The Case of the Disappearing Helmet : Why in hell couldn't it have been where Thurman Thomas left it? He put it down near the bench like he always does, then it disappeared. Incident in 37-24 loss in Super Bowl XXVI continues to haunt Bills' back.

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The missing helmet. It has become his albatross. He tries to shrug it off now, saying it no longer bothers him. But he isn't very convincing. It eats away at him, knowing that his short but already magnificent pro football career is indelibly marred by a lousy helmet.

"I don't think it matters what I do anymore," Thurman Thomas says with bitterness. "I will always be remembered for the helmet. I don't think that is fair."

He goes out each Sunday now, prodded by memories of that misplaced helmet and all the other debris left over from Super Bowl XXVI. What should have been a fitting showcase for a landmark season instead became a personal hell. Instead of singing his praises, people laughed at his Buffalo Bills and at him.

Will the laughter ever go away?

He is the best player in the National Football League. He has a bunch of 1991 MVP and Player of the Year trophies to prove it. In a sport dominated by glamour-boy quarterbacks, this squat running back with shifty legs and golden hands has demonstrated that a blue-collar work ethic and consistency can earn big-time rewards. His should be a story of celebration.

Instead, a missing helmet--and the laughter--keep getting in the way.

These pro athletes. They're earning all this money and the guy can't even find his helmet at the Super Bowl. Can you believe that? He says he doesn't get enough respect and recognition. Well, he'll be recognized now. Ha, ha, ha.

New England wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes and Thomas are best friends. They relish trying to stump each other with sports trivia questions. One day last summer, Dykes called him. "Thurman, guess what? From now on, you and your helmet will be a permanent trivia question." They giggled like little kids. But Dykes isn't sure Thomas would think it funny coming from anyone else.

Why in hell couldn't the helmet have been where he left it? He put it down near the bench like he always does, then it disappeared. For their first two plays of Super Bowl XXVI, while Thomas searched frantically for the missing helmet, the Bills had to use his backup, Kenneth Davis. Under other circumstances, Thomas' miscue would have been shrugged off. But not at this Super Bowl. Not after the Bills absorbed a devastating 37-24 defeat at the hands of Washington. Not after Thomas, the MVP of the league, stumbled to a meager 13 yards rushing.

"Do people really think I'd be stupid enough to not know where the helmet should be?" says Thomas, 26. "It got moved. No one knows why to this day. You really can't explain it. When I think back on it, I should have known something was going to happen bad. It was a culmination of a nightmare. But what really frustrates me is that people were talking after the game like I was the reason we lost. Anyone who thinks that because I missed two plays we lost is a damn fool. A damn fool."

It was one thing for Buffalo to lose heroically, as the Bills did against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. But it is quite another story when you have a few players stir up controversy, as Buffalo did in the days before Super Bowl XXVI, and then get embarrassed in the game itself. Thomas especially left himself no room for error, not after a series of mistakes that included: 1) bolting a mandatory media session because he was upset about waiting way beyond his appointed time; 2) touting himself the next day at another news conference by saying the Bills had two Michael Jordans, he and quarterback Jim Kelly; and 3) contending that he didn't get enough recognition and respect--even though he had just been selected the league's MVP, the epitome of recognition and respect.

Then, to go out and lose a helmet and gain only 13 yards and complain in the locker room afterward that the coaches misused him. And, then to follow that up a week later at the Pro Bowl by saying that if Buffalo fans wanted to blame him for the loss, maybe it would be best for him to get a fresh start somewhere else. Well, no wonder critics called him cocky, arrogant and selfish. In many ways, they are right. And wrong. But that is the fascination--and mystery--behind the complex personality of Thurman Thomas.

"Cocky." The word spits out of Thomas' mouth. His fist slams on the table. "Arrogant." Another slam. "Selfish." Bam. "I'm a good person," he says, his eyes closing in anger. "But all I saw written about me after the Super Bowl were those three words. OK. My heroes used to be Earl Campbell, Michael and Magic. But now I have three more. If people want to look at me this way, then my other heroes are Charles Barkley, Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds."

At times, he tries to say all the right things about the Super Bowl mess, just like Coach Marv Levy wants him to do--"I told him you don't ask for respect, you earn it," Levy says--but it's against his very fabric to back off when he thinks he is correct. The indignation behind what he said and did during Super Bowl week in Minneapolis had been building for months. If he was the league's MVP, why were people still saying he was the "best all-around" back, but that Barry Sanders, his good friend, was the "best running back"? That made no sense. And if he was MVP, why were a lot more reporters at the Super Bowl scrambling to talk to Kelly and Bruce Smith? As MVP, why was he the guy who was kept waiting to meet the press?

"I just took it all to heart," says Thomas, grew up in south Houston and went on to become Oklahoma State University's all-time leading rusher. "I had won the MVP and people were still considering me the second- or third-best running back because of my catches. It was a slight of my running ability. People were always looking for Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly. Or Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, and here I am, the MVP. Hasn't changed this year. The TV people come in and they want them before me."

Nevertheless, Thomas says, the Super Bowl fiasco has matured him. What has he learned? Well, for one, he has a list of reporters who wrote unkind things about him. Before he will talk to them, they will be told off. And if Buffalo gets to another Super Bowl, Thomas is considering calling Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and telling him "I don't want to attend any press conferences. They will want to talk about what happened at the last Super Bowl and I don't want to do that. If we get in, I have a plan. It's all worked out."

