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Raiders See Why It’s Hard to Keep Thomas Down

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

How good is Thurman Thomas, rookie running back of the Buffalo Bills?

Never mind all the yardage he gains.

Nor the touchdowns.

Nor the 106 yards he gained against the Raiders Sunday in Buffalo’s 37-21 victory at Rich Stadium.

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Nor the 37-yard touchdown he scored in the second quarter when he ran off left tackle, leaving defenders grasping at snowflakes.

No, the most telling fact about Thomas is that this is the man who kept Barry Sanders, this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, on the bench at Oklahoma State.

Thomas did so by posting some impressive numbers of his own--career totals of 4,595 yards rushing and 43 touchdowns.

And he did some of that on a bad knee.

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In the summer before his junior season, Thomas, coming off a season in which he had rushed for 1,553 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, tore knee ligaments while playing a pickup basketball game.

He underwent arthroscopic surgery and still managed to return for that junior season long enough to gain 741 rushing yards.

Thomas was back at full strength his senior season, establishing career-best totals for a season in rushing yardage (1,613) and touchdowns (18).

The knee injury was gone, but not forgotten. National Football League clubs remained wary of the 5-foot-10, 198-pound prospect when draft time rolled around.

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Several teams gave Thomas physical examinations, and he flunked some of them.

So much for his first-round hopes.

Still, he wasn’t exactly sweating out the draft.

A television camera placed in his living room on the day of the draft caught him dozing as names other than his kept coming up.

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Thomas finally went in the second round, the 40th pick.

But, it all seems to have worked out. Looking to add more dimension to their running game to take some of the pressure off quarterback Jim Kelly, the Bills now have in Thomas a breakaway threat to go with Robb Riddick, their short-yardage specialist.

And Thomas? He has his chance for redemption.

“This has given me extra incentive to do well against all the teams that passed me up,” Thomas said. “The way it worked out, I came into the best situation.”

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And the knee?

Don’t ask. It’s still a sore subject. Not the knee itself. Just the subject.

“I’m tired of answering questions about it,” he snapped at a reporter who asked one Sunday. “I haven’t had any problems with it. That was 3 years ago.

“I knew the knee was fine all along. I knew it would hold up.”

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That it has. Thomas began play Sunday as the Bills’ leading rusher with 748 yards gained in 184 carries, for an average of 4.1.

He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt in Sunday’s game. Despite carrying only 3 times in the second half because of a minor ankle injury, Thomas was still able to pass the 100-yard mark for the second time as a pro. And his 37-yard run was the longest by a Bill in 2 years, since a 41-yard gain by Riddick against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“This was especially important because the whole team was embarrassed last week against Tampa Bay when we got shut down,” said Thomas, referring to the 10-5 loss in which Buffalo gained only 39 yards rushing. “Since we lost, everybody has been tossing it in our face.

“On the touchdown run, I knew I had to split the 2 safeties, but I saw the cornerback coming over out of the corner of my eye. I was not sure I was going to get in, but it was a great feeling when I did.”

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It wasn’t such a bad feeling for the guys in front of him, either.

“He makes our job a lot easier,” offensive lineman Dale Hellestrae said. “When he takes the ball and hits the hole running like he did on that touchdown, it’s nice to look up and see your running back heading toward the end zone with nobody between him and there.”

Buffalo Coach Marv Levy had a little more difficulty describing Thomas’ ability.

“I don’t have any magic statement to make about him,” Levy said. “He’s a good all-around back. We had no depth at running back. He’s our first-down back. Beyond that, I don’t have any great prose or poetry I can add. He’s a good runner. What can I say?”

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Just remind people who was forced to play behind him in college. That alone is enough said.


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