In the 1988 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills got a steal when they selected Oklahoma State University running back Thurman Thomas in the second round.
After arriving in Buffalo, Thomas immediately became one of the best backs in the NFL.
— ThaEndOfDaBench Media (@ThaEndOfDaBench) December 21, 2018
From 1990 through 1993 he was part of a loaded Bills team that went to four consecutive Super Bowls.
Although the team lost each game, that didn’t take away from the talent Thomas possessed.
By the time he retired after the 2000 season, Thomas had accumulated over 12,000 rushing yards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
This is the story of Thurman Thomas.
Thurman Lee Thomas was born on May 16, 1966, in Houston, Texas.
Happy Birthday to Bills legend Thurman Thomas 🐐 pic.twitter.com/M5CJFFpmO0
— Built in Buffalo (@BuiltInBuffalo_) May 16, 2021
Thomas was an only child and his parents divorced when he was four.
That didn’t stop his relatives from spoiling him rotten.
“Thurman was spoiled,” his mother said in 1993. “If he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d go into his bedroom and pout.”
As he got older, Thomas was treated like the runt of the litter from the kids in his neighborhood.
“The other kids liked to say, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ ” he said. “I thought, ‘The heck with you. When I’m challenged, I can do anything.”
Thomas was true to his word.
When he reached high school, Thomas was still under six feet tall but he had developed a serious set of wheels.
He played running back for the Willowridge High School Eagles and made his name as a sophomore.
There is a possibility of a new elementary school in the area near Willowridge High School in the next few years.
— David Hamilton, School Board Trustee (@Hamilton4TX) January 21, 2023
Thomas was the starting tailback that year while the Eagles went to the state title game before losing.
The following season, he rushed for 1,556 yards and another 122 in the state championship game victory against Corsicana.
As a senior, Thomas missed some time due to an injury but still managed 1,573 yards.
Willowridge advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to a team boasting future NFL receiver Hart Lee Dykes.
Thomas is Dissed by the Longhorns and Aggies
In three years, Thomas had amassed a whopping 3,918 yards and 18 touchdowns.
He also helped the Eagles to a record of 39-3 overall, two championship game appearances, and one state title.
That’s why it was strange that the Texas Longhorns came calling and promptly told Thomas they wanted him to play defensive back.
Thurman Thomas rips former Longhorns coach Fred Akers for telling him on recruiting trip they were set at RB and wanted him to move to DB.
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 28, 2014
It was a position Thomas had played in high school when he wasn’t toting the rock, but he wanted to stay in the backfield in college.
Texas A&M recruited Thomas as well, but they also wanted him to play in the secondary.
“I’m 5-9,” Thomas said in 2020. “That’s not gonna work for me.”
Thomas is a Cowboy
Sensing a huge opportunity, Oklahoma State coach Jimmy Johnson swooped in and told Thomas that he wanted him to play running back.
“There wasn’t any question in my mind he was going to be a great running back,” Johnson said in 2020. “I’ve always felt like if the individual can put points on the board, I’d rather have that as one on the other side of the ball. Even though I was a defensive-minded coach, I knew how valuable a running back of Thurman’s caliber was.”
Johnson promised Thomas a spot on the team, but he would be buried on the depth chart as a freshman.
That didn’t bother him in the slightest.
“I don’t want to go to a place where they’re just gonna hand me a job,” Thomas said. “So that meant I had five other guys in front of me and I had to catch those guys.”
Thomas committed to the Cowboys only to hear the news that Johnson had become the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes months later.
Oklahoma State University.
Barry Sanders #21
Thurman Thomas #34 pic.twitter.com/PVMgi2uqAh
— Bruce Football (@BrBogtrotter) May 21, 2020
He could have left OSU before ever playing a down but chose to stay.
“It was the best decision that I ever made,” Thomas said.
Thomas Ascends the Depth Chart
Thomas was eight games into his freshman year and had leaped up the depth chart to third team.
In a tight contest against Kansas State in early November, the starting back wasn’t following the playbook, and position coach Bill Shimek had seen enough.
He turned and put Thomas in the game with one condition.
“He did what he was supposed to do,” Shimek said. “I said, ‘Thurman, G– d—–, run where you’re supposed to.’”
Thomas did as he was told and rushed for 206 yards and two scores.
A star was born that afternoon and Thomas ended the 1984 season with 843 yards and seven touchdowns.
