As the elevator begins its ascent, a young man extends a hand.
“Hey Thurman. Tough season, but we’ll get ‘em next year.”
With a smile and a nod, Thurman Thomas offers the requisite kind words and exits the elevator en route to his office. It’s the kind of encounter that’s commonplace when you are a Hall of Fame running back who rushed for more than 12,000 yards and led the hometown team to four consecutive Super Bowls.
“People in this town love football and they are passionate about the Bills,” Thomas said as we navigated the halls of the renovated industrial building where he leases space for his business, 3480 Group, LLC.
Inside his office, which resembles a trendy loft apartment, Thomas takes a seat at the table, coffee in hand. His graying beard offers a reminder that he has been retired from professional football longer (16 seasons) than he played the game (13 seasons).
But the all-time leading rusher in Buffalo Bills history doesn’t spend his days lamenting what was. He’s too busy with a personal and professional life that keeps him more than a little busy.
He is the president of 3480 Group, a telecommunications and construction firm he co-founded with former teammate Fulton “Flip” Johnson. It’s the latest in a string of business ventures for Thomas that include founding (and selling) an energy company, operating two sports training facilities, partnering with Batavia Downs on 34 Rush, and of course, serving as a longtime ambassador for the Bills.
“When I was playing, I didn’t really have a plan,” Thomas said of life after football. “I hoped to play ten years, then spend time with the kids and see what came along.”
Toward the end of his career, Thomas said he connected with the owner of an energy company and his interest in the business world was piqued.
“I learned a lot in ‘97-98 when I first got into it and by the time I retired, I had found my niche in energy and I wanted to stay involved.”
The stories of athletes struggling mightily to transition to life after the game are well-documented. Fortunately for Thomas, he said it was something that came fairly easy.
Thomas credits his former running backs coach, Elijah Pitts, with preparing him to make his mark off the field as well as on it.
“He won the first couple of Super Bowls with the Green Bay Packers and he told me, ‘We didn’t make any money back then and we had to prepare ourselves to get jobs in the offseason — even Bart Starr had to work!’”
It’s a message that stuck with Thomas.
“I knew I wasn’t going to live off the money I made playing,” he says.
“I was going to have to earn a living.”
He added that the biggest common denominator between football and business, for him, is discipline.
“In football, it was staying focused week to week, preparing for the next game,” he explained. “In business, I may meet a prospective client in January, and we may not start work with them for months. During that time in between, I have to stay focused, stay disciplined, and take care of business.”
Thomas has one backer who isn’t surprised at the success of the former running back. Marv Levy is a Buffalo legend in his own right, having drafted Thomas and coached him for much of his career, including the four Super Bowl appearances.
“We had a mantra, ‘ability without character will lose,’ and this guy had character,” Levy said of his former Pro Bowl running back. “He was a lot of fun, but he was also a high character individual — a wonderful husband, a wonderful father and a great member of the community.”
So did Levy foresee the bright future Thomas would have?
“I won’t say I knew for sure, but I certainly had an inclination that this was a guy who was going to be successful after football. First, he was such an unselfish player on the field, always putting the team ahead of himself. Also, he has a wonderful wife who keeps him going in the right direction,” said Levy with a laugh.
Patti Thomas met Thurman when the two were college students at Oklahoma State. Thirty years later she is by his side, serving as the CEO of 3480 Group.
“A lot of times when you have an athlete who enters into business, they are really just door openers,” Patti said. “Thurman has taken a very active role in learning the business and being very hands-on with what we do.”
Beyond his business ventures, Thomas remains active in the com-munity.
“Now, it’s about me giving back and trying to make a positive difference in this city and for our kids.”
Thomas says his focus is, more than ever, on reaching children, especially those living in the inner city. It’s a mission that took on added meaning last year when he and Patti took legal custody of three siblings — 16-year-old twins and a 17-year old boy. For Thurman and Patti, it was simple — these were kids in desperate need and they were in a position to help.
“We’ve known the family for almost nine years and circumstances happened where we couldn’t allow them to be living on their own anymore,” Thomas said. “We knew these are great kids and we didn’t want to see them separated and sent to foster homes.”
Since doubling their family, he says they have learned a lot about the public school system in Buffalo, and it’s made him a man on a mission.
“There are a lot of things going on in the Buffalo Public Schools that shouldn’t be happening,” he said.
Thomas laughed when asked if he has any plans to leverage his name and celebrity status for a possible school board run.
“No way, I just want to influence from the outside, to put pressure on the people I think need to be pressured to make this school district better.”
In the meantime, there is an elephant in the room. Thomas endured 13 years of punishing blows during his NFL career. Now, at age 50, how is his body (and brain) holding up?
“We assume it’s (CTE) going to happen someday, but we stay proactive and we’re going to take care of it the best we can,” Patti said when asked about the long-term effects the hits may have on her husband’s brain.
As for No. 34, he says it’s not something he spends any time
“I know there may be a time in the future when things may go downhill,” he says. “But I’m prepared for that and I’ve made sure my family is prepared for a situation like that.”
Most of all, he has a message
for his fans.
“I wouldn’t change a thing when it comes to my football career,” he says, smiling. “I’m still working out, I’m still healthy, and everything has been great with me.”
Correction: A previous version indicated Thomas and his wife met at Oklahoma. The couple met at Oklahoma State.