The paths of former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin and Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas criss-cross like a Los Angeles freeway interchange. They were drafted the same season and were part of teams that left strong imprints on the history of the Super Bowl.
On Saturday night, their shared path brings them to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Irvin and Thomas will be among six men inducted into the Hall, joining Gene Hickerson, Bruce Matthews, Charlie Sanders and Roger Wehrli.
Beyond those commonalities is something deeper. While neither was ever the best player on his team – Irvin had Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith ahead of him while Thomas had Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith – both were the instigators, the emotional barometers for teams that accomplished remarkable runs.
"Michael was one of those larger-than-life characters," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who will be Irvin's presenter. "The things he did may not always have been what you wanted to see, but he was going to be the guy who made everybody stand up and take notice. Whether it was the other team, the fans or the media, Michael would basically say, 'You better take notice of us because you're going to have to deal with us.'"
The league had to deal with Dallas at the highest levels of success. Irvin and the Cowboys became the first team in league history to win three Super Bowls in a four-year stretch. That included two against Thomas' Bills.
While Thomas avoided the legal pratfalls that haunted Irvin, he was nonetheless a stirring force. On more than one occasion, Thomas kept teammates in line. When Kelly once criticized the offensive line during Buffalo's unprecedented run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances, Thomas took on Kelly publicly.
"Thurman will always tell you straight to your face what he thinks," Kelly said. "But where some guys might resent that, you couldn't be upset with Thurman because it was always about the team."
In Irvin's case, he tried to never let the transgressions of his life dilute his focus. Over his first three seasons in the NFL, Irvin was hampered by injury, including a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee that cost him 10 games of the 1989 season.
Then there was Irvin's drug use, which led to a 1996 arrest, trial, four years of probation and a five-game suspension to open the season. However, he tried to repair the appearance that he didn't care about football enough to make it the top priority. During his suspension, Irvin worked out constantly.
Since the end of his career, he has continued to illustrate that his priorities are in order. He devotes a lot of time and energy on his children's charity in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and also hopes his mistakes serve as a lesson for others.
"I will continue to live and try to do the right things," Irvin said. "If that serves as an example, then so be it, and God bless it. I think some of the indiscretions, some of the mistakes I have made off the field, certainly when I go speak with some of the players or some of the guys that are having problems, it helps (get their attention).
"They say, 'I know Michael has gone through it.' It's been pretty public. In their eyes I'm doing well, and I am doing well. I'm being blessed and everything. So it gives people hope when they see someone else that has had struggles and they're doing fine. It gives them hope that all I got to do is hold on and try to do the right thing and I can turn things around. I appreciate that more now. Much more than I did then."
As a player, Irvin was a physical presence. Although not blessed with blazing speed, he overpowered defensive backs with his upper-body strength. He was especially good in the playoffs, catching 87 passes for 1,315 yards and eight touchdowns in 14 games.
Thomas, conversely, didn't consistently experience the same postseason success, struggling in his final three Super Bowls. Nor was he a prized first-rounder like Irvin. Coming out of Oklahoma State, Thomas was expected to be a first-round draft pick, but a right knee injury knocked him down to the second round.
"A lot of people, the Rams, the Falcons, the Saints, the Houston Oilers were talking to me a lot about taking me in the first round," Thomas said. "When they didn't, I just kind of said to myself, 'You know what, once I get to the National Football League, I'm going to use that as my motivational tool my first year.'
"I had a pretty decent rookie year. As a team, we got to the AFC championship and I almost gained 1,000 yards. I think it's already known I used to watch the tape every Saturday night of when I got picked. I did that my rookie year. But after that I kind of just let it go and thought that I had to prove myself a little bit more by doing a lot of different things."
During the playoffs, Thomas turned up the emotion. Before the 1992 AFC championship game against Miami, Thomas saw several Dolphins players pull up in a limo. He then went to the locker room and told teammates that the Dolphins were acting as if they'd already won the game.
On the field, Thomas used that drive to become one of the top all-purpose backs in NFL history. In back-to-back seasons, including 1991 when he won league MVP honors, Thomas had more than 2,000 combined yards rushing and receiving. He had eight consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards rushing and six straight in which he averaged more than 50 receptions.
But stats only provide a glimpse of the story about Irvin and Thomas. Both were driven by something far greater, as Irvin said when asked about what football taught him.
"It teaches you to get back up. You got to have battles. You've got to lose battles and fight through the losses, and football teaches you that. Jimmy Johnson's favorite quote – and I say it all the time when I'm talking to people – 'Each day you get better or worse.' There is no such thing as staying the same. You either make a choice to get better or make a choice to get worse."