Leading up to the 2010 NFL draft, Buffalobills.com will be sharing the memories of some of the Bills most memorable draft choices as we ask you the fan to pick your top 10 all-time draft choices in team history. Was it a choice of incomparable value? Was it the top pick in the draft? Was it a pick that far exceeded anyone’s expectations? Those choices are up to you the fan, and they can be made at the Buffalo Bills all-time draft site between now and April 22nd.
Gaston Green, John Stephens, Lorenzo White, Brad Muster, Craig Heyward, Ickey Woods and Tony Jeffery. All seven were accomplished running backs during their college careers. All seven were also drafted ahead of a certain Oklahoma State running back by the name of Thurman Thomas in 1988.
Thomas had just wrapped up a stellar college career for the Cowboys where he led the team to a pair of 10-2 seasons, two bowl berths and almost single-handedly put Oklahoma State on the map. He had a school record 898 carries in his career, just under 4,600 yards rushing and 44 touchdowns. Thomas had won every college award possible with the exception of the Heisman Trophy, but there was one thing that NFL clubs were focused on and one thing only. His knee.
He had suffered a partial ACL tear his junior season, and despite bouncing back with over 1,600 rushing yards his senior season, NFL clubs had their doubts.
“When I went to the NFL combine most of the teams I talked to passed me on the physical with flying colors, but some teams didn’t,” said Thomas. “So there probably was a reason in the back of their mind why they weren’t going to choose me because of the partial tear in my ACL. So in the back of my mind I kind of knew that if I didn’t go in the first round that had to be the reason.”
But with the attention NFL teams were paying to him leading up to the draft Thomas thought for sure he’d be off the board before the first round was over. Two teams paying particular interest to him were the New Orleans Saints and the Houston Oilers. For the Houston native the thought of playing close to home as a professional was very appealing.
“I had conversations with Jerry Glanville, who at that time was the Houston head coach and he was really, really pushing hard for me to be drafted by Houston,” said Thomas. “I had been to New Orleans plenty of times and they were close to Houston too, so I really thought I’d have a chance to be close to home whether it was Houston or New Orleans.”
With all the attention Thomas had received prior to the draft ESPN was also convinced the star tailback would be taken in round one as well and dispatched a camera crew to his apartment off campus in Stillwater, Oklahoma where Thomas would be watching the draft on television.
“I was at my apartment and it was me and my roommate Hart Lee Dykes,” said Thomas. “My mom and dad were there. It was a pretty big deal considering that a lot of the teams, the Rams, the Chargers, New Orleans and the Houston Oilers were all talking about perhaps taking me in the first round. So I was pretty excited about it.”
That is until some other backs went off the board before him.
“Gaston Green went to the Rams at 14 and John Stephens went to New England at 17 and what got me about that was Stephens came out of nowhere and had a great combine workout and he went ahead of me. He was from a Division II school. Then Lorenzo White and Brad Muster and Iron Head (Heyward). By the time it got down to Ickey (Woods) from UNLV and Tony Jeffery from TCU you probably could’ve fried an egg on my head. I was pretty hot by then.”
Before round one had come to a close, the ESPN camera crew chief approached Thomas and asked him if he wanted them to leave in light of how things played out.
“I said, ‘No, you guys came out here and wanted to see me get drafted and you thought I would go in the first round and it would’ve been a great story for ESPN and myself and my family,’” said Thomas. “So when they asked if I wanted them to leave I said, ‘No, you guys are going to stay here until I get drafted.’”
In round two Woods went to Cincinnati with the 31st pick, then Jeffery went 38th to the Cardinals. A short time later Thomas’ phone rang and Bills GM Bill Polian was on the other end of the line making Thomas the 40th overall selection.
“He said he couldn’t wait until I got to Buffalo,” said Thomas. “I can remember him telling me that he told me they needed a running back for them to take the next step. He told me what Mr. Wilson had said in the draft room. There were some questions about my knee and Mr. Wilson had apparently said, ‘Life’s a gamble, so let’s take him.’”
Thomas was happy he was part of an NFL team, but the way draft day had unfolded was anything but acceptable to the newest Buffalo Bill.
“I was happy just to get it over with,” he said. “I was really happy, but I was still a little disappointed. After talking to ESPN, they left and that’s when my family and my teammate Hart Lee Dykes and some of my other teammates came over to congratulate me. My friends and family knew that while I was happy, I was also a little ticked off about it too. And like coach Jones used to tell me, ‘You’re the one guy people don’t want to tick off on the football field.’”
When everyone had cleared out of his apartment except his parents his mother spoke some prophetic words.
“My mom said the same thing that I did,” Thomas recalled. “She said it first. Her words to me were, ‘Baby don’t worry about it. You’re going to prove everybody wrong.’ That stuck with me the day I got drafted, and that process started in my mind right after ESPN left.”
Thomas made a promise to himself that day that all the teams that passed on him were going to pay for not picking him. He was determined to show the entire league that he could be a difference maker, and had a special way of getting himself motivated for each game come his rookie season of 1988.
“I used to watch the tape of the draft Sunday mornings, sometimes Saturday night before I went to the hotel my rookie year in 1988,” said Thomas. “I’d just watch the part leading up to me getting drafted, where they go to commercial and then they come back and ESPN’s Chris Berman said, ‘The phone has finally rung for Thurman Thomas and the Buffalo Bills have come a calling.’ So I would rewind it right to that point and I would watch it just before I went to the hotel or the stadium.”
That pre-game ritual lasted all the way up until the Bills had reached the playoffs when they were ironically matched up against Thomas’ hometown Houston Oilers in what was the first home playoff game in Buffalo in 22 years. He hasn’t watched it since.
For Thomas it’s no longer necessary. His NFL career proved to everyone that seven NFL teams made a big mistake with the running back they chose over him.
“Really when you come down to it and you look at what I accomplished as a football player with the Buffalo Bills, I’m in the Hall of Fame. Just from that class in 1988, from where I was picked to where I ended up, I was one of two players (Michael Irvin) to be the first to go into the Hall of Fame and that’s special to me. You look at the players in that ’88 draft and a lot of them accomplished a lot of things and lot of them that were picked high didn’t. I look at that and always think to myself, if those teams had it to do all over again I’d probably be the first pick in the draft.”