The guitar is driving Henry Thomas nuts. The Detroit Lions' 6'2", 277-pound defensive tackle just can't get the hang of playing it, and that is bugging him something fierce. Everything else in his busy life is just fine, thank you. He enjoys showing the young guys on his new team the techniques that made him a sack king in his eight years with the Minnesota Vikings. His motorcycles give him as much pleasure as ever, and his bowling average is holding steady at 180. He and Eyvonne, his bride of nine months, are getting along fine. But when Thomas goes one-on-one with the guitar, he gets whipped. Badly. Every time.
"I stink," says Thomas. "It makes me angry that I can't do it. But I will master the damn thing. Before I go back to Houston, I will be playing it."
Houston is Thomas's hometown. It is where until 1984 his dad, Henry Sr., ran a restaurant that catered to big men who wore rings in their ears and chips on their shoulders. It is where his father and his stepmother, Rose, taught him to love bowling and where he started tinkering with motorcycles. It is also where he learned to play football well enough to earn a scholarship to LSU. As a senior there in 1986 he made the All-SEC team.
The Vikings picked Thomas in the third round of the '87 draft, and he quickly became one of the best picks in franchise history. In 1991 and '92 Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl. Since 1982, when the NFL began tracking sacks, no two players from one team have combined for more sacks in a regular season than the 27 he and Keith Millard had in 1989. And with their 21.5 sacks in 1993, Thomas and John Randle are second on that list.
After the 1994 season, though, the Vikings asked Thomas to take a cut in pay for cap purposes. Figuring no team would offer him enough money to leave Minneapolis, they shrugged when he vowed to test the free-agent market. Big mistake. Nineteen of the NFL's 30 teams were interested, and Thomas signed a three-year, $7.35 million deal with the Lions. Thomas has proved worth the investment, with 32 tackles and four sacks in seven games with Detroit.
The Lions aren't the only team benefiting from Thomas's move. Soon after relocating, Thomas began frequenting the 300 Bowl bowling alley in suburban Detroit, and he was assigned to a Thursday night league. Is the Pro Bowler a pro bowler? "Nah," Henry says. "I just do it for the fun of it."
The same goes for biking. Thomas owns three Harley-Davidsons, but the only one he keeps in Detroit is the $25,000 bronze hog with a badlands mural painted on the side. He helped build it last winter at a garage in Minnesota and rides it everywhere. "I look pretty menacing with my bald head, my leathers and my earring hanging out," Thomas says. "People have to look at me and think, That's a gang all by itself. I love it."
Restless, inquisitive and hopelessly in love with life, Thomas gets the blues—or the blues get him—every Friday after practice, when he attends his guitar lesson. He just wants to be able to play a little Lightnin' Hopkins, a little Muddy Waters, even a little Eric Clapton. Heck, he'll be delighted if he can learn one song before he returns to Houston for the off-season. Unfortunately the hands that serve him so well in football, bowling and biking betray him with the guitar. "My fingers are so fat," he moans, "that I keep hitting strings I'm not supposed to be hitting."