September 16, 2011
Former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas accomplished almost everything a pro football player can, including five Pro Bowls, four Super Bowl appearances, an NFL MVP award and induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And yet, the thing many sports fans remember most about him is a much more embarrassing moment: Losing his helmet before Super Bowl XXVI vs. the Washington Redskins in 1992.
"I probably need to have a nice dinner with Bill Buckner," Thomas deadpanned.
Many would say Thomas also belongs in the Hall of Shame with the likes of the aforementioned former Boston Red Sox first baseman, Dallas Cowboys defender Leon Lett, golfer Jean Van de Velde and former Michigan basketball star Chris Webber, all of whom suffered public humiliation at the highest levels of sport.
But Thomas, a husband and father of four, has put that incident behind him and forged an interesting post-football career. A few years ago, he moved back to Buffalo, where he has his own TV show about the Bills and runs Thurman Thomas Sports Training and the Thurman Thomas Global Energy Group.
That's right, Thomas now has his own energy company. (And yes, Thomas is also used to people making puns about "Thurmal" energy in honor of his playing nickname.) The group is partnered with three energy companies to help businesses save money by getting them the best deals from energy suppliers and engaging them in demand response programs. Translation: When the state of New York is in danger of a blackout due to high-energy demands, it writes checks for Thomas' clients who reduce their energy usage during crucial times.
It's abundantly clear that Thomas has gone all-in on this venture he started last year, whether it's trying to get other athletes involved, hosting free seminars in an attempt to expand business and even requesting an interview about the company on his own.
Of course, it doesn't hurt in business meetings that Thomas is one of Western New York's most beloved athletes and an NFL Hall of Famer. But Thomas makes it clear he's not there as a marketing ploy.
"I think being a former athlete, you're always gonna have that conversation with the CEO, the CFO or the president of the company about sports," Thomas said. "But when it comes down to it, we're there to talk business."
For those in the Buffalo area, Thomas isn't just a legend -- he's also a link to the glory years of the Bills franchise.
Want an idea of his impact?
In his 12 seasons with the team from 1988-99, Buffalo had 10 winning seasons, an equal number of playoff appearances and four Super Bowl trips. In the 17 seasons Thomas has not been on the Bills roster since 1982, the franchise has one winning season and zero playoff appearances.
Yet his helmet gaffe remains a part of his enduring legacy. ESPN once ranked it the 33rd best moment in Super Bowl history, four spots ahead of Joe Namath's guarantee prior to Super Bowl III. Former teammate Bruce Smith even brought it up at the running back's Hall of Fame induction in 2007, joking that he'd hid it.
So just how did it happen?
As part of a pregame ritual he'd performed since his senior year at Oklahoma State, Thomas placed his helmet on the 34-yard line (to match his jersey number). But when he went to retrieve it, the helmet was gone. To this day, the incident is still a mystery to him.
It has been reported that the helmet was moved to accommodate the stage for Harry Connick Jr., who was performing "The Star-Spangled Banner." It was eventually found by a trainer and returned to Thomas, but the mishap caused him to miss the first two plays of the game.
Like most infamous sports moments, it's been exaggerated over the years, magnified by the fact Thomas rushed for 13 yards that day. Judging by the incident's infamy, you would think Thomas cost the Bills their second Super Bowl appearance instead of missing just two downs.
Thomas said it doesn't bother him to talk about it and he doesn't try setting the record straight: "If people think that because I missed two plays, that cost us the Super Bowl, then so be it, you know?
"I laugh it off. … I tell people … 'I found it. And you can find it, too. Go to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It's there.'"
Just like Thomas is best known by some people for misplacing his helmet, the Bills of the 1990s are best remembered for what they didn't do: Win a Super Bowl.
Although the Bills became a national punch line in the process ("What is Buffalo's area code? Answer: 0-4-4; oh for four"), Thomas says he is now often reminded about how remarkable it was to be the only team ever to reach four straight Super Sundays.
"Not a lot of guys can say that they went to a Super Bowl," Thomas. "I talk to Warren Moon all the time and he always [goes], 'Man, I wish I could have gone to one Super Bowl.' Barry Sanders, the same way.
"What do they say in 'Bad Boys'? 'We [ride] together, we die together, bad boys for life.' That's us. We're proud of what we accomplished and hopefully we'll be around when the Bills win their first Super Bowl."
Of course, Bills fans would probably trade anything to be losing Super Bowls instead of finishing at the bottom of the AFC East standings -- which they have in each of the last three seasons -- while speculation swirls that the team will move to Toronto.
Thomas said he's confident that former teammate Jim Kelly -- who's attempting to become a part-owner of the team after 92-year-old owner Ralph Wilson passes away -- will keep the franchise in Buffalo. Thomas also remains optimistic about the product on the field, serving as a mentor to young players like running back C.J. Spiller(notes) and wide receiver Stevie Johnson(notes).
Thomas' positive outlook was rewarded last Sunday, as the Bills were the surprise of the league. They crushed defending the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs on the road 41-7, the Chiefs' worst home loss in 35 years.
And if only for one week, Buffalo looked like the Bills of old.
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