|In the driver's seat of a motor home, Thomas' journey to Canton nears completion|
|Written by Admin|
|Sunday, 29 July 2007 10:20|
Thomas had slept in, running late in an attempt to eke out every last minute of what a self-proclaimed ``man of leisure'' considered his final day of summer vacation this past weekend. Soon, the motor home - its finicky transmission repaired at a garage in Albany - had to be picked up and packed.
Then would come the five-hour drive to Buffalo to visit family and friends: the trek marking the second-to-last leg of a journey to Canton, Ohio. That's where the former Buffalo Bills star running back will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
But all of that could wait for a moment.
Thomas stopped to take one last glimpse from the back yard of his friends' five-acre, two-home spread perched on a ridge that provided a postcard view as the gray mist lifted to expose the calm lake and green, rolling mountains.
``You like it?'' Thomas said, walking through the wet tall grass that was supposed to be his responsibility to cut. ``I love it. That's why we come here every year.''
``OK,'' Thomas announced to his wife, Patti, and their two youngest children, eventually breaking the silence. ``Let's move out.''
Thomas and family have been making this annual trip to Lake George since he retired after the 2000 season, ending a 13-year career, highlighted by helping the Bills win four straight AFC championships in the 1990s. This visit felt different and not only because it lasted five days as opposed to the two weeks they usually spend.
For Thomas, the road trip that began in Orlando, Fla., some 10 days earlier, also represented the winding and climactic path his football career had taken. And the closer he approached his final destination, passing turnoffs for Cooperstown and Canandaigua, Rome and Rochester along the New York State Thruway, the more the anticipation began to sink in.
The reminders were everywhere.
As Thomas searched for a belt in his bag, he came across the Hall of Fame tie he'll wear at the induction. Then, there was the surprised family of four that stopped for pictures after recognizing Thomas at a gas station.
And then there was the time six weeks ago, when the Hall of Fame sent Thomas the gold jacket he'll wear to make sure it fit. Waiting until he was alone at home, Thomas slipped on the jacket and cried.
``I didn't think I was gonna,'' Thomas said. ``When I put it on and it fit, a little tear came out. I mean, as a professional athlete and as a man, you don't think you're going to cry just by trying on a jacket. But ...''
So there Thomas sat with the rare look of a man contented, firmly in the driver's seat with both hands on the wheel.
``I played as long as I wanted to. I did it. It's over with. It's done,'' said Thomas, who holds seven Bills rushing and scoring records and stands 12th in the NFL with 12,074 career yards rushing and eighth with 16,532 career yards from scrimmage. ``Now I'm going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.''
Thomas' retirement hasn't been entirely easy. Initially, he had difficulty finding something to replace the routine that accompanied each season and the adrenaline rush that came with every game.
In December 2002, Thomas was being honored at the Sun Bowl when he announced he was a recovering alcoholic.
``I think I became bored a little bit,'' Thomas said. ``It wasn't like the first year, bam. It happened gradually.''
Sipping from his third can of diet soda of the day, Thomas acknowledged that he still struggles with alcoholism.
``I still have a long way to go,'' he said. ``But I do have a little grip on it where I say, 'OK, one glass, two glasses and I'm done.'''
Thomas touched on other topics, as well.
He was unhappy how the Bills alienated their alumni during team president Tom Donahoe's five-year tenure that ended with his dismissal in January 2006. With Marv Levy back with the franchise as general manager, Thomas is open to working with the Bills again in a promotional capacity.
He's also unhappy with his alma mater, Oklahoma State, which declined to help him when he attempted to re-enroll to complete his degree in hotel and restaurant management. Thomas plans to attend Florida Metropolitan University in Orlando this fall to begin earning his remaining credits.
Thomas' true goal is to buy a 200-acre spread - maybe in the Carolinas or, perhaps, even near Buffalo - to build a home big enough for his family (he has four children) to enjoy.
This will mark Thomas' fourth trip to Canton. He was in attendance when Levy and former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly were inducted earlier this decade. But he'll never forget his first visit in early 2000.
It happened when he and a friend were traveling by motor home to Buffalo and ran into a winter storm. They pulled off in Canton to spend the night and found a parking lot, which just happened to be across the street from the Hall of Fame. Preparing to leave the next morning, they discovered the motor home was stuck, its wheels frozen to the ground. It took a few tries for the vehicle to finally come loose.
``You might say it was something saying, 'Hold on for a couple of seconds, there's something you need to look at across the street,''' Thomas said.
The memory brings a smile to his face, which is now shining in the bright afternoon sun as he passes the exit for Utica. With Lake George behind him and some 400 miles to go before reaching his final destination, Thomas pulls into the passing lane and hits the gas.