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No NFL running back performed in the 1990s like Barry Sanders did for the Detroit Lions. However, his old Oklahoma State teammate came pretty close to keeping pace. Thurman Thomas didn’t get all the recognition he deserved on a star-studded Buffalo Bills offense, but he did earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thomas started 154 of a possible 160 games in his first decade in the NFL, and one of the keys to his durability was that he kept his head on a swivel. There were two defenders in particular that Thomas made a habit of keeping an eye on.

Thurman Thomas’ greatness was apparent in college

When Jimmy Johnson left Oklahoma State to coach the University of Miami, he didn’t exactly leave the cupboard bare for Pat Jones. The Cowboys went 44-15 from 1984-89, and much of the credit belonged to running backs Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders, whose careers overlapped for two seasons on the field.

Thomas piled up 4,847 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground in his four seasons at OSU. A torn ACL between Thomas’ sophomore and junior seasons scared some teams heading into the NFL draft, and he landed with the Buffalo Bills as the No. 40 pick overall.

Thomas was only the eighth running back selected, a miscalculation that general managers around the league would regret for years. Thomas finished with more than twice the number of yards from scrimmage as any other back taken in the 1988 draft.

The running back excelled on a team full of stars

The Buffalo Bills made it to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s with a star-studded lineup on both sides of the ball, led by quarterback Jim Kelly and defensive end Bruce Smith. But the franchise was stocked with plenty of other talent, including receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton.

When it came to moving the chains, Thurman Thomas could do it on the ground or through the air. Thomas put up eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, with at least six touchdowns on the ground in each of them. But Thomas was also a Kelly favorite on pass plays, averaging 47 catches a season over the same stretch and totaling another 20 TDs.

For his work, Thomas earned first-team All-Pro status twice and was elected to Pro Bowls five times. But Thomas’ job seldom ended when the regular season did. With the Bills perennial contenders, Thomas appeared in 21 playoff games, including the four Super Bowls. He finished with 1,442 rushing yards and 672 on receptions.

That means he averaged better than 100 yards from scrimmage per game to go along with 21 touchdowns – output that qualifies him as one of the most clutch postseason players ever.

Thurman Thomas made sure he always knew where two defenders were

Thurman Thomas was remarkably durable for a back who carried 2,877 times and made 472 catches over the course of his career. He did that in part by remaining aware of where the biggest, baddest defenders were at all times. In an interview with, Thomas pointed to San Francisco 49ers great Ronnie Lott as the toughest defender her ever faced.

“That was a guy that I always said I didn’t want to be on any highlight films of Ronnie Lott,” Thomas said. “He was a guy that, I wasn’t afraid of, but I was always aware of where he was on the field.”

Thomas’ candidate for the scariest defender — Lawrence Taylor — was the guy who gave everyone nightmares.

“I only played against Lawrence maybe 4-5 times, but it’s one of those deals where you walk into the meeting room on Monday morning, and you say, ‘OK, where is No. 56?’

Thurman Thomas

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.


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