Thurman Thomas walks in. At 50, he’s cool and charismatic as ever. His personality fills the Swannie House, a 122-year-old gem of a bar tucked near a bend in the Buffalo River. Tilting shades above his forehead, dimples cracked into an ear-to-ear grin, the Hall-of-Famer illuminates the dimly lit bar in a “Notorious” shirt.
Three patrons, in rapid-fire succession, step over to shake the hand of a local legend.
Ten minutes later, there’s a fourth.
Jonathan Williams, 22, the Buffalo Bills' fifth-round draft pick out of Arkansas, has never met the Hall-of-Famer but he jumped at this opportunity. Thurman Thomas? To talk shop? Sign him up.
“How are you, man?” says Thomas.
There’s a dap, small talk and the two coast upstairs where Thomas orders a Greek chicken salad and Williams is talked into the crispy chicken wings. And for two hours, the two talk football.
The dangers of playing the game are clear — and so are the rewards.
About 6½ chicken wings in, the conversation turns dark.
Today, Thomas lives the aftershock of the “six or seven” concussions he sustained. Once, he pulled off the 33 on his way to work because he forgot where he was. Doctors studied the frontal lobe of his brain and told Thomas it looked like he fell off a house or had been banging his head into a windshield.
The bubbling of a fish tank plays in the background. Williams’ attention is locked in.
Thomas wipes sweat from his brow and traces his finger along his skull.
“What they saw up here,” Thomas says, “was just like single layers of blood vessels.”
Yet he’d do it all over again. The 203 total games. The 3,216 carries. The 548 receptions. He’d endure every single one of those collisions again because of the pure joy playing running back gave him — the unparalleled rush.
“If I turned 22 again, I’d still play running back. I’d do it again.
“I tell people all the time: That position right there — besides the center and the quarterback — that position touches the ball more than anybody else on the field. That’s what I wanted.”
When Thomas nods, Williams nods. When Thomas laughs, Williams laughs. They are kindred spirits. Maybe one day Williams fights the same symptoms. Maybe one day, the back is told, he too gets lost on a routine drive to work.
“I’d still do it.”
There’s zero hesitation in his voice.
Thurman Thomas is in the Hall of Fame, his name is etched on the Ralph Wilson Stadium Wall of Fame and, soon, his No. 34 will be retired. These are his lessons to a running back in his footsteps.
Be a Maniac
The moment Buffalo drafted Jonathan Williams with the 156th overall pick, Thomas started Googling.
He saw that Williams rushed for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014 even though he needed to share the workload. He saw that Williams missed all of 2015 after tearing a ligament in his foot. He saw that Williams was from Texas and, the Houston native loved that.
Since retiring in 2001, Thomas has taken players under his wing at One Bills Drive. Williams is a logical next pupil. When he started watching highlights of the Arkansas back, Thomas didn’t want to stop.
“This is a guy who puts his foot in the ground and he goes,” Thomas says. “That’s what it’s all about, man. You can’t be dancing and stuff or you’ll be got. And I like the fact that he said he can do more than run the football. He can catch the football. And that’s what my career turned into — catching the ball out of the backfield.
“It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a battle.”
To Williams, everyone at this level has talent. But what ticks inside? He tells Thomas a story. Whenever his football season ended, as a kid, Williams would take a sheet of paper, a ruler and draw up his own calendar to mark the days until next season. The game, to him, had a “Christmas” effect.
And when Williams tore the ligament, it felt like Christmas was cancelled.
Thomas’ first piece of advice for Williams aligns with such a temperament. He tells the rookie what his first position coach, Elijah Pitts, told him: Be a “maniac.” Pitts didn’t care if it was practice, the preseason or an hour in the weight room. Thomas needed to be a maniac.
“I carried that throughout my entire career,” Thomas says. “Preseason? Treat it like it’s a regular game. Practice field? Same thing. You’re leading that week up to play a game. If somebody gets pissed off because you’re working hard, that’s their fault. They’re not working hard enough.
“You have to do it if you want to sustain a long career in this league.”
Williams wants to learn more.
“What kind of things drove you into becoming the player that you became?”
For one, Thomas faced similar competition in 1988 to what Williams will in 2016. He, too, was third or fourth on the depth chart with Ronnie Harmon, Robb Riddick and Carl Byrum around.
