Over the course of 13 NFL seasons, a dozen of them with the Buffalo Bills, Thurman Thomas accomplished just about everything there is to accomplish as a football player, outside of winning a Super Bowl anyway. He was an NFL MVP, a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro, and easily one of the best all-around backs in history. And, yes, he did make four Super Bowl appearances but obviously never won one as the Bills famously lost four straight title games in the early ’90s.
However, as it is with many football players, there were consequences to his career path. While Thurman Thomas has enjoyed quite a bit of success as a businessman since retiring from the NFL, he’s also had to endure his fair share of problems, specifically concussion-related problems that have caused memory loss and mood swings.
It took Thurman Thomas a long time to speak publicly on the issue of concussions. But once he did, he began going to bat for better protocols, equipment, and treatment of concussions. He’s also spoken out on mental health, an issue that not only affected Thomas himself but his youngest daughter as well.
The NFL career of Thurman Thomas
Following a stellar career at Oklahoma State, where he was teammates with fellow Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas came to the NFL with a big chip on his shoulder. Projected as a high first-round pick in the 1988 NFL draft, Thomas fell to the second round as teams were scared that he hadn’t fully recovered from an ACL injury two years earlier. The Bills selected him with the 40th overall pick and he went on to become the leading rusher in franchise history.
While Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders always seemed to get more attention, Thurman Thomas may have been the best all-around back of the three. A threat as a runner and receiver, Thomas led the NFL in total yards from scrimmage in four consecutive seasons (1989-1992), breaking Jim Brown’s record of three, and was named NFL MVP in 1991.
Over the course of 12 seasons with the Bills, Thomas rushed for a franchise-record 11,938 yards and 65 touchdowns, also a Buffalo record, and added 4,341 receiving yards and another 23 scores. Thomas played his final NFL season with the Miami Dolphins in 2000 and ended his career with 16,532 total yards from scrimmage. His 12,074 rushing yards are still good for 16th on the all-time list. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, a five-time All-Pro selection (two First Team, three Second Team), a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
Thurman Thomas says his brain looks like one of a person that went ‘through the windshield of a car several times’
In 2016, after years of keeping quiet on the subject for fear of hurting the NFL, Thurman Thomas finally opened up about the effects of the numerous concussions he’d suffered in his 13-year career. Speaking at a concussion summit in Niagara Falls, Thomas recalled his first concussion with the Bills, saying he blacked out and couldn’t see a thing despite his eyes being wide open, before going into what he’d learned about his brain from a recent trip to the doctor.
He said that he was told his frontal lobe looked “similar to someone who has fallen off the top of a house, on to the front of his head, or [someone who went] through a windshield of a car several times.” Thomas shared stories of memory loss, including an instance in which he had to call his wife because he got lost on a street that he drives on all the time. The Bills’ all-time leading rusher also said that he experiences constant mood swings, one of the symptoms associated with CTE, and just wants things to be better for the next generation of players (h/t ESPN).
“Still to this day, I can’t control my mood swings. On so many days, I have to apologize to my family for them. I thank God that I have a family that understands the things that I’ve been through over my 13-year career, and even after my 14 or 15 years that I’ve been retired. They all understand that with my mood swings, sometimes I just can’t help it.
“One thing that I realized is that discussing the effects of concussions and the reality of the situation doesn’t make me less of a man, less tough, less loyal to the National Football League, a less love for the game. All it means is that I’m not an ignorant fool, and that I don’t ignore factual evidence that this is happening to not only football players, but [other athletes].”Thurman Thomas
Since then, Thurman Thomas has remained active in supporting concussion research and has also spoken on mental health.
He and his youngest daughter have spoken out about mental health
Thurman Thomas knows how frightening it is to deal with uncontrollable mood swings, which is why he’s been so supportive of his youngest daughter, Annika, during her battle with mental health issues.
A year after her father opened up about his issues, Annika Thomas opened up about her own challenges with depression, anxiety, and mood swings. Her issues began at an early age and worsened as she got older. When she and her father sat down with WGRZ in 2017, she admitted to having suicidal thoughts but sought out help and, like her father, only wants the best for others dealing with similar issues.
“It doesn’t have to be this stigma, it doesn’t have to be this horrible, horrible thing. If it was just common to talk about it and try to get help, things would be so much better.”Annika Thomas
Late last year, the Thomas family was given the Mental Health Advocates of Western New York Benefactor Award.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference