Running the no-huddle offense, the Bills won four consecutive AFC Championships (1990-93). As a running back who was an effective rusher, blocker and receiver out of the backfield, Thomas was an integral part of that offense.
Thomas, the Bills' all-time leading rusher with 11,938 yards, holds the NFL record as the only player to lead the league in yards from scrimmage four consecutive years. He was named the NFL Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year in 1991 and was named to the Pro Bowl five times.
"We set the trend on that," Thomas said Friday at The Salvation Army's annual Souper Bowl for the Hungry at the Holiday Inn. "Obviously, the game has changed. The offense with (quarterback) Jim Kelly, (wide receivers) Andre Reed and James Lofton, we now see a lot of similarities of what we were doing.
"One of our former players, Frank Reich, the backup to Jim, just got named coach of the Colts. I saw his press conference where he said, 'We're going to run the no-huddle and impose our will on everybody.' I will be watching the Colts and all the guys have talked about going to Indy when the Bills play the Colts. We support Frank, but we want to see the Bills win."
The Bills' teams of the early 1990s were star-studded on both sides of the ball. The defense boasted such talents as the NFL's all-time sack leader Bruce Smith and linebacker Darryl Talley. But, it was more than football that led to them becoming such close friends and Thomas' commitment to serving others.
"I was around great people on my team," said Thomas, who was elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008. "During our time and even after that, the players have become really, really close. It started with Jim Kelly, who at the time had a son named Hunter who was diagnosed with Krabbe disease. To see a father go through something like that, we became very, very close with the Kelly family. Hunter passed years ago and everybody was grieving at a down point.
"We honored Hunter at golf tournaments and charity events, and then Jim got the news he had cancer. That's when my involvement with Jim, it was like we were brothers, but we were really brothers now. With that, my wife and I decided we needed to get out in the community and do more than we had been doing. These past 3-4 years, we've done everything we can to help everybody. I'm here for a reason and that’s to help people."
Back in his playing days, Thomas was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma State (1985, 1987), where Barry Sanders served as his backup his final two years. Thomas also played alongside quarterback Mike Gundy, the Cowboys' current head coach, and graduated as the school's all-time leading rusher with 5,001 yards — a record which he still holds.
Thomas joked about starting ahead of Sanders, who rushed for an NCAA record 2,850 yards in his only season as the Cowboys' starting running back.
"It means either I was a great player or my coach didn't know what the heck he was doing," Thomas said. "But, we were together for two years. He was a freshman, 18 years old, and he just wasn't ready. The only teams that recruited him were Oklahoma State and Kansas State. He was raw, but you could tell you had something here.
"His first year, my junior year, he ran the season-opening kickoff back 100 yards. The following year, he does it again. As we go through the season, you would see the things you never really saw in practice. He would get in the game and you would be like, 'He could really be something.' I was in Buffalo and he was drafted by Detroit, so we stayed really close and have been close ever since."
Both rank among the NFL's all-time rushing and all-purpose yards leaders. Thomas had 16,532 all-purpose yards, which rank him 19th on the NFL's all-time list, in 12 seasons with the Bills and one with the Miami Dolphins. He also set a number of NFL playoff records, including nine consecutive games with a touchdown and 21 touchdowns overall.
Still, the questions that always haunt Thomas and the other Bills are about being the only team to lose four straight Super Bowls. Regardless, they remain beloved in Buffalo, where so many of the former players still live and feel they fit in with a blue-collar town.
"We all look back and say ‘looking back, making four Super Bowls is incredible — something pretty hard to do,’" Thomas said. "Obviously, we would have liked to have won one. When will that happen again? The Patriots have been to two in a row now, but can they make it four in a row? We get the question and answer it the best way we can, but we always imagine ‘what if we had won four in a row?’
"There's tons of players who never have been to one (Super Bowl) or had the success we had. It used to bother us when we still played, but when you move on in life, some clown on a radio show might call me a loser, but you go to Canton, Ohio (at the Pro Football Hall of Fame), you will see a bust of me there."