The Lonely Blues of Duane Thomas
As Louis Armstrong said, if they don't know what it is, then you can't tell 'em.
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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:
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 of mescaline.
“For the Super Bowl,” Kiner grinned, and someone threw the bag to Duane.
I had heard about Kiner from the Cowboy management. He was the team hippy—shaggy hair, groovy mustache, delighted grin belying the fact he was the headhunter on the Dallas kickoff team. In those days it was Kiner, not Thomas, who was considered the enigma. A white boy from Tampa, Florida, and the University of Tennessee, Kiner had devastated the serenity of the Cowboys’ computer. Unlike Thomas (who spent what bonus money he had left, after paying his debts, on a new Pontiac) Kiner hadn’t bothered to pick up his bonus. “His bonus check is still in my desk,” Cowboy Personnel Director Gil Brandt told me, shaking his head in bewilderment. Kiner drove a used VW that looked as though it had been abandoned on some street corner. Kiner’s first act on moving to Dallas was to find a black roommate. Now Kiner and Thomas called each other brother and shared everything, including Kiner’s beautiful sense of the absurd.
In the beginning, management lost no sleep over this new brotherhood, but in the interim Thomas became a star—more than a star, he became the heart of the Dallas football team. Kiner was just another linebacker. “They’re like the Bobbsey Twins,” Cowboy defensive star Lee Roy Jordan remarked when I mentioned that Thomas and Kiner seemed very close. It was Kiner who talked Duane into fetching Tom Landry an apple the morning after a key fumble. Nobody ever brought Tom Landry an apple before. It was an NFL record, and Landry permitted himself a grin. Lately, Duane had started quoting Kiner. To wit: “What constitutes greatness is inferiority.” There are not enough apples in China to make Tom Landry grin at something like that.
“Hey,” Duane yelped to Kiner, “tell him about parking in Landry’s parking space.”
“Yeah,” Kiner said, breaking up at the memory, “It was raining like hell the other morning so I just whizzed into Landry’s private parking space. The equipment man asked me why I did it and I was astonished. ‘Sir,’ I said, ‘It was the nearest one to the door. Don’t you realize it’s raining out there?'”
Duane got control of himself long enough to say: “Hey! You should of seen them when Landry walked in the door. Everyone started pointing and saying, ‘Kiner did it! Kiner did it!'”
At the door, I asked Thomas and Kiner if they were serious about taking mescaline before the Super Bowl—providing they even got to the Super Bowl, which was still two brutal playoff games away.
“Naw,” Kiner said. “That’s just a joke. But this crazy nut here’s liable to do anything.”
“I might just do it,” Duane mused.
“The Great Cosmos will advise you,” I said.
“The Great Cosmos,” Kiner laughed.
“The Great Cosmos,” Duane said, and that strange look came over him.
Duane took his vows of silence late in the third quarter of the Super Bowl. It came unceremoniously, immediately after he fumbled away a touchdown that might have won the game. But first, Duane sat on the bench and cried. “I lost the game for us,” he told Kiner. But that’s all he would say.
No one could find Duane after the game. How slow Duane was getting out of the dressing room had become a team joke, how he would stand for minutes at a time, answering banal questions from the press. I watched him after the 5-0 playoff victory over Detroit, one of the strangest games in NFL history; most of the players were dressed and gone, but Duane was still pinned to the wall.
Trying to be helpful, I asked him what it was like to carry a football in the National Football League. About the same as running over to his girl friend’s house in South Dallas after dark, he said. Just running. He never felt it when they hit him. More often, it was the tackler who felt it. Less than an hour earlier Duane had collided with Detroit line-backer Wayne Walker—and they had carried Walker off the field.
Duane took his time, then he added: “It’s like moving in a shadow…in a dream…where everything is real slow and yet so fast you don’t think about it…then you see…hey! you see some light and you go for it.” When Vince Lombardi described the same phenomena as “running to daylight,” he was canonized in the press. I glanced at one reporter’s notebook and noticed he hadn’t caught a single word. He tried, but before Duane’s stream of consciousness the reporter’s thought-process had collapsed and he filled out the page with squiggly circles.
