The first time I laid eyes on Thurman Thomas was the spring of 1988. I was in the East Cleveland home of my in-laws watching the NFL draft on a new television my husband, Darryl Talley, had purchased for the occasion. We gathered in the foyer where the television rested under a window, which is where my mother-in-law chose to place it, and sat on scattered about folding chairs.
Through a haze of cigarette smoke propelled by Darryl’s father and uncle that lingered in the early afternoon light, and fighting the din of laughter and chatter propelled by the rest of the family and friends, I watched ESPN as anxious collegiate football players waited to hear their names called and their lives changed.
As the event unfolded, the network kept cutting to a guy in his college apartment surrounded by wide-eyed family all staring at a television. It was Thurman. Continuing to watch, I learned Thurman was expected to be drafted in the first round. As it turned out, he wasn’t.
In talking with Thurman the other day I also learned ESPN, and more specifically, Andrea Kremer, offered to leave the apartment and spare him the awkwardness of not being taken in the first round. His response was a firm “no”. He told Andrea the intrusion didn’t bother him and he wanted the network to see their purpose through. They stayed and I watched Thurman become, in the second round, a member of the Buffalo Bills and my husband’s teammate.
Using the draft as a slight catalyst, Thurman committed himself to proving to those who didn’t select him, and to those who did, what he was capable of. Thurman’s long overdue number retirement is the cherry on the top of a professional career that includes five Pro Bowl appearances, two First-Team All-Pro seasons, three Second-Team All-Pro seasons, NFL Most Valuable Player (1991), NFL 1990s All-Decade team, four Super Bowl appearances, the Buffalo Bills’ Wall of Fame, and a bust in Canton.
I have the good fortune to call Thurman my friend. The benefit of writing about someone you know well is how their growth as a human being can be confirmed. Of the core group of guys on the Bills who played in all four Super Bowls, Thurman is the one who has evolved the most as a person. He worked his way through a tempestuous relationship with the press, and sometimes sour rapport with the public to possess one of life’s most important virtues: perspective.
For all of his successes on the football field, he’s remarkably grounded. That’s not to say he hasn’t done things he regrets. Who among us hasn’t? Shoot, give me a couple of glasses of Chardonnay and the next morning I have several regrets. My vice aside, I think Thurman is the one standout of the Bills’ Super Bowl era who’s achieved full personhood. In short, he’s reached the pinnacle of success while maintaining balance. That’s rare. That’s a craft.
He’s more than atoned for his past blunders and sometime callous interactions. Where others of his ilk arrive late to charity events and leave early, or find their way through hotel kitchens to avoid fans, Thurman makes himself accessible. He doesn’t demand his hotel room be feng shuied before he enters it, or that his mattress be new and factory sealed, or that he have a sushi chef and a masseuse on call while he travels on a charity’s dime. He’s become a fine representative of the Buffalo Bills, the National Football League, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Some of his peers should follow his lead.
It’s always puzzled me that he’s not more nationally celebrated. He never got the big endorsement deals, or the game analyst positions some of his contemporaries have. Heck, there are many men less accomplished on the football field who have parlayed more than Thurman has off of the field and that’s not for a lack of tenacity on his part.
Thurman navigates a fine line between superstar and average Joe, and I admire that. I know he’s grateful for every day, and sometimes in disbelief, that a kid from Houston, Texas who grew up idolizing many of the men enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has made it just as far as they have.
I’ve known Thurman for 30 years and still find myself impressed with his approachability. He’s not perfect. We all have our days when we want to get from Point A to B without interruption. I think we should respect that of him as well. Being a celebrity doesn’t mean all-access for the public all of the time. That’s an unreasonable expectation of anyone. Yet, anytime I’ve been in his company the graciousness he shows outshines his counterparts.
Thurman’s journey from that slighted college kid in his Stillwater, Oklahoma apartment, to the zenith of his sport turned out to be a fortuitous one for the Buffalo Bills, their fans, and for Thurman. I’m thrilled I had the opportunity to witness his journey from a front row seat.
Editor’s babble: Congratulations to Thurman Thomas and his family for having his number (finally) retired at New Era Field. Mr. Thomas continues to be an inspiration for us all. We are also incredibly blessed to have Janine Talley contribute to our blog. You can find Janine on Twitter @J9Talley.