Thurman Thomas. Who remembers the Oklahoma State Cowboy RB? 🤠
1️⃣3️⃣ Year NFL Vet pic.twitter.com/Xwp3yRGRAQ
— CFB Home (@CFBHome) August 13, 2023
That included a 155-yard and one-touchdown performance in a 21-14 victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl for the program’s first 10-win season.
The following year, Thomas was the starter and dashed for 1,650 yards (fourth-best in the nation) and 16 touchdowns that included 97 yards and a score in a loss against Florida State in the Gator Bowl.
Thomas was named an All-American after the season, and as the Big Eight Conference rushing and scoring champ, he was voted the conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Thomas Keeps Sanders at Bay
Just when he was a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy in 1986, Thomas hurt his knee playing basketball.
The injury limited him to 741 yards and five total touchdowns.
1986 was also the same year that a freshman by the name of Barry Sanders arrived from Wichita, Kansas.
In practice, Sanders was a frenetic talent who made eyes pop out of sockets with his elusive moves.
Thurman Thomas appreciation post🤠
Never forget just how dominant Thurman Thomas was at Oklahoma State.
So happy OkSt is bringing back the traditional uniforms that Thurman made great. 🥬🥬🥬 pic.twitter.com/mS5iFe9Biw
— OkStProbs (@OKSTProbs) June 27, 2023
His ability made Thomas work that much harder to return to form.
As a senior in 1987, Thomas limited Sanders’ playing time by staying healthy and running for 1,613 yards (third-most in the country) and 17 touchdowns.
Once again, Thomas was the Big Eight’s rushing and scoring champ and was named Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year.
Additionally, he was voted a first-team All-American.
The Cowboys were loaded that season with Thomas and Sanders, receiver Hart Lee Dykes, and quarterback Mike Gundy.
Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas, Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State 1987 pic.twitter.com/QAqrQcjs4s
— College Teammates (@NCAATeammates) July 19, 2019
OSU went 9-2 and met West Virginia in the Sun Bowl.
During the game, Thomas rumbled for 157 yards and four touchdowns in a thrilling 35-33 win.
For his collegiate career, Thomas rushed for 4,595 yards and 42 touchdowns, had 78 catches for 551 yards and another score, and collected 21 100-yard rushing games.
He left OSU as the program’s all-time rushing leader and the Cowboys retired Thomas’s number 34.
In 2008, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and in 2020 Thomas was the first athlete placed in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.
Second Round Pick
Thomas was third in the nation in rushing yards from scrimmage in 1987 yet NFL teams were still apprehensive about his injury from 1986.
Five running backs were taken in the first round of the 1988 NFL Draft and none of them were named Thomas.
It wasn’t until the 40th overall selection of the second round that the Buffalo Bills took him off the board.
Seven RBs were chosen before Thurman Thomas in the 1988 NFL Draft. The moral of the story is don't sleep on RBs from Oklahoma State in the late 80s. pic.twitter.com/7AvHvWo1Lm
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) April 25, 2022
Buffalo was fortunate that Thomas was still available as it was the team’s first pick of the draft.
The Bills were excited to add someone of Thomas’s talent to the backfield.
O.J. Simpson had been one of the best backs in the NFL for the Bills, but he had left town after the 1977 season.
Since then, the position was one of weakness for the franchise.
Before Thomas arrived, Marv Levy had become Buffalo’s coach at the tail end of 1986.
That was the same year that quarterback Jim Kelly joined the team after two years with the USFL.
Buffalo continued building through the draft in 1987 and Thomas was the icing on the cake in 1988.
Thurman Thomas was a dynamic and versatile running back who electrified the #NFL during his career with the Buffalo Bills.
He played a crucial role in the team's historic four consecutive Super Bowl appearances and was a five-time Pro Bowler.
With his agility, vision, and… pic.twitter.com/jc0BDJzbnG
— Let’s Talk NFL 🏈 (@TalkFootball34) July 16, 2023
During his rookie year, Thomas started 15 games and had 881 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Thriving under Levy’s direction and taking advantage of a good roster, the Bills went from 7-8 in 1987 to 11-5 in 1988.
After beating the Houston Oilers for the organization’s first playoff win since 1981, Buffalo lost in the AFC Championship game to the Cincinnati Bengals.
However, the “Bickering Bills” went 9-7 and lost in the divisional round to the Cleveland Browns, despite a playoff record 13 catches by Thomas.
At one point in the season, Kelly lit into tackle Howard “House” Ballard for poor blocking.