Every family has one. The eccentric uncle. You know, the guy who does things differently and is excused by the all-purpose line, "That's just Uncle Frank." Thurman Thomas is the Bills' eccentric uncle.

There is no other way to explain this moody, charming, complaining, giving, critical, loving man with a heart as big as his native Texas, a tongue sharp enough to anger even the most humble of padres and a shoulder chip the size of Buffalo.

"The thing about Thurman, you never know what is going to come out of his mouth," says Kelly, who was the subject of stiff criticism from Thomas at the height of the "Bickering Bills" soap opera in 1989. "We just laugh about it. It's Thurman's nature; he complains about everything."

And what is that nature? "I can be a pain in the ass," Thomas says. "I can be talking to you and having a good time and then I can walk out in the hallway and chew someone out 30 seconds later. I don't know why I do it. I've always been that way. My mood swings are just screwed up. They are up and down every day.

"I think it's because I was an only child and spent a lot of time by myself thinking. But the moods are less now. I am young, successful, on a great team that will have the opportunity to win a Super Bowl before my time is up, so I am more happy than I used to be."

Nevertheless, Thomas can be, well, so contrary. "If the team voted to wear green shoes, he would be the only guy to vote to wear red," assistant head coach of running backs Elijah Pitts says, laughing. "Then he would smile and go along with everyone else. But that's Thurman."

Oh yes, that's Thurman. "I've told him he is the biggest griper I have ever seen," says Levy, who reprimanded Thomas at a post-Super Bowl meeting. "Food is too cold. Why are we at this hotel? Hate the bus. Why is the curfew at 11? But he doesn't go too far, not really. It's just him."

And he can be so critical. "If he sees a guy messing up, he will speak his mind about it," says linebacker Cornelius Bennett, Thomas' closest friend on the Bills. "It makes the guys work hard. I think it makes us a better team."

Like the time he took on Kelly. During the 1989 season, Kelly had criticized some teammates, particularly offensive tackle Howard Ballard. Thomas waited for Levy or the media to rebuke the quarterback. When nothing happened, he acted. Asked on a television program where Buffalo could most improve, Thomas replied: "quarterback." Kelly and Thomas eventually made a joint public apology. But it also was the beginning of the end--at least for then--of the bickering Bills.

"I told him to shut up and look at his own damn self," Thomas says. "We got along then and we still are friends. But I am glad I did it. If nothing had been said, we wouldn't have been in the last two Super Bowls. We would have kept biting at each other and it would have gotten pretty bad. But this way, it ended it all. I don't mind taking the heat to protect a teammate. I see that as my role. We can't be ragging on each other. We have to stick up for each other."

Thomas grew up in south Houston, before moving to nearby Missouri City in time for the seventh grade. His mother and father were divorced when he was 4, but he was protected and nurtured by a strong nuclear family. Growing up in an adult-dominated environment, he developed a strong sense of independence. He would sleep some nights at home, some nights with his grandmother, some with his aunts and uncles. Why? Just because the mood struck him. It was during these times that he began sitting alone for hours, just thinking, something he still does almost daily as an adult.

Although he was an all-star running back in high school, most Southwest Conference schools wanted him as a defensive back. So he left the state for OSU, where he could play tailback. Even though he finished as OSU's all-time leading rusher, good enough to keep Sanders a reserve for two years, a serious knee injury suffered in a pickup basketball game made Thomas damaged goods in the eyes of the NFL. ESPN came to his house on draft day '88 to catch his reaction when he was chosen in the first round. But he slipped all the way to the second, taken after 39 other players, and his growing agony was put on display by ESPN. Thomas felt he had suffered public humiliation. To make sure he never forgot that day, he prepared for NFL games his first few seasons by watching tapes of that day. Over and over.

General Manager Bill Polian concedes that Buffalo got flat-out lucky with Thomas. His damaged knee was considered such a financial risk that Levy and Polian wouldn't draft him until Owner Ralph Wilson gave his approval. Nor did the team have a clue he would develop into such a great receiver. But Thomas got lucky, too. Buffalo's no-huddle offense, which spreads the field, is perfect for a cutback runner such as him. And because defenses can't substitute as readily as they would against regular offenses, they have problems employing special tactics to neutralize Thomas as a pass catcher.

As a result, Thomas led the league in combined rushing and receiving yards the last three seasons. The great Jim Brown is the only other player to lead the league in combined yards three consecutive seasons. Thomas also could have two rushing-title trophies on his shelf. But he agreed with Levy to curtail his play in the final game of the last two seasons--he played sparingly in the 1990 finale and sat out the last game of 1991--to get ready for the playoffs.

Despite his achievements, Thomas is more a product of marvelous consistency than flash. Sanders can dazzle you. Thomas will outwork you. He rarely, if ever, has a bad game and almost always plays his best at the most important times. But he lacks the flamboyance of legendary running backs. That doesn't make him a lesser player, but it does account for why Sanders is more apt to hog the highlight film clips. And get more national attention.

But Sanders never has been a consensus MVP in the league. Nor has any of the seven running backs drafted ahead of Thomas in 1988. He is at the top of his profession, a gifted athlete on a superb team. Who could ask for more?

Thomas can. But, hey, that's Thurman. "I want to be known as the best ever," he says. "That's my goal." Maybe then, the laughter will stop.

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