One haunting memory has served as motivation for Marcus Thigpen since he was 14 years old. As written today, the graphic death of one of his closest friends is still on his mind.
And no player on the Bills roster is as well-traveled as this returner/receiver.
Undrafted out of Indiana in 2009, Thigpen spent a summer with the Philadelphia Eagles, 10 days with the Denver Broncos, a training camp with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL, finally broke out with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats by scoring a touchdown five different ways one reason and then returned to the NFL.
In 2012 and 2013, Thigpen was the Miami Dolphins' primary kick and punt returner. Then, he was gone again. Cut. Thigpen was let go after a muffed punt on Miami's final 2014 cuts and then bounced from New England to Miami (again) to Tampa Bay to Buffalo.
As Thigpen said, this trip to South Florida means something extra. Expect him to be one of Rex Ryan's captains on Sunday, as the coach usually chooses players who've have played for the opposition before. And like Richie Incognito, Charles Clay and Dan Carpenter, he has something to prove.
“It helped shape me into the person I am — to never quit," Thigpen said. "Just from being quit. And I was in Miami for three years. Going back to play against them, I definitely have a big chip on my shoulder for them. It’s going to be a fun game. Just have to keep pushing forward. I’ve always had a good support system with me, with my wife, friends, my kids love football. Especially my sons. I really want to make them happy."
With Percy Harvin on kicks, Thigpen has been returning punts. Opportunities have been limited so far as he has two returns and two fair catches. But as he proved in Buffalo's signature win last year, over Green Bay, he's got rare speed. He can be a game-changer on special teams, an area where Buffalo excelled in Week 1 and struggled mightily in Week 2.
Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman called Thigpen the "perfect illustration" of a player who responds to getting let go the right way.
"Some guys, it builds their perseverance and makes them work harder," Crossman said. "Other guys, disappear and accept that. Especially guys who have had struggles and have had things not go their way. So I think that’s a great testament to what that kid is all about and his inner strength and belief, A, in himself and a lot of other things.”
Because a lot of players go to the CFL and do not come back. Rarely does a player fight his way back.
"Without a doubt," Crossman said. "And not only do guys not come back, but they go up there and they continue what they do there. They go up there and say, ‘I’ve had enough.’ Because it is completely different. It’s like anything else — people who really love the game endure a lot of stuff to have the opportunity. And it starts with that belief he had in himself and whatever roads he had to take there — obviously there were many.
"With his skills as a return guy, there’s a niche not everybody can have or do. To me, he’s always going to be one of those guys that the more you find that he can do, the more that he’s able to contribute in other areas. That’s ahead of us.
"Tough. Physical. Does everything you ask him to do."