Thurman Thomas reflects back as Bills set to retire No. 34
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Thurman Thomas was in the midst of getting taped up before a Bills game at Chicago during his rookie season in 1988 when the running back recognized the unmistakable voice of one of his teenage idols, Walter Payton.
“I can still hear it,” Thomas recalled, before attempting to imitate Payton. “Yeah, a high-pitched voice like that: ‘Where’s that little No. 34?'”
Thomas certainly knew who Payton was, given the Bears‘ just-retired star running back was one of two people who inspired him to wear No. 34 since high school. The other was Oilers running back Earl Campbell, whom Thomas grew up rooting for in Houston; all three are Pro Football Hall of Famers now.
What shocked him was someone such as Payton knowing Thomas even existed, never mind taking the time to search him out before the opening kickoff.
“He’s walking in and everybody stopped, and it was just like, ‘Holy crap, it’s Walter Payton,'” Thomas said. “I’m still trying to figure out how he knew me. I mean, I’m in Buffalo. I’m a rookie. And he comes in and it’s, ‘Where’s 34?’
“And I’m like, ‘I’m over here.'”
It won’t be difficult to spot 34 at halftime of Buffalo’s home game against New England on Monday night. That’s when Thomas will become the third Bills player — joining former teammates quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive end Bruce Smith — to have his number retired.
For all he accomplished during a 13-year Hall of Fame career, in which he was voted NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1991 and led the league in yards from scrimmage from 1989-92, Thomas considers this one of his most notable achievements.
“The more I get closer to it, the more and more I feel like these butterflies are coming into my stomach,” he added. “And I’ve never really felt that way about a lot of things. But, definitely, this is one of them.”
Thomas would have preferred being honored during an afternoon game rather than a prime-time spectacle.
“I’m not Bruce,” he said, making a joke at the expense of Smith, who had his No. 78 retired during a night game in 2016.
His one concern is how the rebuilding and offensively challenged Bills, who have managed just 81 points in a 2-5 record, might fare against Tom Brady and the Patriots (5-2), who have won 31 of the past 36 meetings between the AFC East rivals.
“I just wish we could have a better record,” he said.
These are certainly not the Bills of Thomas’ 12-season tenure, which included Buffalo playing in four consecutive Super Bowls, losing them all.
He previously suggested the Bills might have been cursed for cutting him, Smith and Hall of Fame receiver Andre Reed after the 1999 season. What followed was a 17-year playoff drought, which finally ended last year.
Perhaps, Thomas said, his mere presence might spur the Bills to be competitive. Bills veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams certainly hopes so.
Williams and his wife treated Thomas and his wife to dinner last week, during which Thomas cited Williams as saying: “Hey, we’re going to do whatever we can to make that night even more special.”
Williams didn’t deny being additionally motivated because of Thomas.
“That’s the plan, right?” Williams said. “Sure, anybody who knows him, and knows the kind of guy he is, and what he meant and means to this franchise, I think it should motivate you.”
The outcome is almost secondary to Thomas, who was busy reflecting back on a career in which his number has already been retired at high school and college.
He was motivated to succeed at Oklahoma State once he began sharing the backfield with another eventual Hall of Famer, Barry Sanders.
“He kept me on my heels. I couldn’t make any mistakes,” he said. “If we ran 10 sprints, I ran 11.”
If it wasn’t for Thomas tearing a left knee ligament before his junior season, he wouldn’t have elected to return for his senior year, when he met his wife, Patti, who just happened to be from Buffalo. Some eight months later, the Bills selected him in the second round.
His voice cracks with emotion when reminded no Bills player will ever wear No. 34 again. And no, Thomas said, no one should expect him to suit up one last time.
“I’ve been asked that question a lot this week. Oh my gosh, I’m like, ‘People, I’m 52 years old. There’s no way in hell I can get out there and do this,” he said, before a brief pause.
“Maybe,” Thomas said, breaking into a smile, “for 1 yard or something like that on the goal line.”