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San Diego Sportscene / Dave Distel

Former Bear Finds Super Bowl Absence Bearable After All

January 25, 1986|DAVE DISTEL

Two young men came out of the National Football League draft in 1975 and stuck with the Chicago Bears for 10 years, one of them becoming the franchise's all-time leading scorer.

In fact, in that 10th year, both of these athletes passed George Blanda, the previous Bears' scoring leader.

One of these men was Walter Payton, who is to the Bears what Ernie Banks was to the Cubs. However, Payton was not to become the all-time leading scorer in that 10th year.

That distinction went to a placekicker from Notre Dame named Robert Randall Thomas. He scored 629 points with one foot while Payton scored 588 with two.

Thomas' record fell this year, when Payton scored 66 regular-season points.

But it was hardly fair. After all, Thomas was not around to defend his lead. The Bears, apparently doubting Thomas, had drafted a rookie placekicker. Thomas was cut.

It now seems particularly rude because the Bears are all down at this big shindig in New Orleans and Bob Thomas is laboring for the law firm of Casey, Krippnera and Callahan back in Geneva, Ill.

"Rude?" Thomas laughed. "I haven't heard it put quite that way. I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish I was involved in the Super Bowl because that's what every player ultimately points to. I've chosen to count my blessings. I was able to play 10 years in the city I call home. Kickers don't usually stay so long in the same vicinity."

Thomas spent the last 15 games of the 1985 season with the Chargers. Whereas he was--or should have been--an institution in Chicago, he was called upon to replace an institution in San Diego.

Thomas had to come in and adapt to a new center and a new holder, and replace a popular fellow who champions the cause of endangered animals, visits orphans, signs autographs in the middle of dinner and even had his picture in the paper escorting Brooke Shields to some black-tie affair.

This was Rolf Benirschke, who had been sidelined by a pulled groin muscle. Thomas was greeted as an interloper who had probably hired a hit man from Cicero to put Benirschke out of commission. Fans actually took time out from booing the defense and booed the kicker instead.

Circumstances simply did not favor Bob Thomas in 1985. He came to a team which changed holders as the season was starting and had to change centers because of injuries. He had some problems early in the year with missed extra points and later with a couple of blocked field goals at Denver. Such miscues are generally blamed on the placekicker, regardless of circumstances.

In truth, kicking is a "team" play. Picture Jack Nicklaus standing, club in hand, 20 feet from a guy holding the ball he is about to put in play. This guy throws the ball to a second guy who places the ball on the tee. Mandate that all of this must happen in 2.5 seconds and imagine how straight and long the shot might be.

In spite of the changes which kept the Chargers from fielding a smooth and consistent unit, Thomas still scored 105 points. This represented a career high.

Thomas was not aware of this.

"Really," he said. "I know last year, when I had 101 points, was my best with the Bears. In light of the obstacles here, this was probably one of my most rewarding years."

Except for this thing about being left at home in Chicago while the Bears are playing in their first Super Bowl.

"I don't have any hard feelings," he said. "I'm not new in this position. The same thing has happened to other guys and it'll happen to other people in the future. I guess it is kind of ironic. I held the Chicago Bears' scoring record and I made the Chicago Tribune's all-time Bear team, and it ends up I'm not on the team when it goes to the Super Bowl."

It also is kind of ironic that Bob Thomas also might have cause to wonder if he is a man without a team. He is a Charger, of course, but there is also the matter of Benirschke's possible return.

Since these two kickers are good friends, it would be a new sort of sticky situation.

"I hope and pray that Rolf is healthy," Thomas said. "I expected he'd be back this year, but he was out much longer than anyone anticipated. I hope Rolf's healthy and the Chargers have to make a decision, but I contend that there is a place in the National Football League for both Bob Thomas and Rolf Benirschke."

That place, this weekend, is not New Orleans.

"I'll just watch the game at the house," Thomas said. "I don't make a very good fan. I've watched from the stands a couple of times, and didn't really enjoy it."

One of the players he will be watching from afar will be that chap Payton, who now has the Bears' career scoring record. Bob Thomas can be excused if he is a bit smug about this. It took Payton two feet and an extra year to do it.

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