Thomas explains he went beyond the 9-to-5 demands. He spent time with the offensive linemen, especially center Kent Hull. Together, they turned Thomas’ favorite play — the counter trey — into an art form. Thomas wanted to know what Hull was thinking, where the tight end was stepping, everything.
After practice, he ran routes with Jim Kelly. He worked “tirelessly, day in and day out” and refused to miss a single practice.
And like Williams, Thomas suffered a significant injury in college when he partially tore his ACL. With a freshman named Barry Sanders breathing down his neck, Thomas had no choice but to work overtime.
“He ran 10 sprints, I ran 11,” Thomas explains. “He bench-pressed 250, I bench-pressed 251. I always stayed a step ahead of him. And he pushed me, he pushed me. Obviously nobody knew he’d turn out to be what he was. He was a freshman and I was a junior.”
Finally, he said “the hell with it” and tested his knee in Oklahoma State’s spring game.
“I ran a pitch play to the right, made a cut on this leg right here, a plant, a hard cut, turned that thing right upfield and went for a touchdown,” Thomas says. “And my coach, Larry Coker, he’s running down the field, screaming like …”
Williams cuts in, laughing, with a “He’s back!”
“He’s back!” Thomas laughs, imitating Coker. “‘Did you (expletive) see that cut? He’s back!’ From that point on, I was like ‘This is the way it has to be every single practice. Every single practice.’”
Williams had the same moments through OTA’s and minicamp. He’s ready to introduce his inner maniac to the world.
“I’m not a cocky person,” he says, “but if you could hear the thoughts in my head, you’d think ‘Ah this dude is cocky.’ But I just have a lot of confidence in myself.”
“Yep, yep,” says Thomas, loving every word.
“I knew that once I got out there,” Williams continues, “that I would be able to make a couple plays. So there have been a couple runs where I look at the iPad and say, ‘OK! I still got it!’”
Making a comeback
Other teams devalue the NFL running back. Not the Buffalo Bills, who have drafted 17 since 1995. And certainly not Thurman Thomas.
To him, the opposite force is at play.
“They are actually making a comeback,” he said. “You don’t have the quarterbacks you had the last 10-15 years. Those guys are going away one by one. Peyton Manning. Drew Brees. Tom Brady − pfff − (expletive) Tom Brady will probably play until he’s 50. That son of a … Phillip Rivers. All those guys. Sooner or later, all of those guys are going to be gone, man.
“And what are you going to turn to? You’re going to turn back to the running back position!”
“For me,” Williams chimes in, “the argument I like to make is, they always say ‘Oh, you can get a running back in any round.’ Man, that’s any player! That’s not just the running back position. Tom Brady was drafted in the sixth round. Julian Edelman is a great player and I don’t know where he was drafted. Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the league right now and he was drafted in the sixth round.”
As Williams voice rises. ... and rises. ... Thomas punctuates each point with an emphatic “Exactly!”
“You can find good players anywhere,” Williams finished. “It’s not just the running back.”
Thomas can still hear Ken Griffey Jr.’s voice. One of the best players in baseball history once told him he wanted to be Walter Payton growing up. Not Mickey Mantle, not Hank Aaron. No, “The Kid” wanted to be “Sweetness” — that’s the allure of the running back. There’s a charm to the position, even if that charm leads to a lifetime of bruises. Thomas lists names as if they’re founding fathers: Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marcus Allen, Gale Sayers, Curtis Martin.
Some players can absorb the necessary pounding. Others cannot.
Very quickly, ramming between the guards repeatedly at Oklahoma State, Thomas realized he was built for this. His uncle used to compare the position to darting through 5 o’clock highway traffic in California, “juking and jiving the whole time.”
So what is Williams’ style through such traffic? He relies on instincts. Reaction. And it’s all rooted in film work. Both backs take offense to the notion that an offense can simply plug and play any schmuck off the street.
“It’s not as easy as people think,” Williams says, “that you just hand the ball and make moves — there’s a lot more.”
Adds Thomas, “A lot of people will say ‘How did he miss that cut?’ But they never say, ‘Damn, how did he make that cut?’”
Of course, for Thomas, greatness came at a price.
It’s a blank
He buries his hands in his face in comical agony. One day prior, Thurman Thomas III told his Dad he wants to be a running back.