But after the Super Bowl, with the world and national TV waiting for an explanation, no one could find Duane Thomas, not even Kiner, who was walking around the Orange Bowl locker room in a daze, asking everyone he saw, “Where’s my man? What happened to my man?” Kiner and Thomas were supposed to leave that night for a vacation in the Bahamas, but it was six months later before Kiner heard from his friend.
Super Week was Duane’s first full exposure to Big Time Media, and vice versa. Writers and TV men and radio men from all over the country tracked him down at the Cowboys’ training quarters in Fort Lauderdale. They asked him the stock questions and went off shaking their heads, feeding their notebooks to passing squirrels. How do you feel, being a rookie and all, how do you feel about playing in the Super Bowl? “Okay,” Duane told them. “It’s just another game.” But it’s the ultimate game, they assured him. Duane cocked his head proudly so they could see up his nostrils, and he posed his own question: “Then why are they playing it again next year?”
One morning a few days before the game, a tribe of writers found Thomas sitting on the beach behind the hotel. He was alone and barefoot, and there was a football playbook in his lap. He seemed to be studying the Alantic Ocean.
“What are you thinking about?” they asked.
“Where I am,” Duane said.
“You mean on a beach in Fort Lauderdale?”
“No,” Duane said. “I mean where I am.” His nostrils flared slightly.
“Just now I was thinking about New Zealand.”
“It’s a good place to retire.”
“A rookie shouldn’t be thinking about retiring.”
Duane gave them his curious poor-devil look and said, “It’s the best time.”
The tribe continued down the beach, leaving Duane to his fantasies. “He’s looking at the wrong ocean,” said Steve Perkins of The Dallas Time Herald, “New Zealand’s the other way.” Frank Boggs of The Daily Oklahoman pointed toward the horizon where an airplane trailed a sunburn-lotion streamer and said, “Look! I believe I can see Oklahoma City!”
Later, the writers looked up from their beach chairs and way out there, flat against the ocean, was a tiny figure paddling a kayak. The figure, like Yossarian, seemed to be paddling out to sea. One of the writers raised his binoculars and reported with mock alarm, “My God! It’s Duane Thomas!”
I saw Thomas and Kiner only once during Super Week, and then very briefly. I stumbled onto them down by the seawall.
“What are you guys doing down here?” I asked.
“Hiding from the riffraff,” Kiner told me.
They traded Kiner a few weeks later. Goodbye and hello, Great Cosmos. Hello and goodbye. The Cowboys claim that Kiner asked to be traded, and I have no reason to doubt them. Nevertheless, they traded the one man Thomas fully trusted. Duane had to find someone else to trust.
When Duane reappeared months later, he told Steve Perkins of The Times Herald “Hey! I read that my fumble was the play that lost the game. I didn’t know that I was the one who was expected to win it.”
But of course he was. Most of Dallas expected it.
I know one thing, Duane played as well as anyone else in the 1970 Super Bowl. Miserable though it was, that game was a plateau for the Cowboys and they rode there on the shoulders of Duane Thomas. Week after week, from midseason until the Super Bowl, Thomas was incredible. During one stretch of that strange 5-0 playoff victory over Detroit, the Cowboys called fourteen straight running plays against a defense that was begging them to run just one more time. Of Dallas’ 231-yard total, Duane accounted for 135 yards. The following week in the NFC championship game against San Francisco, he ran for 143 yards. Take away that one fumble in the Super Bowl and Thomas would have been Player of the Year in all of pro football.
There is a popular misconception that the Dallas Cowboys “discovered” Duane Thomas. They discovered him in the sense that the Dutch discovered Manhattan Island. What they did was bet on the come. There wasn’t a scout in the industry who questioned Thomas’s ability, but there was a darker, subjective side. The Philadelphia Eagles’ scouting report, for example, had this notation: “Thomas has a history of being a troublemaker, and history repeats itself.”
Almost all of Duane’s problems could be traced directly to money. In that respect, he wasn’t the maker of trouble but its victim.
A few months ago I visited Duane’s old neighborhood with a friend, Abner Haynes, the American Football League’s first superstar. Abner grew up on one end of Warren Street, Duane on the other. Abner was eight or nine years older; he retired from pro football when Duane was still in college. He got out in one piece and is now a vice president of the Zale Corporation.