Nobody said anything to the signal caller until members of the media asked Thomas where the team needed improvement.
“Quarterback,” said Thomas.
There was very little backlash from his comment because Thomas had led the NFL in ‘89 with 1,913 scrimmage yards.
The Bills legends of the game this Saturday will be the tag team of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.
— Dave Myers (@DaveMyersBIB) January 12, 2022
His numbers included 1,244 rushing yards and six touchdowns and a stunning 60 receptions for 669 more yards and six scores.
Thomas was voted to his first Pro Bowl and named a second-team All-Pro.
In 1990, the team was more cohesive and won 13 games while Thomas ran for 1,297 yards and 11 touchdowns.
By that point, Thomas had become one of the best dual-threat backs in the league.
As a receiver out of the backfield, he snagged 49 passes for 532 yards (his combined yardage led the NFL again) and two more scores.
That led to another Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selection.
Super Bowl XXV
In the playoffs, Buffalo cruised by hanging 44 points on Miami and 51 on the Raiders (Thomas had 354 total rushing and receiving yards and three touchdowns).
Next stop, a date with the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
Because the Bills offense was number one in the NFL in offense and boasted a sixth-ranked defense, the team was installed as seven-point favorites.
However, Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick came up with a masterful plan to slow the Bills.
Buffalo still gained yardage, especially Thomas.
The #CountdownToKickoff continues and we are Thurman Thomas (34) days away from Bills/Jets
His Hall of Fame career is filled with highlights (just search #ThurmanThursday), but of all the clips I've featured, this may be his most quintessential run#GoBills https://t.co/9xJVOhMxx8 pic.twitter.com/9aWCwEWoWb
— BillsVHS📼 (@BillsVhs) August 8, 2023
He carried the ball 15 times and had 135 yards and a touchdown along with five receptions for 55 more yards.
The MVP award belonged to him until Bills kicker Scott Norwood pushed a potential game-winning kick wide right and Buffalo lost, 20-19.
Instead of Thomas, the hardware went to New York running back Ottis Anderson and his 102 yards and one touchdown.
Thomas can’t find his Helmet in Super Bowl XXVI
There was no letdown from the Bills after their heartbreaking loss to the Giants.
In 1991, Buffalo won 13 games again and took care of Kansas City and Denver in the playoffs, leading to a showdown with the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.
Thomas led the NFL for the third straight year in yardage (becoming the 11th player in league history to have over 2,000 combined yards with 2,038) and also led in yards gained per carry with 4.9.
Not only did he have 1,407 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, but he also had career-highs in receptions (62) receiving yards (631) and receiving scores (5).
Did You Know❓
Thurman Thomas won the NFL MVP Award in 1991, the only other Buffalo Bill to win the award was OJ Simpson in 1973. Thurman finished the season with 12 TDs & 2038 Total Yards‼ #BillsMafia @thurmanthomas pic.twitter.com/qnYFGbcPca
— VintageBills (@VintageBills) July 11, 2023
Those stats netted Thomas the NFL’s MVP Award along with NFL Offensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-Pro nod, and a third Pro Bowl.
Unfortunately, all his hard work was overlooked when the Super Bowl began.
Thomas had a tradition of setting his helmet down on a table located at the 34-yard line (his football number) before games while he was warming up.
Unbeknownst to him, the helmet was moved to prepare for pre-game festivities.
In 1992, Buffalo Bills icon Thurman Thomas missed his team’s first two offensive plays in Super Bowl XXVI because he couldn’t find his helmet. pic.twitter.com/qrzGgUmEHe
— Mental Floss (@mental_floss) February 5, 2018
When it came time to enter the contest, Thomas’s helmet was missing.
“I couldn’t find it,” Thomas said after the game that day. “I didn’t know where it was. For some reason somebody moved it. I was very upset.”
His backup, Kenneth Davis, started while the entire equipment team looked for the lost helmet.
“Coach turns around and screams my name, ‘Hojo, where the #$%@ is Thurman’s helmet?!'” said former Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski.
The headgear was finally found but it seemed the damage had been done.
Thomas scored the Bills first touchdown of the afternoon but was limited by Washington to just 13 rushing and 27 receiving yards in a 37-24 loss.
Thomas and Buffalo Are Crushed in Super Bowl XXVII
In 1992, it seemed like every member of the media forgot that Thomas was the NFL MVP in 1991.
Their focus seemed to be on the running back’s mishap in the Super Bowl and his general attitude.
