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Bills’ Thomas Running With Vengeance

NEWSDAY

Watch out for Thurman Thomas. The NFL’s most dangerous running back is out to right yet another perceived wrong done to him. The message was written clearly on the tape wrapping his ankle one day last week in training camp: S.B., MVP XXV.

The official MVP of Super Bowl XXV, of course, is Ottis Anderson, whose 102 yards rushing symbolized the brand of power football the New York Giants played in their hair-breadth 20-19 victory over Buffalo. But in his heart, Thomas believes he deserved the award.

The Buffalo Bills, who meet the Giants in a preseason game Monday night at Giants Stadium, only had the ball 19 minutes and 27 seconds, but thanks to Thomas, they came within a missed field goal of winning. Thomas caught five passes for 55 yards and carried 15 times for 135 yards. His 31-yard touchdown burst on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Bills a 19-17 lead. Thomas averaged 9.5 yards every time he touched the ball.

“Thurman played his heart out in that game,” Bills running backs coach Elijah Pitts said. “He was the best player on the field that night. I told him after the game, ‘You deserved it (MVP).”’

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At first, Thomas didn’t give the award much thought. The loss was all that mattered. But during the off-season, Thomas began to wonder what the MVP voters were thinking. “Every time a friend or someone in my family said, ‘You should have been MVP,’ it lingered on me for a long time. I thought, ‘Damn, I should have been MVP.”’

Snubbed again. The last time Thomas felt so insulted was on draft day in 1988 when he fell to the second round because of a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery. That slight motivated Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl each of the past two seasons after leading the league in total yards from scrimmage (1,913 in ’89 and 1,829 in ’90).

Delighted at having proved the personnel experts wrong, Thomas said, “I’ve had the best time of my life the last three years.”

There’s no telling how much mileage Thomas will gain as a result of this latest affront. Does that mean he’s selfish? No. Thomas simply is hungry for recognition as the best at what he does.

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If he were selfish, Thomas wouldn’t have agreed to contribute $100,000 to Oklahoma State to endow a football scholarship for the tailback position. He did it as a way of helping Coach Pat Jones and his old school recover from NCAA probation.

“It’s a lot of money, but Oklahoma State really gave me a chance,” Thomas said. “I had a great four years. Stillwater is a great country town, where everybody was for everybody else.”

In a way, that same concern for others close to him caused Thomas to become involved in a public dispute with quarterback Jim Kelly in 1989. When Kelly suffered a shoulder separation, the quarterback blamed tackle Howard Ballard for missing a block and causing the injury. Upset by Kelly’s shabby treatment of a teammate, Thomas said in a TV interview that maybe the quarterback was the source of the Bills’ problems.

It seemed like strong stuff for a second-year player to say. “It was easy for me,” Thomas said. “The next day after Kelly blamed Howard, a lot of players were saying, ‘I can’t believe he said that.’ It had to be done. I didn’t want to be the one, but Kelly had pointed the finger at Howard. I think that’s one of the main reasons we went to the Super Bowl. We came together and went as one.”

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That incident gave rise to the sobriquet “Bickering Bills,” but it also brought some internal problems into the open and eventually led to improved player relations. Kelly became more sensitive to the feelings of other players, and he and Thomas made a good show of patching their differences

Thomas quickly has gained respect as one of the Bills’ leaders. He believes in bringing up issues in front of the whole team with little needling remarks on the practice field. But center Kent Hull said Thomas employs “tact” when he makes his comments. “I’ve been around people called ‘leaders,’ who would say things to embarrass people,” Hull said. “That’s a hindrance. Thurman doesn’t do that, but you expect a wide-open approach from him.”

Leadership must be backed by performance, and Thomas delivers consistently in the clutch. In three playoff games, he ran for 117, 138 and 135 yards. There was a moment on the Bills’ final drive in Super Bowl XXV when Thomas nearly broke an 81-yard touchdown run. Giants safety Everson Walls, the last man between Thomas and the goal line, made the tackle of his life to hold Thomas to a 22-yard gain.

“The play was designed to go right, and I saw the Giants’ defense was slanting to our right,” Thomas said. “It was third-and-1, but I took a chance and went left. When I broke into the secondary, it surprised me because I was all alone. I was looking left to go down the sideline. I thought I was going to go all the way until Everson came up in my face.”

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Big plays like that one are typical of Thomas, who has become as adept as most quarterbacks at reading defenses and understanding where to run or how to get open on a pass pattern. “We’ll run a play to one side, and Thurman will ask who’s blocking on the backside,” Pitts said. “I ask why he wants to know, and he says, ‘That’s the guy who usually hits me.”’

Thomas credits his game-breaking skill to his vision and his ability to stop, change direction and accelerate in an instant. “He’s truly a back in his own world,” Bills safety Leonard Smith said. “He’s got tremendous balance. You hit him low, and he keeps his feet. On the sideline, we say, ‘Wow! How’d he do that?’ Eric Dickerson is strong and fast, but he doesn’t have finesse movement. Thurman and Barry Sanders have finesse, but Thurman is a little stronger. He runs between the tackles all the time.”

Thomas, who lost the NFL rushing title last year to former Oklahoma State teammate Sanders by seven yards last season (1,304-1,297), has heard all the comparisons. He, Chicago’s Neal Anderson and Cincinnati’s James Brooks are considered the best all-round backs because of their pass-catching ability. Detroit’s Sanders and Indianapolis’ Dickerson usually are designated the best pure runners.

“They have all kinds of categories,” Thomas said. “I think if I have a third consecutive year of leading the league in combined yards, then maybe people will label me the best, not only all-round. I think I can be labeled the No.1 guy.”

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