“The thing that trips me,” Abner was saying, “is I think Duane’s an unhappy man. I’ve done everything I could to reach him. I’ve got commitments from Stanley Marcus, Donny Zale, Lamar Hunt, men like that…they’ve offered to sit down and try to help Duane. But I don’t know if he wants help.
Walking along Warren, Abner recalled how it was in South Dallas. “Just walking down Warren and across Oakland was a traumatic experience,” he told me. “You learned to hate because hate helped you survive. It was all around you. Older guys with college degrees, walking the streets ’cause nobody would hire them. One of your partners getting his head blown off for stealing a lousy hubcap. One thing you never saw in our neighborhood was an insurance salesman. Why would a black person who was catching hell then spend money on something that wouldn’t payoff for 20 years? And the really terrible part, there wasn’t any reason to believe it would get better.”
One way out was sports; it is more than coincidence that sports stars such as Abner Haynes, Dave Stallworth and Ernie Banks grew up in that same South Dallas ghetto. They were Duane’s heroes, not Jimmy Brown, as some people assume.
The neighborhood struggles along today much as it did when Duane was a kid. It is not your sleazy dead-cat slum—not The Dallas Morning News stereotype where boy friends of welfare mothers sit around drinking Beefeaters and watching color TV—no, it’s a prim, pious neighborhood of well-cared-for wooden homes, neat lawns and mom-and-pop groceries. There seems to be a Baptist church on every corner. There are parks and playgrounds—Fair Park is less than a mile away. The difference between this neighborhood and the one I grew up in is that all the faces are black. No, the decay is not on the surface, and that is the problem. “Back before Duane’s time,” Abner said, “We didn’t believe in tomorrow. Now a boy can see it for himself on the TV screen.”
Duane’s aunt, Mary Waller, still lives on Warren, in the comfortable pink frame house where Duane lived while finishing high school.
Duane’s mama and daddy were good, hardworking Christians,” Aunt Mary Waller says. “Duane was like his daddy. You’d never hear either one of them say much. Loretta did the talking in that family. When they died—they went less than a year apart—Duane took it very hard.”
“I guess you would call Duane a loner,” says Floyd Iglehart, Duane’s high school coach. Floyd has since moved up to Bishop College. “The only thing that boy liked to do was run. All the time…running, by himself. Running from home to school, running back home, running over to his girl friend’s house at night.”
The Thomas family seemed star-crossed, predestined to more than their share of grief. Misfortune played against misfortune: bills mounted. Franklin, Duane’s oldest brother, incurred a serious kidney ailment. Bertrand cut off a finger in woodshop while daydreaming about Duane. Not long after the death of John and Loretta Thomas, Duane learned that his girl friend, Elizabeth Malone, was pregnant.
Mary Waller described what happened:
“Duane didn’t want to marry her, but he wanted to do what was right. The girl’s mama and their preacher came over here one night, bringing Elizabeth along. She was crying. I was crying. Duane just sat there, like we were judging him. He never said a word. Elizabeth’s mama promised him that if he’d give the baby a name, she’d have the marriage annulled. Remember now, Duane was just a junior in high school.”
No one outside the immediate family knew of the marriage. Otherwise, Duane would not have been allowed to play high school football. The annullment never came. The child, Annette, was born, and several years later another child, Timothy, was born. Duane and Elizabeth seldom lived together. But their curious, apparently permanent relationship continued, and continues still. “They have an arrangement,” a friend told me.
At West Texas State, Duane’s financial problems mounted astronomically, as did social pressures. West Texas State is located in Canyon, where black people are either athletes or short order cooks, and as it became apparent that Duane was an athlete of unusual promise—a sure Number One draft choice—local merchants extended him unusual credit.
Cowboy Personnel Director Gil Brandt told me: “Duane’s wife ran up some bills you wouldn’t believe. Duane got stuck with them. A little town like that, I don’t know how she did it.”
Elizabeth Thomas lives now in South Dallas. She does community service work, writes poetry and publishes occasional articles in Dallas’ black weeklies. After Duane and Bertrand were busted for possession of marijuana last spring, Elizabeth published an open letter accusing the Cowboys of setting up the bust. In the Dallas Express amid articles on sickle cell anemia, Miss Tan America, church news and such headlines as “Nixon Sends Grambling Band to Liberia”, Elizabeth charged that the Cowboys were practicing “colonization” on her husband. “They just decided ‘this nigga’ had to be broken,” Elizabeth told her readers. So they got the law on him.
