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Thurman Thomas occasionally lapsed into dour moods, unsavory behavior and ungracious commentary during his years as a Buffalo Bill. He was a rebellious child, hell-bent on pushing our patience although we maintained our love for him on one condition: that he play his heart out.

It was the one rule he never broke.

And we hoped that despite the cracks that formed in the relationship, prompting him to say Take that! by finishing his career with them, that he'd find his way back home, if only for a day to express his gratitude for our interest and acknowledge what a great ride it was.

So there he sat on the temporary stage in Ralph C. Wilson Fieldhouse Tuesday afternoon, watching as snippets of his career rolled on the video boards. He was frozen in the pose of The Thinker, pensive as 12 years of his life were paraded before him, a reminder of the way he had spent his Sunday afternoons from September through December and, in the best years, one month beyond.

On Monday night Thomas vowed to Jim Kelly that the occasion wouldn't get the best of him. He was a football player and football players don't succumb to tears. He was going to say what had to be said and be done with it, needless of a deep sigh to steady the emotions churning within. To which Kelly must have been thinking, "Thurm, buddy, get a box of Kleenex."

One of the underlying beauties of professional sports is watching players who were coddled throughout their young lives grow into thoughtful, responsible, sensitive adults. Many who hit the big time in their early 20s are the equivalent of adolescents, having been showered with adulation as they strolled the halls of their high schools and pampered like priceless heirlooms as they whisked their way through college with their sights set on the pros. To them a chore is playing on special teams.

A large segment of those who make it are unschooled in relating to a world less privileged than their own, the blame resting on the culture, not the individual. Their riches enable their isolation, our judgments fire their insecurity. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Week in and week out we reassess their value and they take offense at our fickleness. Are you on the bandwagon or off?

The metamorphosis begins when they marry, and hits full stride when the first child comes along. The defiance born of self-indulgence slips silently away, replaced by the unending responsibilities and inexpressible joys of parenthood. Our differences narrow as these gifted athletes come to realize they have the same worries and hopes as the bulk of mankind.

But Thurm gave us cause to fret. He admits to assuming the role of team leader upon Kelly's retirement, yet when the salary cap wedged him away from the Bills he stomped off in a fit of pique. He wore the colors of a Fish when he said he had been disrespected, that his release from Buffalo was unceremonious and insulting. A letter from Ralph Wilson?, Thurm asked incredulously in October. Why couldn't he pick up the phone?

Oh no. Is it possible that we hadn't seen Thurm mature at all, that it had all been a charade? If he calls Wilson "Dad" and the owner called him his "son" then shouldn't he know that Wilson is a prodigious letter-writer who believes the effort that goes with putting words on paper indicates the depth of his feelings? After 13 years in Buffalo, after four Super Bowl appearances, after wedding Patti, a local girl now expecting No. 4, after running the carpet in Orchard Park with 80,000 cheering his every step, was he serious about ridding himself of Buffalo, of separating himself from the 12 most glorious years of our lives?

"I always stated I was going to retire a Buffalo Bill," Thurm said, his tone defying our doubts.

The halts in his speech were endearing. There was a pronounced pause as he paid tribute to Kelly et al., as if only then had he fully realized what they had been through, what they would never be through again.

And as Patti wiped her eyes with the Kleenex he needed all one could think is, How nice he came home to say good-bye. See you in Canton.

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