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A (silent) voice of experience
BOSTON, MASS— A one-of-a-kind athlete. An athlete playing on a team with a nation of adoring fans behind it.
An athlete angry, in part, over what he considers racist reactions.
An athlete angry enough to declare he won’t talk again to fans or media.
Pedro Martinez, standout pitcher for a Boston baseball team so revered that its most ardent fans call themselves Red Sox Nation . . .
. . . meet Duane Thomas, standout running back for a Dallas football team so revered that its most ardent fans referred to their Cowboys as America’s Team.
They are separated by 30 years on the center stage of sports celebrity, but their stories of self-imposed silence are quite similar.
In 1971, Thomas became the first television-age mega-talent to shut off communications with everybody but his teammates and coaches.
His silence lasted five months, broken by an embarrassing, nationally televised interview following the Cowboys’ convincing 24-3 victory over Miami in Super Bowl VI.
Martinez’s silence is eight weeks and counting, but the common belief of sportswriters is that Martinez, whose disposition is rarely sour for long, will speak before the leaves turn, maybe even before he exits the Red Sox clubhouse after pitching against the Baltimore Orioles.
Maybe, maybe not. But if the parallel between Thomas and Martinez extends to eventual loquaciousness, then Martinez will be talking some writer’s ear off by 2035. Thomas, reached at his home recently in Del Mar, Calif., talked until his cell phone battery was dying, and, among many other things, he offered his perspective on athletes’ silence and gregariousness.
“Knowing what I know now,” Thomas said, “it’s pretty obvious I’d talk to the press. I’m away from the game. I’ve had a lot of time to think about all the things, all the frustrations.
I’m a lot more mature, and I try not to take things personally.”
That wasn’t the case in Thomas’s prime. Regarded by many as the most gifted running back since Jim Brown knifed through defenses like butter in the ’60s, Thomas went mum after winning Rookie of the Year honors for 1970. The Cowboys, behind Thomas’s 803 rushing yards, had powered through the NFC and won the conference championship, then lost to Baltimore in their first Super Bowl appearance, 16-13.
Thomas had played for $18,000 that first year and asked the Cowboys to renegotiate his three-year contract. Thomas wanted to double his $20,000 second-year salary. The Cowboys said he made $71,000 with all his bonuses and refused to add to his base. And when the media, according to Thomas, took the establishment’s side, he answered his critics with nothing. Nothing at all.
“I had all the freedom of a Negro slave,” Thomas said.
“We were coming out of the ’60s. I remember the KKK marching through Dallas growing up, and some of [the Cowboys management] were John Birchers. The structure of racism was still in people’s minds, and I had debts.”
In a rambling press conference during training camp in 1971, an enraged Thomas charged that the Cowboys had never made the Super Bowl before him and would never make it again without him. He called coach Tom Landry “a plastic man,” director of personnel Gil Brandt “a liar,” and team president Tex Schramm “sick, demented, and totally dishonest.”
Schramm answered back with humor: “Well, he got two out of three.”
`The Sphinx’ is born
In July 1971, Thomas was traded to New England in a five-player deal that sent running back Carl Garrett to Dallas. On the second day of practice, Patriots coach John Mazur asked Thomas to get into a three-point stance. Thomas refused. Mazur ordered him off the field.
“I was in a two-point stance because it gives a better view of a handoff,” Thomas offers now. “I was behind Jim Nance, and I couldn’t see. His ass was the size of a volleyball court.
“Mazur stood there and lied, and everybody believed it. He said, `Duane did not pass the physical.’ I was sent back to Dallas.
That was the year we went to the Super Bowl. If I didn’t pass the physical in Boston, how did I pass the physical in Dallas?”
To this day, he insists that Dallas poisoned the waters with New England.
“Dallas was like a jealous girlfriend,” he said. “If they couldn’t have me, nobody could. Dallas put out propaganda.”
There were rumors of drug use, which Thomas denied. He disappeared, then reappeared in October after missing three regular-season games. In his first game back, Thomas gained 60 yards on nine carries in a 20-13 victory over the Giants. But don’t refer to his rushing attempts as “carries.”