It is difficult to believe anything like that actually happened. Ironically, Duane was trying to help his younger brother avoid a familiar trap when two highway patrolmen pulled them over in Greenville, Tex. “Bertrand had knocked up this chick,” a friend explained. “They were driving around talking, and Duane was giving him hell about how he was handling it, or rather, how it was being handled for him by a lot of people.”
Through the eyes of a white highway patrolman, it looked like this: Here were these two black boys, stocking caps pulled down over their ears, cruising through town in a new car that seemed to match the description of a car on the stolen report. One of the officers testified that, on approaching Duane’s car, he “observed marijuana smoke.” Presumably, the brothers were engulfed in a giant green cloud, which, upon further examination, turned out to be coming from a small quantity of marijuana. The brothers pleaded guilty and were assessed five-year probated sentences, a light sentence under the circumstances.
If, as Elizabeth Thomas charges, the Cowboys viewed Thomas as a piece of real estate in need of government regulation, the result was a ploy that backfired on everyone. The terms of his probation did require that he “work faithfully at suitable employment as far as possible.” But as the judge and probation officer (both Cowboy fans) interpreted it, that didn’t mean he had to report to the Dallas Cowboys.
After Duane was traded to San Diego, Judge Hollis Garmon stated publicly that the court would take it kindly if Duane would go back to football. Probation officer Bill Haddock told me: “We’d like to see him working somewhere, but this is a special case. Duane’s not your dollar-an-hour man. If he chooses to hold out for a better contract, we think we ought to give him leeway.”
One curious victim of the bust in Greenville was the highway patrolman who first sighted smoke. By coincidence, I sat across the table from him last May at a meeting of the Greenville Lions Club. While Governor Preston Smith expounded on the delicate problems of law and order, the patrolman told me what had happened to his family since the big nab. Among other things, he said, his daughter was being harrassed by her contemporaries, both black and white. “For a while we thought we might have to take her out of school,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “But they finally started leaving her alone and things got better.”
We walk along Warren, in South Dallas, then up Oakland, past bars, theaters, penny-arcades, cleaners and other small black businesses. I stop and talk to people along the way. They all know Duane. Or they know about him. The young ones see him as a hero, and the old ones believe he is giving everyone a bad name.
“I think he’s crazy,” says an old man sitting on a curb drinking a cardboard carton of orange drink.
We walk on. Abner shakes his head and says, “Duane plays crazy, which is what you learn in South Dallas. Man, you gotta learn to see and don’t see…move and not look back.”
For all of their computers, psychological evaluation systems and spy networks, the Dallas Cowboys are pitifully human. They were the last to realize Duane was weirding out.
When he refused to report to camp before the 1971 season, they wrote it off as a routine contract hassle, developing in a routine manner. The club had a firm policy: They would not renegotiate contracts. And Thomas’s contract still had two years to go. The Cowboys were convinced it was a fair contract, granted, one that had worked out in their favor, but they had paid for their share of lemons in the past and now it seemed right to them that they should share in the luck of the draw.
Duane didn’t see it that way. He told Dallas writer Steve Perkins: “They’ve been in business longer than I have. I feel like they should have been obligated to be honest with me.” Duane had either got the idea independently, or with the help of his many friends and advisers in these post-Kiner days, that the Cowboys were persecuting him because he was black. That’s ridiculous. To paraphrase what Jerry Kramer said about Vince Lombardi, the Cowboys treat everyone equally bad, although it is true that they reward loyalty. If Duane hadn’t been a rookie they might have gone along with his demands.
No, the first inkling management had of what would soon be known in polite circles as The Duane Thomas Problem was when Duane called a press conference and described coach Tom Landry as “a plastic man, actually no man at all.” Gil Brandt was branded “a liar.” Duane put down club president Tex Schramm as a man who was “sick, demented and completely dishonest,” to which Schramm replied goodnaturedly, “That’s not bad. He got two out or three.”
