Like the versatile running back that it glorifies, the NFL Network documentary, “Thurman Thomas: A Football Life,” works on multiple levels.
Narrated by actor Josh Charles, the NFL Films production scores as the biography of the great Buffalo Bills running back, as a nostalgia piece, as a history lesson for fans too young to remember the team’s glory days, and as a public service announcement that deals with the decision of the Thomas family to open up about one of his three daughters battling depression.
The moving, hour-long special, which premieres at 8 p.m. Friday, starts and finishes with the ceremony to retire Thomas’ jersey No. 34 at halftime of the Bills’ "Monday Night Football" game with the New England Patriots on Oct. 29.
It is unfortunate that this version of “A Football Life” series couldn’t have aired before that ceremony to remind older Bills fans just how great Thomas was as a running back and to show millennials who never saw him play how fabulous he was as a player.
In interviews with Thomas, his wife, Patti, his four children, former Oklahoma State teammate Barry Sanders and several Hall of Famers from the Bills' glorious 1990s run, the hour flies by as fast as a Josh Allen pass these days.
Western New Yorkers won’t be surprised that Thomas is often animated while talking about the past and his ego shines through as he discusses his accomplishments. But as his teammates attest, he has multiple reasons to be proud of what he has done on and off the field.
The program also has the added nostalgic bonus of hearing the voice of the late Bills play-by-play man Van Miller calling so many of Thomas’ best plays.
Along the way, the player teammates nicknamed “Squatty Body” because of his physique, described the good fortune he had when he had to give up his first sports love – baseball – to play football and the greater fortune to meet his wife at Oklahoma State, who was “from all places, Buffalo.”
The program deals with all of Thomas’ triumphs on the field but also a couple of things he and the Bills probably wish they could forget.
Yes, we’re talking about his lost helmet before the Bills’ second of four Super Bowl losses.
His teammates won’t let Thomas forget about it. But they do so now in a funny way, with Bruce Smith joking in his Hall of Fame speech that he hid his helmet.
According to Buffalo News sportswriter Vic Carucci, the helmet was misplaced by a member of the Harry Connick Jr. band, which was performing the national anthem.
Bills great Jim Kelly said the attention on the helmet’s significance also was misplaced because it was only one series in a game in which the Bills were dominated by Washington.
Naturally, the program also revisits another painful memory, draft day in 1988 when ESPN documented Thomas’ fall to the second round to the Bills after several other forgettable backs were drafted ahead of him.
Thomas explained he was ticked off (OK, he used more colorful language) and realized all the teams that said they were going to draft him and passed “pretty much lied to me.”
His reaction as the cameras focused on his long wait to be drafted? “This couldn’t be happening to me.”
Andrea Joyce, who was assigned by ESPN to be with Thomas in his Oklahoma apartment on draft day, said, “It was excruciating. We were all dying along with him.”
He used that “embarrassment” as fuel throughout his career. He noted he watched that draft over again every Saturday before every game in his rookie season to pump himself up.
“He had a chip on his shoulder the size of Rich Stadium all the time,” special teams great Steve Tasker said.
“This is where I was supposed to be,” Thomas said at the start of the program. “If I went to other teams I don’t know if my career would have turned out like this.”
But his hope to retire a Bill was extinguished when he, Smith and receiver Andre Reed learned they were cut by reading it on a sports network crawl. It was one of the organization’s worst public relations moments and led Thomas to play one season with the hated Miami Dolphins to stick it to the organization, not the fans.
All of Thomas’ teammates provide great sound bites, but none better than Tasker.
Tasker, who sports a beard, described Thomas’ elusiveness as a runner by saying, “He could play tag in a phone booth and would win.”
Tasker might have been even more impressed by Thomas’ maneuverability when the running back publicly challenged Kelly for criticizing Bills lineman Howard ("House") Ballard after a game in a moment that sparked the nickname the "Bickering Bills."
“It was monumentally important that Thurman had the courage to do that,” Tasker said.
“We became a family,” agreed Kelly.
“He was a perfect teammate, a perfect team leader,” said Hall of Fame receiver James Lofton.
And after highlighting Thomas’ strong family values and sense of right and wrong, Tasker gives perhaps the biggest praise: “He’s a helluva man.”
Naturally, there are highlights of Thomas’ incredible running, blocking and pass-catching abilities, with one daughter noting that he was making circus receptions well before Odell Beckham Jr.
Another highlight is watching Thomas and Sanders, the Detroit Lions great who could give Thomas some competition playing tag in a phone booth, sitting together and talking about their lives as Oklahoma State road roommates and NFL running backs.
And then there’s the little moment between Thomas and Dallas Cowboys great running back Emmitt Smith after the Bills lost their fourth Super Bowl.
Smith introduced a little girl to Thomas by saying, “This is Thurman Thomas, baby, the best running back in the NFL.”
He had a most valuable player award to prove it, but Thomas lamented that even then Sanders and Smith were getting more attention.
“I was the MVP, but I was still third,” said Thomas.
Smith’s words to the young girl came after Thomas had two fumbles in the Super Bowl and felt he let the team down for the first time in his career.
He and his wife weren’t about to let down their daughter Annika after she revealed she was battling depression. The family’s decision to publicly discuss mental health issues to try to take away the stigma is the most poignant moment in the program.
And then it is back to the "Monday Night Football" ceremony, where Thomas addressed a crowd that adored him as much as he does Western New York.
“He grasped Buffalo, he loved Buffalo and he became a Buffalonian,” concluded his wife.
The only regret Buffalonians may have after watching “Thurman Thomas: A Football Life” is that – like the Bills' dominance – it didn’t last longer.