There was little doubt this year that there was a more appropriate person to be called a "shoe-in" for the Pro Football Hall of Fame than Thurman Thomas. The Hall of Fame voters apparently thought so too as the Bills all-time leading rusher was selected as one of the six members of the 2007 induction class.
Thomas will become the seventh member of the Buffalo Bills organization to be enshrined in Canton this evening.
"It's just an unbelievable day for me," said Thomas. "It's just a beautiful day for my wife, my kids, my mom, the Buffalo Bills organization and the fans in Buffalo. Like I've always said we didn't win a Super Bowl, but this is my Super Bowl gift to the Bills fans. Without the fans cheering us on and cheering me on this would not have been possible."
Thomas will have several former teammates on hand in Canton, the same teammates who were very quickly making calls to his mobile phone, after the announcement that he was part of the 2007 Hall of Fame class.
"I had great teammates," said Thomas. "They were a great group of guys who I went to war with every weekend. They were great friends and great people to be around."
Though Thomas' teammates are thrilled that he has been given the highest individual honor a professional football player can attain there are more than a few who felt it came a year too late.
"I think Thurman was slighted last year when he didn't get in," said former teammate Steve Tasker. "He led the league in yards from scrimmage four straight years and it had never been done before, not even by Jim Brown who had held the record with three. For certain stretches of his career not only was he the best running back in football, he was the best player at any position in football."
"He should have been a first ballot Hall of Famer last year," said Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly. "It really hits me now because Thurman Thomas was one of the greatest runners to ever play the game. Yeah he may not have had the Barry Sanders quickness or the Super Bowl rings like Emmitt Smith, but Thurman Thomas was amazing. In my eyes he's still a first ballot Hall of Famer."
Thomas' 13-year career was special. Currently 12th on the league's all-time rushing list (12,074), 10th in career 100-yard games (46) and eighth in total yards from scrimmage (16,532), Buffalo's most beloved running back most valuable quality was his versatility.
"He was an all-purpose back," said Kelly. "He wasn't a guy where he'd go off tackle right and off tackle left and trap right and trap left and that was it. He brought something to the table that defenses weren't prepared for and that was him coming out of the backfield or splitting him out wide right. We did some special things with him."
"He was a great receiver out of the backfield," Tasker said. "He was Marshall Faulk before Marshall Faulk. He was the prototype of today's NFL running back and he started playing in the late 80's. He was a guy that was ahead of his time."
Thomas is still third in Bills franchise history in career receptions (456) and fifth in career receiving yards. But what Thomas took special pride in was blitz pickup. Always eager to deliver a blow to an oncoming pass rusher, Thomas was a big security blanket for Kelly.
"We had one running back in the backfield and this guy had to run, catch and block," said former Bills center Kent Hull. "People don't realize how much blocking he did. We sent all the receivers out a lot and he was the only guy left back there if teams brought more than five. He had to block defensive ends, linebackers, cornerbacks. Not only did he have to be an athlete and be able to do it, he had to know the system."
"Do you think I would have called all of my plays without him back there," Kelly asked rhetorically. "Are you crazy? Even though he was a little short, squatty guy it didn't matter if it was Zach Thomas or Mike Singletary coming up the middle he'd hit you right between the numbers. That's what makes a quarterback's job so much easier knowing that if there is a blitz coming that he was going to be there. He not only was tough, but he was smart. He knew every assignment and what every player did too."
Surprisingly on a team with such a strong leader at quarterback, Thomas also stepped forward at times. The only difference was his leadership often didn't reveal itself until he reached the field.
"Thurman wasn't the guy in the locker room who would stand up and say a lot, but when he got on the football field that's when his leadership came out," said Kelly. "Things he would say to offensive linemen on the sidelines and things he would say in the huddle. He'd say things on the field that would keep us going. Behind the scenes the attitude he brought to the game once he was on the football field was something not many people had a chance to see."
The only attribute of Thomas' game that matched his versatility was his passion for the game.
"When Sunday came he was all player," Kelly said. "He wanted to play, he wanted to score, he wanted to win and he wanted to celebrate."
And when Thomas is enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame this evening there will be much more for him to celebrate.