After that, Duane started appearing and disappearing like the Roadrunner. The Cowboys traded him to New England (the same club to which they had unloaded Kiner) but Duane was back within a week. There were conflicting reports about why that trade was negated. The wire services first reported that Duane defied an order from coach John Mazur to get down in a three-point stance. “This is the way we do it in Dallas,” Duane told Mazur, bending over with his hands on his knees. “That way, we can see the linebackers.” Though this was a perfectly logical and even brilliant statement of his position, there was a flaw which didn’t occur to anyone at the time: The Cowboys don’t do it that way. They use a three-point stance, just like New England. But then Duane didn’t say the Cowboys, he said Dallas.
The most damning report, and the one that Pete Rozelle relied on to negate the trade, was that Duane refused to complete his physical examination, thereby implying Thomas was on drugs. It has since been established that Thomas wasn’t on drugs, merely sleepy and irritable from his new diet of fruit and nuts. He refused to complete the physical for the same reason he refused to attend meetings or practices: because there was something else he wanted to do; in this case, take a nap.
Duane vanished again, but in September, after the opening game, he rejoined the Cowboys, in body if not in spirit. He spoke to no one. When his name was called in meetings, he refused to answer on the grounds that anyone could see he was there. Tom Landry tried to help him. After a brilliant touchdown run by Thomas, Landry did a very uncharacteristic thing—he tried to shake Duane’s hand. Duane flared his nostrils and brushed past him. There were no racial implications: Duane also refused to shake hands with black tackle Rayfield Wright. When Jethro Pugh, reputed to be the toughest man on the team, inquired politely about Duane’s damaged knee, Duane froze him out and snapped: “Why do you want to know? You a doctor?”
On the team plane Duane positioned himself in a middle seat, pulled his stocking cap over his eyes and defied anyone to approach him. Meanwhile, on the field, he did his act and the Cowboys roared to their first Super Bowl championship. The players acknowledged what the public could not always accept, that Duane was invaluable, and therefore forgiveable. “As long as he can run with the ball,” said Lee Roy Jordan, “we don’t have to be buddy-buddy.”
This time Duane showed up in the Super Bowl dressing room, in the custody of Jimmy Brown who personally delivered him to TV announcer Tom Brookshire. A former jock himself, Brookshire was at a loss for questions. In one priceless exchange, Brookshire said:
“Duane, uh, you do things with speed but you never really hurry a lot like the great Jim Brown, hee. Uh, you never hurry into a hole, you take your time, make a spin, yet you still outrun people. Are you that fast, are you quick, would you say?”
Duane looked serenely into the eye of the camera for about 20 seconds, then answered: “Evidently.”
Duane’s friendship with the great Jim Brown lasted about two days, at which time Duane packed his bags and slipped out of Brown’s Hollywood mansion in the middle of the night. “Duane had the impression that Jim Brown was trying to use him, just like everyone else,” says Raymond Mapps, an SMU football player who has known Thomas since childhood. “Duane has no illusions about being rich or famous. He just wants to do things his own way.”
When Duane reported to camp only four days late last July, the Cowboys were shocked. He looked as though he had spent the winter in a dungeon at Devil’s Island. “His weight was way down,” said Al Ward. “He would sign in (before practice) and out (after practice) at 200, but you could tell he didn’t weigh anywhere near 200. Yet, he looked great in practice, he was obviously in shape. Strength was never his suit anyway. Duane is a floater, not a plugger.”
It wasn’t so much that Duane violated every rule in the book; he didn’t seem to know there were rules. As usual, he roomed alone and spoke to no one. He might or might not make it to practice. The only time anyone could be sure of seeing him was just before meals, when he would climb through the dining room window, load up the pouch of his shirt with fruit and celery, and disappear the way he came in.
“Tom Landry’s attitude was one of bewilderment,” said Al Ward. “Tom couldn’t believe that the boy couldn’t be reached and helped. What a crime to see all that talent go to waste. Tom would just shake his head and say, ‘Why couldn’t I reach him? Where did I fail?'”
In what may or may not be one of the shrewdest trades in history, the Cowboys unloaded Duane on San Diego in exchange for two of the Chargers’ more gifted young players, Mike Montgomery and Billy Parks. The most extraordinary part of this agreement was that it was “unconditional”—what you see is what you get. If Thomas joined a religious order or lost interest in football altogether, the Chargers would be stuck with it; there need be no further compensation in draft choices or talent.
