The Lonely Blues of Duane Thomas

As Louis Armstrong said, if they don't know what it is, then you can't tell 'em.
The Lonely Blues of Duane Thomas
Illustration by Charles Shaw

The first time I met Duane Thomas he told me about The Great Cosmos. The Great Cosmos was Duane’s attempt to express the inexpressible, and he used the term like a new toy. It was an interchangeable expression of faith and fear, of love and loneliness, of infinite acceptance and eternal rejection, a gussied-up extraterrestrial slang that still hovered painfully near his South Dallas streets.

One minute Duane would be describing his teenage years: “Like both of my parents were dead and like I traveled a lot. This aunt in Los Angeles…this aunt in Dallas. Hey! you travel, you see things. One night I slept next to a dead man on a railroad track, only I didn’t know he was dead. But you see things and, you know, you start to relate… come together. I met The Great Cosmos out there. It’s very philosophical, man. Like I deal in simplicity.”

I didn’t want to hear about The Great Cosmos just then; I wanted to hear about where Duane and his brothers grew up in South Dallas. Sensing the intolerance of my mood, Duane tilted his head back and his nostrils flared. There was a long, outrageous silence, then he said: “The Great Cosmos…Hey! Listen!…it’s a trap white people pull on black people. Once you get caught, like you never get out. The more you kick and fight, the worse it gets until…Hey! you just give up and die. You know?”

A painting on the wall above the blaring stereo distracted him momentarily. It was the work of a friend of his, a black artist who calls himself Othello, and it showed many disembodied black heads turned in many directions. “Like Bolsheviks,” Duane told me. “Going in all directions; they can’t get unity, but they are still trying.”

I laughed at the wanderings of my own mind. “I don’t know what’s so funny,” I told him, “but suddenly I remembered these freaks…what I mean, they were like true believers…and they were waiting in Yankee Stadium for the world to come to an end. Somebody interviewed the Yankee Stadium grounds-keeper and he said, “I don’t know about all that crap: all I know is they have to be out by Friday.’”

“Hey!,” Duane grinned. “You dig? I thought so when I laid eyes on you.”

Duane had first laid eyes on me two hours earlier when I walked into the Cowboy field house, introduced myself and told him I was here to write The Duane Thomas Story. This was three weeks before the 1970 Super Bowl, the one Dallas blew to Baltimore—three weeks before Duane Thomas took his vows of silence. Cowboy management had warned me that Thomas was a tough interview. “It’s not that he won’t talk,” assistant General Manager Al Ward said. “It’s just that what he says doesn’t always make sense.”

I was amazed how quickly Duane did make sense; and more than that, how quickly we trusted each other. Duane had never heard of me until that moment, yet he immediately invited me to his apartment. And here was the paradox: you couldn’t interview Duane Thomas, but you could talk with him.

In the parking lot outside the field house a pretty blonde girl of about 14 approached him with a sheet of notebook paper. He signed his name, but she said, “No, write something. Make it to Linda. L-I-N-D-A. I want my boy friend to see it.” Duane nodded, smoothed the paper on the trunk of my car and wrote:

Dear Linda:

Don’t hate black, don’t hate white.

When you get bit, just hate to bite.

“Sly and the Family Stone,” he told her. “Duane Thomas didn’t write that.”

Duane drove my car while I took notes. I had heard that Duane was influenced to play football by his older brother Franklin, and by the community at large, but now he was telling me about his younger brother, Bertrand. “He asked me, I said: ‘Hey! give it up! Football’s not relevant to the age.’” At a stoplight on Lemmon, a carload of young blacks pulled beside us.

“Hey, man!,” a boy shouted. “You Duane Thomas!”

“It’s you, man,” Duane mumbled, trying to sound cool and street tough.

“Yeah, baby, I told you it was Duane,” the boy screamed. A black girl about the same age as the blonde in the parking lot attempted to crawl from the car window as the light changed and we pulled away.

Duane shook his head: this was a trip he had not anticipated. For a man who had it all together, he seemed terribly vulnerable. At Lincoln High and again at West Texas State, Duane played in the shadows of better known athletes, and though he never doubted that he would become a superstar in the National Football League (“When your head’s in the right place, good things happen”), it was coming too fast. Everyone from the Black Muslims to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—lawyers, agents, Lions Club program chairmen, women with indecent proposals—wanted a piece of him. Here was this handsome studhorse black kid fresh out of the ghetto, running like crazy, and now they wanted to hear it from his own lips. Hear how grateful he was. They wanted him to say it so they could hear.

“Hey!,” he said, fixing his eyes on the traffic ahead, “Like I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything. I haven’t made any deals. If I get the idea to help poor kids in the ghetto it’ll be because I want to, not because I feel any kind of obligation.”

The apartment that Duane shared with linebacker Steve Kiner was near Love Field, in the heart of a transient population of hustlers and airline stewardesses. Duane swallowed a handful of protein tablets to make his hair grow faster, and placed a stack of records on the stereo. After we had talked for a while, Kiner arrived with several friends and a bag


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