Discover how rookie sensation Duane Thomas threw away a chance at becoming an all-time running back great.
Duane Thomas possessed all the physical skills to be one of the all-time great running backs in the National Football Leauge. The consensus among pro scouts had the West Texas State product as the best running back to come along since Jim Brown.
Yet, Duane Thomas was his own worst enemy.
Drafted with the twenty-third selection in the first round of the 1970 NFL draft, Thomas won Rookie of the Year while rushing for 803 yards and a league-leading 5.3 yards per carry.
With Thomas in the backfield, the Cowboys reached the Super Bowl in Duane’s first two seasons.
If not for his refusal to speak with the media leading up to Super Bowl VI, Duane would have won MVP honors for the game.
Yet, despite his moodiness and personality quirks, the future appeared to be unlimited for Thomas.
But a self-destructive streak in Duane would cause him to throw a promising career away.
Duane Julius Thomas was born on June 21, 1947 in Dallas, Texas. Thomas grew up in the ghetto of Dallas, while being shuffled from relative to relative and never experiencing a stable home throughout his childhood.
Thomas’ football skills enabled him to excel in high school, receiving a scholarship to play at West Texas State where he played in the same backfield as Mercury Morris.
While at North Texas State, Duane Thomas had issues with the coaching staff and trainers that would foreshadow his playing career in the NFL.
Once when he had been taken out of a game, an irate Thomas slammed his helmet to the ground and berated an assistant coach.
Another incident involved a disagreement with the team trainer over how his injury should be treated.
If it wasn’t one thing it was the next for the star tailback.
Yet, there was never any question that Duane Thomas practiced hard and gave anything but his all during games.
It was the time when he wasn’t on the field that was the problem.
Cowboys take a chance on Thomas
As is often the case, players with discipline problems get a reputation that is hard to shake.
Duane Thomas was no exception.
The word around the league was the gifted but troublesome Thomas was too much of a risk to waste your time scouting. The Philadelphia Eagles’ scouting report had this entry: “Thomas has a history of being a troublemaker, and history repeats itself.”
But Dallas was willing to overlook the problems and had Thomas ranked as the third best player on their draft board.
The Cowboys were set at running back with Pro Bowl and 1969 Rookie of the Year Calvin Hill and fullback Walt Garrison.
Running back was a position of strength on the team, but Cowboys scout Red Hickey couldn’t stop talking about the talented West Texas State senior.
As Hickey continued to sell Landry on Thomas, he made the bold statement that Duane Thomas was hands-down the best running back in the country.
And he added, if he came to the Cowboys… Duane would without question be the starting running back.
After hearing that, Landry decided he could handle the free-spirited running back.
Good Duane/Bad Duane
When Duane Thomas arrived for his first training camp, he worked hard and was pleasant to be around.
Calvin Hill was ineffective due to nagging injuries early in the season, which prompted Landry to insert Thomas into the lineup. Starting quarterback Craig Morton was playing through a separated shoulder and the Cowboys relied heavily on Thomas and the running game.
He didn’t disappoint. Rushing for 803 yards and leading the Cowboys to Super Bowl V.
With no more football to be played until training camp the following season, Duane was a lost soul. Maybe the anger and resentment he carried with him had finally reached a boiling point.
Was it drugs? Nobody knew since there was no testing in those days.
Whatever it was, Tex Schramm felt Thomas’ absurd behavior went beyond a drug problem. The young man needed help.
He approached Schramm about renegotiating his contract but the Cowboys had a policy against the practice until the last year of a contract.
After making $75,000 his rookie season including a $25,000 bonus and incentives, Thomas was flat broke.
When Schramm told Thomas the club didn’t renegotiate Calvin Hill’s contract after his rookie year, Duane said, “But I’m not Calvin Hill.”
Upset over the Cowboys’ refusal to adhere to his demands, Duane jetted off to Los Angeles and fell into the drug-infested hippie counter-culture.
On his return flight from his Los Angeles trip, the stewardess asked Duane to turn the volume down on his transistor radio as the plane was taxiing into takeoff position.
When Thomas became belligerent and refused, he was booted off the plane.
The following season Thomas was a late arrival to training camp. When he finally showed up, a man wearing a dashiki (a colorful West Africa garment) going by the name of Ali ha ka Kabir was in tow.
Duane wanted Kabir to get a tryout with the team and stay with him in his dorm room.
… you can imagine how that went over.
After Schramm refused the tryout, both men stood and stared eerily at Tex for a few minutes, then abruptly left the facility.
A few days later, Duane showed up in Dallas and called for a press conference. Thomas went on a rambling, mostly incoherent rant about how badly the Cowboys had mistreated him because he was black and wanted a trade.
Thomas called Schramm “sick, demented, and dishonest”, Landry “a plastic man, actually no man at all” and Gil Brandt “a liar.” He also wanted an $80,000 salary plus incentives to return to the Cowboys.
After this fiasco, it was clear Duane had no intention of reporting to training camp.
The Cowboys send Thomas packing … or did they?