“I’m like ‘Ah, what the (expletive)!’”
Williams erupts into “Hah-hah-hah” laughter, yelling, “Don’t do it son!”
Thomas III will be a ninth-grader at Canisius High School. Suddenly, this budding baseball stud felt the urge to take on the family business.
“I’m like, ‘Where did this come from?’” Thomas continues. “He said, ‘I don’t know Dad! I just want to play running back.’ And I said, ‘You better talk to your mom about that.’ She doesn’t want him to play football at all.”
The next week, Thomas III tweeted that he’s giving up football to stick with baseball and basketball. Hence, that sigh of relief across all of Western New York? Thomas, daily, feels the pain.
He first opened up at the District School Board of Niagara’s international summit on concussions, saying he apologizes to his family for his mood swings and memory loss. Still, Thomas doesn’t want to be painted as a sob story, repeating “I’d do it again.” He relished football’s inherent contact, refusing to cower in the hole or step out of bounds.
“I’m punishing that defensive back,” he says.
Even if that meant seeing stars through the concussions. Once, he totally blacked out. In a 1990 game against Denver, Thomas replaced Kenneth Davis at the goal line and was promptly obliterated by safety Dennis Smith at the line. The ball popped out and he unconsciously picked it up.
“Everything went blank,” Thomas said. “Instead of the stars, it went blank.”
Hull stood over Thomas with his hand out for 15 seconds before Thomas woke up.
“I was gone. I was gone.”
What’s your name? Who are you playing? Where are you? This was the concussion protocol then. Pass this, Thomas continues, and you’re cleared.
“A couple of aspirins and get your (butt) back in there.”
Telling the world his problems proved therapeutic. Since going public in late April, Thomas insists his health has improved. He steers clear of any activities that add stress. He reads all the time, be it the newspaper or a Joel Osteen book. He even started doing the USA Today crossword puzzles to keep his mind active.
Of course, he knows the battle is only beginning. He made that trek to work at Energy Curtailment Specialists (ECS) on Genesee Street for five years. A simple trip along the 33. Yet there was Thomas, clueless and confused, on the side of the road.
He called his wife, Patti, and admitted this was the third time he had gotten lost on his way to work. That’s when the competitor kicked in — he didn’t want her to pick him up. He sat for 15 minutes and the route resurfaced in his mind.
And Thomas reiterates: he’d still play. When asked if he realized the damage he was doing to his brain in the moment, Williams cuts in.
“I probably had a couple concussions,” Williams says. “When you’re in the game and you get hit, you’re like ‘I got hit.’ For me, I wasn’t really worried about it. I just wanted to get back out there.”
This is the NFL’s ultimate dilemma. The pressure of losing your job weighs on the mind of every player, even more so at a position so many teams deem disposable. Unless they’re writhing in pain, unless there’s a break, a tear, an injury that rendered them useless, no way Thomas or Williams tap out. Just as Thomas had Sanders in the same running back room, Williams had Alex Collins. And Collins was the one recruited by his current coach, Bret Bielema. Not him.
In Buffalo, he’ll compete with Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee, James Wilder Jr. and Boom Herron for a role behind starter LeSean McCoy. One bad hit opens up a door for any of the five.
Says Thomas, “There’s that other son of a (gun) behind you going ‘There’s my chance.’ Because if he comes out, he might not come back in.”
And Williams: “As soon as you say something’s wrong with your head, you’re out. Whether you have a concussion or not, it’s over.”
Thomas doesn’t ask doctors how to deal with the potential CTE in his brain. He can handle the effects alone
“But, but, even with that,” he says, “I’d still play football.”
“I’d still play,” Williams echoes.
For Williams, it’s basic science. Football is part of him. A year without the sport in 2015 was hell because, suddenly, Jonathan Williams wasn't really Jonathan Williams. He has played since he was 5. And this game — life-altering risks and all — has always served as a beaming light at the end of the tunnel for his family.
A source of hope
Two days before he reported to college, the Williams family was evicted from their home in Allen, Texas.
On the spot, they all darted in different directions.
His dad’s mother had Alzheimer’s, so he headed to New Orleans to watch over her. His brother was in college. So Williams, his mother and his sister stayed in a Dallas hotel one night and then hit the road for a five-hour drive to Fayetteville, Ark. This should've been a somber, depressing drive. Only, it wasn’t. The three jammed to music and were all genuinely excited about Jonathan heading to college.
