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Off the Ice… with Thurman Thomas

An exclusive interview with the Hall-of-Fame running back

by Hugo Fontaine @canadiensMTL / canadiens.com

This story has been updated from the originally-published version that appeared in the August/September 2015 issue [Vol. 29.5] of CANADIENS Magazine

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When fans look back on the 1990s era of Buffalo Bills football, a decade that saw the team participate in the Super Bowl in four consecutive seasons, one of the first names that comes to mind is Thurman Thomas. Racking up yards and touchdowns with ease over his 13 NFL campaigns, the Texas native broke numerous records during his time in the league, eventually earning a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. We sat down with the 51-year-old former running back to learn a little bit about his passion for his second-favorite sport.  

You decided to come to Montreal to see the Sabres face the Canadiens. Are you a big hockey fan? Were you a hockey fan before you were drafted by the Bills?
THURMAN THOMAS:
I'm a huge hockey fan now, but I didn't know anything about hockey before I first got to Buffalo in 1988. Through the years, I became really good friends with Dominik Hasek, Michael Peca, and the guys from those years. I also got to meet the guys on "The French Connection". 

Is this your first time visiting Montreal?
TT:
This is the first time I've been to Montreal. I've been to Mont Tremblant before to do some snowboarding, but this is my first time in the city. I really like Old Montreal.

Do you attend many Sabres games? 
TT:
I do. A few years ago, I attended 34 home games. I also spend some time in Florida during the winter, so when I'm down there and the Sabres play the Lightning or the Panthers, I'm there.

Since the colors on the Bills logo are red, white and blue, we thought the Canadiens' color scheme might be a better fit. Any chance we can convert you?
TT:
(laughs) You're right, but there's no chance of that happening! 

We've seen you make some sweet moves with cleats and a football through the years, but how would you do with skates, a stick, and a puck?
TT:
(laughs) I wouldn't be the same, that's for sure. I've never skated in my life. Maybe one day I'll give it a shot.

You had an exceptional career; you're currently ranked 15th on the NFL's all-time rushing leaders list and you're in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Do you sometimes have to pinch yourself?
TT:
I've never been the type of person to pat myself on the back. I tell a lot of my friends that I hate when they talk about me or what I did in my career. It's just something I don't speak about. I know I had a lot of help to get where I am today. My parents, my teammates, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, and all those guys. It wasn't only me. Without them, I wouldn't be here.

Just how demanding physically is the running back position?
TT:
It's very demanding. I'd play a game on Sunday and often, my body wasn't back feeling well before Thursday. There's a reason they only play 16 games and not 82 like in hockey. It's very demanding on your body, week in and week out. Football is just a very physical sport and you need the time off. 

Do you think we'll see someone break Emmitt Smith's rushing record one day?
TT:
You know what? Adrian Peterson is probably the closest guy with a chance of doing it. Probably for a long period of time, no one will beat that record because it's a passing league now. Everybody throws the ball 40 to 50 times per game. Peterson's the closest thing to anybody has as far as getting to that record. But if you look at the way the NFL has been going, it will probably never be broken.

You were an important part of the Bills' teams that ended up reaching the Super Bowl four years in a row. Even though it happened more than 20 years ago, does it still hurt that you never got to hoist the Lombardi trophy? 
TT:
It still stings, no doubt. You play this game for one reason and it's not to make Pro Bowls, be the MVP or make it to the Hall of Fame. You play to win the Lombardi trophy. We had four opportunities to try to accomplish that and bring the trophy to Buffalo, and it's part of the reason I'm still living in the Buffalo area. I want to see this team get to the playoffs and get an opportunity to win a championship. It hurts. I'd be lying if I'd say it didn't. We were very fortunate to go to the Super Bowl four times, but we didn't win. People don't realize how difficult it is just to get to one. Myself, Jim Kelly and all those great players are still praying that we'll get a chance to see that while we're still living.

How anxious are you for Tom Brady to retire so the Bills have a shot at the AFC East?
TT:
(laughs) Very! I'm so ready for him to retire. He's dominated this division and the AFC for a number of years. The two guys you want to get rid of are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. [Ed. Note: Peyton Manning retired in May 2016, one year after this article was originally published] They've been dominating for the past decade. Brady is a great football player and a great individual. With him being in New England, I think he can play for another four or five years.

You played for numerous years under Pro Football Hall of Famer and legendary Montreal Alouettes head coach Marv Levy. Did he ever reference his CFL days to pump you guys up in Buffalo?
TT:
All the time. The one thing that he kept telling us and that I've seen with my own eyes is that there are some great people here. Very friendly people. He was always telling us that Montreal is such a great city. That's the thing I remember him talking to us about. He just loved the atmosphere up here.

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