It didn't take long for Thurman Thomas to get choked up at his retirement ceremony.
As soon as he started talking about his former teammates, he had to stop and fight back the tears.
"Jim Kelly's toughness, the smartness of Kent Hull . . . Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Steve Tasker," Thomas said, pausing. "This is tough because I'll never be around a group of guys like that again, guys who were family members, treated me like family.
"Those are teammates I'll never forget, and once I leave here today I'll do my best to see you guys and call you guys as much as I possibly can."
The Bills' family was on display Tuesday, as the team paid tribute to one of its greatest players. Thomas officially ended his 13-year career by signing a ceremonial one-day contract so he could retire as a Bill.
Former Bills General Manager Bill Polian came from Indianapolis to be there. Kelly, Hull, Tasker, Darryl Talley, Ruben Brown and Alex Van Pelt were there. So was Wade Phillips. So were most of the employees in the Bills' administration.
It was a testament to the closeness of the team that made it to four straight Super Bowls and to a player whose "heart of a blowtorch" - a phrase Marv Levy used many times - was integral to its success.
"It was a special group," Polian said. "It was special in terms of chemistry, special in dedication to one another. It's not just about football. It's about togetherness, and we really are a big family."
"You talk about Darryl being the heart and soul or spirit of the team, well . . . Thurman was the conscience," Tasker said. "Thurman was the guy who had the ability to call everybody back in line, whether it be Bruce, Jim or Darryl, anybody. . . . Nobody escaped Thurman. When Thurman got on you, you knew it was true. You knew he wasn't pulling punches. What he said was what everybody thought. . . . Thurman had nothing to hide. He never missed a practice, never missed a game, never did anything to hurt the team on or off the field. He was really the conscience of the team."
Of course, Thomas also was its primary yardage producer.
He ranks ninth in NFL history in rushing yards (12,074) and sixth in yards from scrimmage (16,532). He's first all-time in postseason touchdowns with 21. He's the only man to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage four straight years.
Those four years, 1989 through 1992, his yards-per-game averages were an amazing 119, 114, 127 and 132, respectively.
His single biggest rushing day was a 214-yard outing against the New York Jets in 1990. His biggest postseason game was a 186-yard rushing effort in the 1994 AFC title game against Kansas City. He said his 31-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XXV - which put the Bills ahead of the Giants, 19-17, in the fourth quarter - was his favorite single run of his career.
"Thurman was the key to my success," Kelly said. "I knew where my bread was buttered. In order to run the no-huddle offense, you had to have a back that could do everything, and that was Thurman."
Thomas thanked many people, starting with his parents:
"Thank you for being there for me. Thank you for believing that I was one day going to make it in the National Football League. Thank you for coming to all the practices. Thank you for washing my uniform in high school, for driving 500 miles from Houston to Oklahoma State to see me play week in and week out."
He thanked his wife, Patti, "who's been supportive for me through the hard times, especially the last three Super Bowls when I didn't play as well as I thought I was going to play, when everything pretty much fell on my shoulders and people made comments about me fumbling in the Super Bowl and losing my helmet, she was always there supporting me."
He thanked the Bills' fans: "When you walk out on that football field and you see 80,000 screaming fans it makes you want to play the game a little bit harder."
He also thanked Elijah Pitts, the Bills' late running backs coach.
"Last but not least I have to say something about a man who really helped me be the person I am today, a guy who passed away three years ago, a guy who taught me how to pick up a blitz, who taught me how to run with the foot-ball, who taught me about life in general, who was a father figure to me," he said. "At the time when Elijah died, I wanted to retire, but I knew he wanted me to keep playing."
"I always considered Thurman my adopted son, and he always called me dad," Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. said. "It was a running repertoire between Thurman and myself. . . . Thurman is the best all-around back I've ever seen."
"I'd like for people to remember me as being a team player," Thomas said. "That's what I was all about. I never talked about how many times I wanted to carry the ball. . . . I just wanted to win. . . . When I was in that locker room, I wanted my teammates to feel like they could count on me at all times."
Thurman Thomas by the Numbers
Year Team G GS Att Yds Avg Lg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
1988 Buffalo 15 15 207 881 4.3 37t 2 18 208 11.6 0
1989 Buffalo 16 16 298 1244 4.2 38 6 60 669 11.2 6
1990 Buffalo 16 16 271 1297 4.8 80t 11 49 532 10.9 2
1991 Buffalo 15 15 288 1407 4.9 33 7 62 631 10.2 5
1992 Buffalo 16 16 312 1487 4.8 44 9 58 626 10.8 3
1993 Buffalo 16 16 355 1315 3.7 27 6 48 387 8.1 0
1994 Buffalo 15 15 287 1093 3.8 29 7 50 349 7.0 2
1995 Buffalo 14 14 267 1005 3.8 49 6 26 220 8.5 2
1996 Buffalo 15 15 281 1033 3.7 36 8 26 254 9.8 0
1997 Buffalo 16 16 154 643 4.2 24 1 30 208 6.9 0
1998 Buffalo 14 3 93 381 4.1 17t 2 26 220 8.5 1
1999 Buffalo 5 3 36 152 4.2 31 0 3 37 12.3 1
2000 Miami 9 0 28 136 4.9 25 0 16 117 7.3 1
Totals 182 160 2,877 12,074 4.2 80t 65 472 4,458 9.4 23