Dallas get to two Super Bowls, Thomas tried acting and grew avocados; now he's a handyman on a mission.