The scene on the Buffalo Bills sideline was chaotic as they were about to take the field against the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI. Bulls running back and NFL MVP Thurman Thomas was frantically searching for his helmet as the Bills’ offense was set to take the field first. Backup running back Kenneth Davis was forced to start the game because Thomas’ helmet was nowhere to be found.
Thurman Thomas’ Hall-of-Fame career
Thurman Thomas played his college football at Oklahoma State where he played four years and racked up 43 touchdowns and 4,847 yards as the featured running back. After his sophomore season, he tore his ACL and missed the early part of his junior year. That injury caused Thomas to slip into the second round of the 1988 NFL draft, where he was selected by the Buffalo Bills.
Thomas spent 12 of his 13 NFL seasons in Buffalo, playing in four Super Bowls. He had eight straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and made the Pro Bowl five times. Thomas was a dual-threat out of the backfield. For four straight seasons, he led the league in yards from scrimmage. In 1993, Thomas led the league in rushing attempts and touches.
In his 12 years with the Buffalo Bills, Thomas racked up 11,938 rushing yards and finished with 65 rushing touchdowns. He added 22 more scores through the air. He finished his career with one season with the Miami Dolphins, playing nine games, starting none of them, and catching one touchdown pass. Thomas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007.
The Super Bowl years
The Buffalo Bills had a high-octane offense led by quarterback Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, and wide receiver Andre Reed. For four straight seasons, the Bills were champions of the AFC but never were able to win a Super Bowl. The closest they came was in Super Bowl XXV when kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal in the final seconds as the Bills lost to the New York Giants 20-19.
In that game, Thomas was outstanding. He rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown. Thomas also caught five passes for 55 yards. In Buffalo’s three other Super Bowls, however, Thomas struggled. He rushed for a combined 69 yards in the three games.
Thomas was known for missing the first two plays of Super Bowl XXVI because he was unable to find his helmet. There have been many stories regarding the helmet. To this day, Thomas still doesn’t know what happened to it. It was eventually found and he was able to get back in the game, although finding the helmet may have been the highlight of that game for the Bills, who lost 37-24.
What happened to the helmet?
There were several stories was to what happened to Thurman Thomas’ helmet, including Bruce Smith joking during his Hall-of-Fame speech that he took it. Although there has never been a definitive answer as to how the helmet was misplaced, the most logical answer was theorized by Dave Hojnowski, the Buffalo Bills equipment manager that year.
“Thurman used to put his helmet down in the same spot before every game,” Hojnowski told BuffaloBills.com in 2011. “It was always on the table where we would keep the drinks. It was right to the left of that behind the bench for the offense. So Thurman is looking for where he put it and it’s not there. Thurman was frantic, running around to all of us saying he couldn’t find his helmet.
“I believe that (Randy) “Woody” (Ribbeck) might have been the one to find it,” said Hojnowski of his assistant equipment manager. “It was found at the other end of the bench. That would be on the defensive end of the bench. Throughout the Redskins’ first series and our first play on offense we’re not thinking it’s down at the other end of the bench. I firmly believe that one of his teammates picked up Thurman’s helmet thinking it was theirs and walked to the other end of the bench and realized it wasn’t his helmet, put it down, and then went to find his own.”
Hojnowski said Bills coach Marv Levy was cursing at him for the lost helmet. “I’m guessing it had to be someone with a similar facemask to (Thomas),” he said. “We had a few guys with that kind of facemask that year, but I don’t think we’ll ever know who it was for sure. It makes for a better story to blame the equipment guy for it anyway.”