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The Case of the Disappearing Helmet : Why in hell couldn't it have been where Thurman Thomas left it? He put it down near the bench like he always does, then it disappeared. Incident in 37-24 loss in Super Bowl XXVI continues to haunt Bills' back.

October 04, 1992|PAUL ATTNER | THE SPORTING NEWS

The missing helmet. It has become his albatross. He tries to shrug it off now, saying it no longer bothers him. But he isn't very convincing. It eats away at him, knowing that his short but already magnificent pro football career is indelibly marred by a lousy helmet.

"I don't think it matters what I do anymore," Thurman Thomas says with bitterness. "I will always be remembered for the helmet. I don't think that is fair."

He goes out each Sunday now, prodded by memories of that misplaced helmet and all the other debris left over from Super Bowl XXVI. What should have been a fitting showcase for a landmark season instead became a personal hell. Instead of singing his praises, people laughed at his Buffalo Bills and at him.

Will the laughter ever go away?

He is the best player in the National Football League. He has a bunch of 1991 MVP and Player of the Year trophies to prove it. In a sport dominated by glamour-boy quarterbacks, this squat running back with shifty legs and golden hands has demonstrated that a blue-collar work ethic and consistency can earn big-time rewards. His should be a story of celebration.

Instead, a missing helmet--and the laughter--keep getting in the way.

These pro athletes. They're earning all this money and the guy can't even find his helmet at the Super Bowl. Can you believe that? He says he doesn't get enough respect and recognition. Well, he'll be recognized now. Ha, ha, ha.

New England wide receiver Hart Lee Dykes and Thomas are best friends. They relish trying to stump each other with sports trivia questions. One day last summer, Dykes called him. "Thurman, guess what? From now on, you and your helmet will be a permanent trivia question." They giggled like little kids. But Dykes isn't sure Thomas would think it funny coming from anyone else.

Why in hell couldn't the helmet have been where he left it? He put it down near the bench like he always does, then it disappeared. For their first two plays of Super Bowl XXVI, while Thomas searched frantically for the missing helmet, the Bills had to use his backup, Kenneth Davis. Under other circumstances, Thomas' miscue would have been shrugged off. But not at this Super Bowl. Not after the Bills absorbed a devastating 37-24 defeat at the hands of Washington. Not after Thomas, the MVP of the league, stumbled to a meager 13 yards rushing.

"Do people really think I'd be stupid enough to not know where the helmet should be?" says Thomas, 26. "It got moved. No one knows why to this day. You really can't explain it. When I think back on it, I should have known something was going to happen bad. It was a culmination of a nightmare. But what really frustrates me is that people were talking after the game like I was the reason we lost. Anyone who thinks that because I missed two plays we lost is a damn fool. A damn fool."

It was one thing for Buffalo to lose heroically, as the Bills did against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. But it is quite another story when you have a few players stir up controversy, as Buffalo did in the days before Super Bowl XXVI, and then get embarrassed in the game itself. Thomas especially left himself no room for error, not after a series of mistakes that included: 1) bolting a mandatory media session because he was upset about waiting way beyond his appointed time; 2) touting himself the next day at another news conference by saying the Bills had two Michael Jordans, he and quarterback Jim Kelly; and 3) contending that he didn't get enough recognition and respect--even though he had just been selected the league's MVP, the epitome of recognition and respect.

Then, to go out and lose a helmet and gain only 13 yards and complain in the locker room afterward that the coaches misused him. And, then to follow that up a week later at the Pro Bowl by saying that if Buffalo fans wanted to blame him for the loss, maybe it would be best for him to get a fresh start somewhere else. Well, no wonder critics called him cocky, arrogant and selfish. In many ways, they are right. And wrong. But that is the fascination--and mystery--behind the complex personality of Thurman Thomas.

"Cocky." The word spits out of Thomas' mouth. His fist slams on the table. "Arrogant." Another slam. "Selfish." Bam. "I'm a good person," he says, his eyes closing in anger. "But all I saw written about me after the Super Bowl were those three words. OK. My heroes used to be Earl Campbell, Michael and Magic. But now I have three more. If people want to look at me this way, then my other heroes are Charles Barkley, Jose Canseco and Barry Bonds."

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