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Thurman deserved football's top honor now, not later

DETROIT -- A few days before the 1993 AFC Championship Game, Thurman Thomas flew into one of his patented snits. Thomas had become convinced that some of us in the media were campaigning for Kenny Davis to start in his place. He complained about a lack of respect. He threatened retirement. He said he wanted to hit someone -- maybe a reporter.

Then he went out and rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns, carrying the Bills past the Chiefs and into an unprecedented fourth straight Super Bowl. It was a performance for the ages, one of the best games you'll ever see from a running back. That day, as always, Thomas rode the rapids of his own exaggerated resentment and rage.

Thurman wore his anger like an overcoat. He played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder pads. It was part of what made him great. But it's sad to think of him sitting in some hotel room Saturday afternoon, devastated by the news that he had been rejected by the Hall of Fame in his first opportunity.

He probably felt like hitting someone, and I couldn't blame him. Thomas had come to Detroit reluctantly. He told people that he didn't want to sit around waiting, only to be disappointed, as he had on that infamous day in the spring of 1988 when he lasted until the second round of the NFL draft.

When I heard that Thomas hadn't made the final cut to six, I felt like running all the way to Canton and booing the place. This vote is an injustice. Thomas should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. If six men can be voted into the Hall and Thomas not be among them, there's something wrong with the process.

Thomas will get in eventually. That's supposed to soften the blow. All he has to do is be patient, put on a brave face and wait his turn. But that's a pile of malarkey. The knowledge that he'll get in later can't make it easier. It's a blow to Thomas, who always chafed at the notion that he was perceived as a cut below the true greats.

Apparently, Thomas didn't pass what one voter referred to as "the smell test." There's this conceit among some of the 39 voters that says only the greatest players are worthy of induction in their first year. Len Shapiro of the Washington Post said he would vote for Thomas "at some point." He said only the Jim Browns of the sport should go in right away.

I'm sorry, but either a player is a Hall of Famer or he isn't. If I had a vote and thought a guy belonged, I'd vote for him. Why the wait? There's a five-year waiting period built into the process. What do they accomplish by making a great player squirm?

How can they be so discriminating on one hand, and so accommodating on the other? The rules say at least three people have to be inducted every year, and no more than six. Why? Is there a pressing need to regulate the flow into the Hall? What if there aren't three deserving candidates in a given year, which often happens in baseball? What if there are more than six worthy names? Would it be so terrible to put in seven?

But regardless of the system, Thomas should have made it. Maybe I'm biased. I saw him close up for a decade, and I felt he was the greatest Bill of all, the single biggest reason for the Super Bowl run. Thomas was the engine of the no-huddle, a back who made everyone around him better, as tough a football player as I ever saw.

During a two- or three-year period, I felt Thomas wasn't simply the best running back in the NFL, but the best player, period. He's the only back to lead the league in total yards from scrimmage four years in a row. He averaged 1,974 yards during that stretch. He is seventh all-time in total yards with 16,532.

People remember him for losing his helmet before Super Bowl XXVI, and for losing four Super Bowls. But Thomas was a sensational clutch player. He had 2,114 total yards in 21 playoff games, second only to Jerry Rice, and seven playoff games of 150 yards.

Sure, he had his demons. Thomas was moody and unpredictable. He could be boorish and profane off the field. He admitted to problems with alcohol after his retirement. But he was a genuinely engaging character, and boy, was he a gamer.

Thomas wasn't very fast. He didn't have a classic runner's build. His teammates used to tease him by calling him "squatty." But he was a great runner, with great vision and an uncanny ability to read his blockers and avoid the direct hit.

Only one of the six men who were voted in ahead of him Saturday had a stronger case. Reggie White might have been the best defensive linemen of his time. Thomas was a better running back than Troy Aikman or Warren Moon were quarterbacks -- and they both were elected in their first year of eligibility. As for Harry Carson, how could voters snub him all these years and suddenly decide he was a Hall of Famer?

Oh well, Thomas will just have to be patient. He waited two rounds for someone to draft him, so maybe it's his destiny to wait two years for the Hall of Fame. His long wait will be unwarranted, same as in '88.


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