San Diego Coach Harland Svare had simply won the right to make Duane Thomas an offer he couldn’t refuse—in this instance, $275,000 for three years. Under his old agreement with the Cowboys, Thomas would have been working in his third season for $20,000. Obviously, he deserved much more, said Svare and San Diego owner Gene Klein. When The San Diego Union Sports Editor Jack Murphy suggested that Duane’s history indicated he did not bend easily to authority, Svare was reassuring: “We have only a handful of rules, and I’m confident Duane will obey them. We don’t ask him to stand at attention or salute. I’m not in the business of censoring people. I don’t want to change people, and I’m not going to tell him how to live…If you take a little bird in your hand, you don’t squeeze it. You give it the security of your hand.”
Thomas appeared at the Chargers’ training camp a few times; he worked out a few times; he got together with Svare and Klein for lengthy discussions during which little apparently was verbalized but one thing or another more or less implied. At one point Duane and Svare prepared to hold a press conference, but it was cancelled when Thomas disappeared again and there seemed nothing to discuss. “That tells you something about Thomas,” said Klein sympathetically. “He’s like a kid who ran away from home. He wants to come back but he doesn’t know how to get into the house.”
At a September meeting, Svare sat in a room for three hours with Thomas, waiting for his troubled running back to unburden himself. “There was very little conversation,” he recalls. “Duane didn’t say much. I didn’t say much. But speech isn’t the only form of communication. There’s a lot going on inside him. I can see that. I would like to see Thomas play, and not have all those problems.”
He would’t elaborate on the problems. “I have a lot of theories,” he said, “but I don’t know what’s behind Duane Thomas.” And then, a bit ruefully, he added: “We had anticipated we weren’t going to be trouble-free with Duane, but we hadn’t anticipated he wouldn’t be here at all.”
Earlier, the Chargers had persuaded a psychiatrist, Dr. Arnold J. Mandell of the University of California at San Diego, to follow and observe Thomas, the owners apparently laboring under the mistaken notion that Duane would be visible from time to time. Finally, Svare told Duane to get in touch after he’d straightened out his personal problems. “I gave him plenty of time,” Svare said—and Duane clearly took him at his word. It was early November, the eighth week of the season, before Thomas showed up for two successive workouts with the Chargers.
Duane’s final public appearance may have come on the following evening when the Chargers played Dallas in San Diego. Duane’s motives are not yet clear, but Svare activated him in time for the Dallas game. Duane was observed the day before in a San Diego bank, cashing a check from the Chargers for $13,000. Maybe it was a last desperate gamble by Svare, who had been under considerable pressure for making the trade in the first place. Maybe Svare thought Duane would respond, facing his old teammates and all.
While a national television audience watched with new anticipation, Duane Thomas trotted onto the field in a trance. Quarterback John Hadl tried to play catch with him, but after the first toss Duane placed the ball down in the end zone and walked off. While the rest of the team warmed up at the opposite end of the field, Duane took a stance with his hands on his knees and looked at the ground for 15 minutes. During the playing of the National Anthem, he walked around like a man lost on the moon.
After that, Duane sat quietly on the bench until a few seconds before the final gun, when he stood and headed off alone toward the dressing room. Up until game time, Svare had reportedly entertained the hope of using Thomas, at least on kick returns against the Cowboys, and perhaps as a runner against Cleveland the following week. But Duane’s eccentric behavior provoked more confusion and disappointment.
Up in the guest press box, a woman from Dallas told sportswriters: “He is a sick young man. We all knew that in Dallas. He needs a psychiatrist.” Possibly, but the lady’s judgment—arbitrary, impersonal, almost implying some sort of betrayal—was in sharp contrast to that of Duane’s new employers. Svare made it clear he did not interpret Thomas’ behavior as defiance, hostility or antagonism. “I certainly don’t think he should be treated with any anger or punishment,” he said. And sportswriter Jack Murphy agreed: “I regard Thomas as blameless and I was filled with dismay by the sight of this lonely man. Unwittingly, he had become part of a public spectacle and anybody with a sense of decency was appalled…He should have an opportunity to solve his problems without being exposed to the gaze of 54,000 people.” He urged the San Diego management to put Thomas on reserve status for the balance of the season.
A day or so later, Svare did precisely that, making it clear he intended to deal with Thomas with compassion, and not in anger or disappointment. “At this point,” he concluded, “our prime concern is to the human being.”
Come back, Duane. There are some good people left.