“In my head I’m thinking,” Williams says, “that I’m definitely going to make it to the NFL so I can help my family out.”
His mom, Constance, ended up staying in Kansas with her own mother who had a stroke. His sister lived with a friend. And on Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks, Williams lived with one of his two best friends. He rotated, one to the other, without flinching.
“I never really looked at it as being as bad as it probably really was,” he said, “because it’s life.”
So bring on all risks. Bring on all competition. Football has served as a light at the end of the tunnel to the Williams family. They were scattered across the country, but this son’s talent, drive and determination would one day change all of their lives.
Today, the family is reunited in Allen. His mother works in a principal’s office, his brother is a coach, his father is a chef. While his father’s mother passed away, his mother’s mother is still living.
Now in the NFL, Williams has a chance to set them all up for life.
“Going through it, we didn’t look at it like a pity party,” Williams said. “It was a situation that happened and we had to find a way to move on. … As a kid, you look up to see how your parents are reacting. You see if they’re stressed or not stressed. My parents didn’t seem worried about it, so if they weren’t worried, I wasn’t worried.”
“Football keeps us all connected. It’s just our love for the game. I definitely think it brightens them up after all the stuff we’ve been through.”
Thurman Thomas agrees wholeheartedly. He does, however, have one concern for the game, one concern that could ruin football as we know it.
“The only thing I’m really afraid of,” Thomas says, “is somebody dying on that field. I mean, it has happened in high school. It probably will at some point. It hasn’t happened, but it could. It could.”
His memory drifts to yet another concussion. He wasn’t even on the field. Thomas was sitting on the bench next to punter Chris Mohr and when Mohr turned to pump up the crowd and... Smack!
“Boom. Concussion,” Thomas said. “It’s the shaking of the brain. He hit me right here. I didn’t have my helmet on or nothing.”
Football isn’t alone. Just recently, Thomas met a Rochester pastor from South Africa who told him countless rugby players in his home country are now “vegetables.” Brain dead. And in youth soccer, he sees coaches discouraging kids from heading the ball.
His point? Embrace the game and its virtues as long as you can. Live in the moment. Because Thomas can also remember being depressed when he finally hung up the cleats. His career over, the good times run dry, he secluded himself in his basement. Up until 3½ years ago, he took the antidepressant Celexa.
“Watched TV down in a dark room,” he says. “It’s hard. Even after 13 years! It’s gone. It’s gone.”
So enjoy every second he tells everyone — “Yeah! Play!”
The cook at the Swannie House appears and gives the two running backs pork sandwiches on the house to take home.
“J-Dub!” he barks, patting Williams on the back. “Keep it going, baby!”
“You’re learning from the best right here. Ain’t nobody better.”
To Thomas, every game was a new chapter. The resulting 13-year story will be cherished forever. Fans still approach him to say they knew, every Sunday, they’d destroy whoever dared to visit Rich Stadium. Memories with Kelly and Bruce and Andre replay and Thomas’ adrenaline starts pumping all over again. No monetary or physical price can be put on such memories.
It’s a feeling he wants guys like Williams to experience. A feeling Williams can now re-create for the fan and for himself.
“It’s a job where it’s not like anything else,” Williams said. “You literally get to go hang out with your boys and go out there and practice and then you come back into the locker room and you’re hanging out. Any other job, you don’t get to do that.”
Thomas tells Williams again to be that “maniac.”
“You’ve got to be different to play that position,” Thomas cautions. “That’s a hard position carrying that thing 20-25 times a game.”
“Definitely,” Williams nods.
“You’re taking a beating. You’ve got to be different up here,” says Thomas, pointing to his head, then his heart, “and you’ve got to have something right here. Those two things right here go hand in hand when you play that position.”
Mistakes will happen. Thomas points to his son, who recently struck out with the bases loaded but then made a diving catch and hit a triple. The athletes who respond are the athletes built to last.
All chicken wings are picked. All advice is given. A friendship is, officially, born. A first impression has reached its conclusion.
Hands clasped, Thomas shifts his eyes to Williams one last time.
“Trust me, I see it,” Thomas says. “I see it. He’s hungry. I can tell.”