“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,” said 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.”
To be sure, Thomas could be a bit sassy, arrogant, and antagonistic, characteristics he’d had since childhood.
However, that was simply his style.
“People think I’m arrogant, cocky and selfish,” Thomas said. “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.”
For the fourth consecutive year, Thomas led the league in combined yardage with 2,113 including a career-high 1,487 rushing yards and a career-best nine rushing scores.
Thurman Thomas led the NFL in Total Yards from Scrimmage 4️⃣ consecutive years ('89-92). He ranks 12th ALL-TIME in NFL History in that category. #NFLHistory #BillsMafia @thurmanthomas pic.twitter.com/HUZNQGzxyq
— VintageBills (@VintageBills) September 25, 2023
Buffalo returned to the playoffs with an 11-5 record, won a thrilling wild-card victory over the Houston Oilers, 41-38, after trailing 35-3, and beat Pittsburgh and Miami on the road.
The Dallas Cowboys met the Bills in Super Bowl XXVII and proceeded to humiliate Buffalo, 52-17.
Thomas scored the first points of the day but was held in check again with a paltry 19 rushing yards and 10 receiving yards.
Buffalo Loses Super Bowl XXVIII
Thomas went to his fifth Pro Bowl in 1993 after bagging 1,315 yards on an NFL-high 355 carries for six touchdowns.
He was a second-team All-Pro for the second season in a row and helped the Bills reach 12 wins and victories over the Raiders and Chiefs in the postseason.
Buffalo and Dallas met again for Super Bowl XXVIII and the Cowboys once again beat the Bills.
Super Bowl XXVIII, today in 1994
Emmitt Smith then rushes 7 times for 61 yards and the winning score on the next drive. pic.twitter.com/gCMflnkJS9
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 30, 2023
Thomas gained 37 rushing and 52 receiving yards and scored the Bills only touchdown.
The team was shut out in the second half and Dallas won, 30-13.
Buffalo can’t Sustain the Magic, Thomas is Released
Losing four Super Bowls in four years took the wind out of the organization’s sails.
From 1994 through 1999, Buffalo made the playoffs four times, but could only advance as far as the divisional round (1995) before being eliminated.
Thomas rushed for over 1,000 yards each year from 1994 through 1996 then had 1,176 total rushing yards between 1997 and 1999.
1999: Bills Week- After #NYGiants were pinned deep, the Bills forced a punt & had a short field to work with. They took advantage as Thurman Thomas scored a TD on a screen pass from Flutie to put Bills up 10-6. It was Thomas' final TD w/ Bills in his HOF career #BEGIANT pic.twitter.com/LhzOknBDMH
— BigBlueVCR (@BigBlueVCR) October 10, 2023
By the 1999 season, most of the players who had taken Buffalo to four title games were gone except for Thomas, Reed, and defensive end Bruce Smith.
Then, following ‘99, Thomas was released and he signed with the Miami Dolphins for the 2000 season.
— Nick S (@NickSanci) January 28, 2022
Miami went 11-5 and lost in the divisional round to the Raiders as Thomas played in nine games and tallied 253 total yards and a receiving score.
After the season, he retired.
During his career, Thomas had 12,074 rushing yards, 65 rushing touchdowns, 472 receptions, 4,458 receiving yards and 23 receiving touchdowns.
He was a five-time Pro Bowler, five-time All-Pro, NFL Offensive Player of the Year, NFL MVP, and led the AFC in rushing in 1990, 1991, and 1993.
Additionally, Thomas set numerous league and team records including becoming the Bills’ all-time rushing leader and all-time scrimmage yards leader.
Thomas led the NFL in combined yardage four consecutive years and is one of six backs to net 10,000 rushing yards and 400 catches in a career.
Among his NFL playoff records, Thomas leads in touchdowns (21), career scoring (126), and consecutive games with a score (9).
— Bills SPORTalk (@SPORTalkBills) May 16, 2018
He has since been named to the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team, added to Buffalo’s Wall of Fame, and had his number 34 retired by the franchise and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Life in Retirement
Thomas has been married to his wife, Patti, for nearly three decades and they have four children.
During and after his career, Thomas has been involved in charity work and he started the Thurman Thomas Foundation in 1992 to provide scholarships to a Buffalo community college for inner city kids.
— Buffalo Business First (@BfloBizFirst) March 27, 2019
The Thomas’s run several businesses and are part of the “34 Group” which is dedicated to construction and contracting services.