As we count down to June 24th for the unveiling of new 2011 uniforms for the Buffalo Bills we take a look back at the franchise’s uniform history with anecdotes, stories and recollections from those that experienced the history first hand. Our latest installment is provided once again by long time Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski, more commonly known to Bills players over the years as “Hojo”. He shares with us the real story of just what happened to the helmet of Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas moments before Buffalo’s first possession of Super Bowl XVI.
Just about every Bills fan has heard a version of what happened at the beginning of Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis between Buffalo and Washington. NFL MVP Thurman Thomas was preparing to get on the field with the rest of the Bills offense after the Redskins offense went three-and-out on their first possession of the game. The only problem was Thomas’ helmet was not where he had left it prior to the coin toss.
“I couldn’t find it,” Thomas said after the game that day. “I didn’t know where it was. For some reason somebody moved it. I was very upset.”
The details of those anxious minutes when Thomas realized his helmet was missing have never really been explained until now. Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski lays out how he believes it all went down.
Buffalo had obviously been to the Super Bowl the year before so the equipment staff was fully aware of the organized chaos that happens on an NFL sideline during the biggest game of the year.
“It’s the Super Bowl and if you’ve ever been on the sidelines it’s crazy,” said Hojnowski.
About five minutes prior to the calling of captains to midfield Hojnowski knows that Thomas put his helmet down in a specific area.
“Thurman used to put his helmet down in the same spot before every game,” he said. “It was always on the table where we would keep the drinks. It was right to the left of that behind the bench for the offense.”
Thomas, who Hojnowski recalls as one of the team captains, went out for the coin toss. Washington won the toss and chose to receive. The Bills running back returned to the sideline. He went to retrieve his helmet, but discovered it was no longer on the table by the drinks behind the benches.
“So Thurman is looking for where he put it and it’s not there,” said Hojnowski. “Thurman was frantic running around to all of us saying he couldn’t find his helmet.”
Once Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy got wind of the problem, the equipment manager was an easy target.
“Coach turns around and screams my name, ‘Hojo, where the #$%@ is Thurman’s helmet?!’”
Immediately Hojnowski mobilizes the entire equipment staff in a mad search to find Thomas’ head gear, and time is very quickly growing short. Buffalo’s defense quickly sent Washington three-and-out on their first possession of the game.
Up to a half dozen people are still searching for Thomas’ helmet, but the offense is ready to take the field for Buffalo and the star running back is still not equipped for football. Instead his backup Kenny Davis starts on offense and gets a yard on first down on a run to the left.
A Jim Kelly scramble on 2nd-and-9 netted four yards. Thomas' helmet is then found and he gets on the field for the 3rd-and-5, but Kelly is sacked and the Bills go three-and-out as well.
“I believe that (Randy) “Woody” (Ribbeck) might have been the one to find it,” said Hojnowski of his assistant equipment manager. “It was found at the other end of the bench. That would be on the defensive end of the bench. Throughout the Redskins’ first series and our first play on offense we’re not thinking it’s down at the other end of the bench. You’d never think to look down there.”
So how did it get there?
“I firmly believe that one of his teammates picked up Thurman’s helmet thinking it was theirs and walked to the other end of the bench and realized it wasn’t his helmet, put it down and then went to find his own,” said Hojnowski.
Hojnowski believes if they had facemask records from 1991 they could reduce the guilty party to just a few suspects.
“I’m guessing it had to be someone with a similar facemask to his,” he said. “We had a few guys with that kind of facemask that year, but I don’t think we’ll ever know who it was for sure. It makes for a better story to blame the equipment guy for it anyway.”
Obviously the game did not turn out the way the Bills had hoped dropping a 37-24 decision to the Redskins, but Hojnowski still remembers Buffalo’s head coach approaching him in the aftermath of the team’s second straight Super Bowl defeat.
“I’m in the coaches’ room picking up all their gear and I remember Marv coming up to me and apologizing for yelling at me,” said Hojnowski. “In every other game leading up to that he knew I never touched Thurman’s helmet before a game. He said in the heat of the moment with me being the equipment guy who else is going to get blamed for the star running back missing two plays in the biggest game? I’m just glad we found it when we did.”