JANUARY 20, 1992
When former All-Pro running back Thurman Thomas stepped to the podium to address Purdue and Washington football players at a luncheon before the Sun Bowl in December, he knew they wanted to hear the secret to his stellar 13-year NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins—what drove him to 12,074 career rushing yards, four consecutive Super Bowls, five Pro Bowls selections and the 1991 MVP award. They wanted to know what made him run. Instead, they learned what made him hide.
"I wasn't going to talk about this," he said into the microphone, letting the speech in his head give way to the message in his heart. "I'm a recovering alcoholic."
Thomas had been out of a rehab center only one week when he spoke at the luncheon. He explained how he became a heavy drinker shortly after his football career ended in November 2000, when he blew out his right knee in his ninth game with the Dolphins. "I began staying in the house [and drinking]," he says. "I was used to going to practice, going to games."
At dinner with his wife, Patti, and some friends one night, Thomas kept excusing himself to go to the bathroom and went instead to the bar. It was after that episode that Patti told him she was tired of his problem, and his daughter Olivia wrote him a letter saying, I know that some families break up over alcoholism. I don't want to lose my family. Her letter, Thomas says, "blew me away." A week later he entered a treatment center.
Thomas's bout with alcoholism wasn't the first time he had to deal with adversity. Though he enjoyed great individual achievement in the NFL, Thomas suffered more embarrassment than most of his teammates when the Bills became the second team to lose four Super Bowls. He missed the opening series of Super Bowl XXVI against the Washington Redskins because he couldn't find his helmet on the sideline. He fumbled twice against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII, leading to 10 Dallas points.
The lessons learned from his on-field setbacks and personal struggles led him to create Thurman Thomas Enterprises, a program launched in January that is designed to teach athletes how to manage performance anxiety, become a team leader, handle the media and understand a range of legal issues. Thomas, who lives outside Orlando with Patti and their four children (Olivia, 13; Angel, 11; Annika, 6; and Thurman III, 19 months), is also vice president of business development for Convergence Techno Media, a firm that produces websites, brochures and promotional videos for businesses, and he's a partner in Sports Media Group, which specializes in providing high-tech hardware, such as plasma televisions, to arenas and stadiums. In between he tries to attend his daughters' softball games and golf tournaments.
Thomas doesn't worry that he's trying to do too much. "After losing four Super Bowls," he says, "I can handle just about anything."