Former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas accomplished almost everything a pro football player can on the field, including five Pro Bowls, four Super Bowl appearances, an NFL MVP award and induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And yet, the first thing that comes to mind for many sports fans when they think of Thomas is a much more dubious honor: Losing his helmet before 1992’s Super Bowl XXVI vs. the Washington Redskins.
“I probably need to have a nice dinner with Bill Buckner,” Thomas deadpanned from his Buffalo office recently.
Just how much attention has been paid to Thomas’ mistake over the years? ESPN once ranked it the 33rd best moment in Super Bowl history, four spots ahead of Joe Namath’s guarantee prior to Super Bowl III. Teammate Bruce Smith even brought it up at the running back’s Hall of Fame induction in 2007, as Smith joked that he hid the helmet.
So just how did it happen?
Thomas had placed his helmet on the 34-yard line (the same number as his jersey) before kickoff as a pre-game ritual since his senior year in college. But when he went to pick it up, the helmet was gone. To this day, the incident is still a mystery to him.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even know the truth about it,” Thomas said.
For the record, it has been reported that the helmet was moved for a stage to accommodate Harry Connick Jr. performing the “Star Spangled Banner.” The lid was eventually found by a trainer and returned to Thomas, but the mishap caused him to miss the first two plays of the game.
Like most infamous sports moments, it’s been exaggerated over the years, only magnified by the fact Thomas rushed for just 13 yards that day. Judging by the gaffe’s infamy, you would think Thomas cost the Bills their second Super Bowl appearance instead of missing just two downs.
Thomas said nearly two decades later he doesn’t even try setting the record straight.
“It’s just pointless at this point in time,” Thomas said. “If people think that because I missed two plays, that cost us the Super Bowl, then so be it, you know?”
As hard as it may sound, Thomas also insists it doesn’t bother him to talk about it despite the endless questions and jokes.
“I laugh it off,” Thomas said. “It’s something that just happened. I can’t change it. I can’t do anything about it. I know when the Super Bowl rolls around, the media, the NFL Network or ESPN or whoever is going to bring it up. It’s part of my life now.”
While he says he has a good sense of humor about it, Thomas also likes to get the last laugh.
Said Thomas: “I tell people when I’m out or whenever someone asks me about the helmet issue, I say, ‘I found it. And you can find it, too. Go to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It’s there.’ ”
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