It may come as an embarrassment to the rest of the National Football League and as ridicule to the legion of doubting Thomases, but Duane Thomas will play for the Washington Redskins this season.
Thomas, you will recall, is a running back of exceptional gifts, not the least of which is an almost perfect reticence. He was traded to San Diego last season from Dallas, which he had led to the 1972 Super Bowl and victory therein over the Miami Dolphins. At the same time he lost Coach Tom Landry, many of his teammates and most NFL fans with his protracted silences and other specimens of antisocial behavior. At San Diego he not only wasn't heard, he wasn't seen; he suited up for only one game, but didn't play.
Thomas came to the Redskins last month in a trade in which Coach George Allen, whose affinity for the wretched refuse of the NFL shores is renowned, gave the Chargers two of the draft choices he still owned in this decade—his No. 1 pick for 1975 and his No. 2 for 1976. Ever since Thomas arrived at the Skins' training camp in Carlisle, Pa., Allen has shielded him from fans, reporters, photographers and any other offensive distractions. So far Allen's solicitousness has paid off.
Last Friday night against the Buffalo Bills, who had the temerity to invite the Redskins to the opening of their brand-new stadium, Thomas ran for 70 yards on 16 carries, scored one touchdown and caught three passes for 42 yards—all in a half night's work. More important, he rushed with the deceptive, long loping stride that had been his trademark as a Cowboy. He changed speeds, broke tackles, blocked well and used his blockers efficiently. The performance earned Thomas a game ball and gave further hope to Washington fans who have been anticipating with relish the ground attack the team will launch if Thomas occupies the same backfield as Larry Brown, who didn't play in Buffalo but was the NFC rushing leader last season.
Sad to relate, Thomas' nifty work appealed to the baser instincts of some of the sellout crowd of 80,020. Frustrated by the Bills' ineptness, which was evident from the very first play—the Skins' Herb Mul-Key returned the opening kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown—and with O. J. Simpson sidelined by a cracked rib, the fans had little to cheer about. So they resorted to the hooliganism that used to mark games at War Memorial Stadium, a dilapidated edifice that still holds the NFL record for pigeon guano and sideline muggings. Near the end of the game, which the Redskins won 37-21, Thomas went after one abusive lout. "He got one leg over a six-foot-high concrete wall," said teammate Ron McDole, "but we got him down." "A few people threw things at him and called him obscene names," said Allen. "Let's face it, you or I wouldn't have stood for it." On his way to the locker room, Thomas was again bombarded with obscenities and garbage. The fans were suitably rewarded by the worst traffic jam in Buffalo history, seemingly hexed on them by Thomas' hate-filled gaze.
If the kind of revilement Thomas got doesn't give Allen new cause for grinding his teeth, the prospect of his being cornered by the press does, for the worry persists that Duane will freak out for the slightest reason.
"When the time comes," Allen says, "when he's had more success, when he's ingrained into the Redskins' family, then he'll be open to the media. He's had a lot of bad publicity. He's been misrepresented and he probably views the press as people he can't trust. I don't blame him. The main thing is for him to succeed. I'm just hoping we can have Duane through the whole season. He's a very sensitive person who wants to be left alone. I respect that, and the type of team we have, a mature team, understands. I don't know what's in his mind, I just know he isn't ready for that yet. Something might make him withdraw. A lot of guys are more interested in getting a story than they are in seeing someone saved."
For the salvation of Duane Thomas, Allen has thus discouraged all interviews. This policy may be academic, since Thomas hasn't shown an inclination to hold press conferences, but to those attempting to cover the Redskins it is another indication of Allen's unreasonableness. In contrast to many other NFL camps, the locker room, players' rooms and practice fields, apart from the running track, are off-limits to reporters. Allen also has a rule against the working press sitting on his treasured running track during practice, presumably because he does not regard it as seemly for some to sit while others toil.
Whether such restrictions have helped or not, Thomas has been the hardest-working Redskin. Preparing for the Buffalo exhibition, Allen sent his team through 2�-hour workouts on Tuesday and Wednesday, then watched Thomas spend an extra 30 minutes on his own conditioning and warm-down drills. Like the eagerest rookie, Thomas has volunteered to play on the special teams and he has also gone out in the mornings to run himself back into condition, much to the delight of Charlie Waller, who coaches the offensive backs.
"He's been giving himself two-a-days," Waller marvels. "I got out here the other morning and he was sweating like a horse. I was quoted as saying, 'You don't just park a brand-new Cadillac in the garage for a year and expect it to start right up again a year later,' but he's making great progress. He's an ideal guy to work with. He's a hard worker who's putting everything into it. You know all the things you've heard about this guy. It's all been negative. People said it would be impossible, and that only sharpened the challenge but, frankly, I haven't done anything. He's done it all himself."