The Cowboys were able to find a willing victim to take on the talented but troubled running back in the form of the New England Patriots. Dallas traded Thomas, lineman Halvor Hagen, and wide receiver Honor Jackson to New England. In return, the Cowboys received running back Carl Garrett and a first round draft pick.
When Thomas reported to the Patriots, he refused to take a mandatory physical, fueling speculation that he was doing drugs.
In his first practice with the team, he refused to line up in a three—point stance on the instruction of head coach John Mazur. Duane fired back that he had always lined up in the ‘I’ formation with his hands just above his knees and he wasn’t changing.
A furious Mazur booted Thomas off the field and it was the last the Patriots ever saw of him. Soon after, Pete Rozelle nullified the trade making Thomas the property of the Dallas Cowboys once again.
Tex Schramm objected loudly over the trade reversal saying the Patriots knew they were getting a player with baggage, but Rozelle’s ruling stood.
Duane Thomas eventually showed up in Dallas three games into the regular season and subbed for an injured Calvin Hill after just one week of practice. Duane stepped onto the field and ran as if he had been with the team since the opening of training camp.
He would go on to rush for 793 yards in only 11 games while being a constant disruption to the team.
Team rules specified a coat and tie be worn on road game flights. Duane showed up with his shirt unbuttoned and his tie over his shoulder with a stocking cap pulled over his ears.
Thomas would often refuse to answer role call in team meetings and refused to talk to the media. He saved some of his harshest comments for assistant coach Dan Reeves, telling him once, “I met some wrong people in Dallas, and would you believe you’re one of them.”
During the Super Bowl press interviews, Duane would sit alone in the bleachers while the media swarmed around his teammates. After the Super Bowl win against the Dolphins, Duane gave an unusual (but not unexpected) interview filled with ridiculous answers.
After the game, Thomas went straight back to his hotel room and stared at the ceiling. He simply didn’t want to deal with the outside world.
Enough is enough
Shortly after the Cowboys had returned to Dallas, Duane Thomas and his brother decided to drive out to the West Coast, presumably to resume his involvement with drugs. Tex had pleaded with Duane not to return to Los Angeles but the stubborn Thomas went anyway.
The Thomas brothers got as far as Greenville, Texas before they were pulled over by police and arrested for possession of marijuana. Marijuana possession was a serious crime in the early ’70s and Duane could have been sentenced up to 30 years in prison.
Duane received probation out of the deal and Schramm—who many believe was behind the setup—was able to keep Thomas away from the bad influences in Los Angeles.
On the flight out to Thousand Oaks, California for training camp in 1972, Duane had instructed a man to take his seat on the team charter. Upon their arrival, the man said he was told by Thomas that he was going to try out for the Cowboys.
So, the Cowboys had this guy running routes in sweatpants and work boots, and it was obvious to everyone that he couldn’t play. When Gil Brandt came out to the practice field and questioned who this guy was, he told them to “get that guy the h*ll off the field.”
They never saw the guy again.
When Duane Thomas finally arrived for training camp, his weight was down as a result of his becoming a vegetarian and he was refusing to eat with the team. He was even more reclusive than the previous season, which hardly seemed possible.
Landry tried to talk with Duane after he had missed practice to explain what he had to do to be a member of the team. Thomas explained that he didn’t feel like practicing and was only paid to perform on Sundays.
After this incident, even the exceedingly patient Landry had reached his limit.
One more chance
The Cowboys found an eager trading partner in the San Diego Chargers who coveted Duane’s game-breaking running skills. In return for the troubled running back, Dallas received running back Mike Montgomery and wide receiver Billy Parks.
The Chargers even drove to the Cowboys’ training camp to pick him up.
Duane Thomas held out all of training camp and the first week of the regular season over a contract dispute before reporting to the Chargers.
Inactive since reporting to the team in September, Thomas dressed and was eligible to play for the first time in a November game against the Cowboys. During pre-game warmups, Thomas refused to participate and stood alone in the end zone far away from his teammates.
He never played a down for San Diego.
The following week, Thomas missed a practice and was put on the reserve list, making him ineligible for the remainder of the 1972 season.
In July, 1973, Thomas and the Chargers had apparently agreed to a new contract. Duane was to sign the new deal on the day he reported to camp, but he didn’t show up until noon the following day.
Chargers’ head coach Harland Svare immediately suspended Thomas for being a day late and told his general manager to send the troublesome running back home.
Three days later, the Charges dealt Thomas to the Washington Redskins for a No. 1 pick in ‘75 and a No. 2 in ‘76. After two unproductive seasons as a backup in Washington, Duane joined the World Football League for the 1975 season.
The following year, Tom Landry received a surprise call from Duane asking for a tryout proclaiming he was a different person.
Thomas showed up and was cooperative as anybody on the team, but the speed and talent that made him special was gone and Thomas was cut at the end of the preseason.
Three years later, Duane tried out for the Green Bay Packers but was cut again.
For all practical purposes, Duane Thomas’ career ended at age 24—the point when most running backs are just entering their prime.