“I didn’t carry the ball,” he said. “Each run was a performance.”
Thomas said he rejoined the Cowboys with one thing on his mind.
“My focus was on winning a championship,” he said. “Once I realized what the workload was, I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with that. I didn’t care how long I practiced. I stayed in my room to avoid all the [distractions]. I resolved myself not to have sexual relations at all.”
And he didn’t speak to the local media, who dubbed him “The Sphinx.”
“See, the media is not the same today as then,” Thomas said. “The NFL controlled the media. That’s how they kept players in line — through fear, which is an old slave tactic.
Pit one against another. I was misunderstood. It [was] not about being misquoted. It [was] about how am I understanding what you are saying? It was all about fear. Tom would tell you one thing and tell the media something else.”
Frank Luksa, a sports columnist at the Dallas Morning News who covered the Cowboys in those days for the Dallas Times Herald, says Thomas wasn’t always so angry.
“He was a delight as a rookie, very clever,” said Luksa.
“Before the first Super Bowl, I asked how it felt to be playing as a rookie in the ultimate game. He said, `If this is the ultimate game, how come they play it every year?’ “
But then money changed everything.
“He had gotten a signing bonus in 1970,” Luksa said.
“Although he got a raise in ’71, it wasn’t as much as his combined bonus and salary, so he was making less money.”
Thomas reportedly brooded.
“He wouldn’t come out of his room for practice in training camp in 1971,” Luksa said. “He’d climb through a back window to get to the chow hall and wouldn’t answer the roll call.
He didn’t talk to teammates. He wasn’t talking to anybody. He just turned sour. I tried to approach him and he’d say, `[Expletive] off.’ He was a pain in the [expletive]. He took five years off my life.”
But Thomas said he did talk to his coach and teammates.
“I had to talk to them in order to get the plays taken care of,” he said.
Other than that, the silence continued until the Cowboys beat the Dolphins in New Orleans in the Super Bowl. Thomas ran for a game-high 95 yards and caught a pass for a touchdown. In the postgame hoopla, Thomas consented to break his silence, with the legendary Brown standing at his side for support (although Dave Anderson wrote in the New York Times the next day that Thomas did provide a few short answers to questions in the locker room immediately after the game). The interview, with CBS sportscaster Tom Brookshier, is part of Super Bowl lore.
Brookshier, who acknowledged later that he was nervous, staggered through an awkward exchange that lasted only seconds but seemed like a lifetime.
“Duane, uh, you do things with speed, but you never really hurry a lot like the great Jim Brown,” Brookshier said. “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?”
Thomas stared into the camera for what seemed like a very long time before issuing his reply.
“Evidently,” he said.
Brookshier couldn’t find his way out; Thomas couldn’t think of any other way to respond.
“I wasn’t trying to show him up,” Thomas says now. “I was camera-shy . . . the lights . . . that’s a different world than being on the field. I never heard of Tom Brookshier. That was my very first time meeting Brookshier. That was his first time ever interviewing a black player.
“I couldn’t think of anything else based on what he was saying.
`Are you really that fast?’ The only word I could think of was `evidently.’ I thought of `uh-huh,’ but then they’d say I’m stupid.
If I said `yeah, man,’ I’m still stupid. I was not groomed to deal with the media, and players are not groomed in dealing with the media today. Every player based on the amount of money they are making should have their own press agent.”
The interview continued.
Brookshier: “Do you like football, Duane?”
Thomas: “Yes, that’s why I’m a pro football player.”
The last question was about Thomas’s difficulty keeping his weight down.
“I weigh what I need to,” was Thomas’s reply.
Career winds down
Brookshier was teased about the interview for years. Thomas was vilified.
Less than a month later, Thomas and his younger brother were arrested in Greenville, Texas, for possession of marijuana. Even today, Thomas believes the Cowboys “were in cahoots” with the highway patrol to discredit him. “My brother smoked pot,” he said. “So what?”
In the summer of ’72, the Cowboys traded Thomas to San Diego after he missed a practice. When the Chargers met the Cowboys in an exhibition game that summer, there was great anticipation. Luksa remembers the scene well.
“Before the game, he walked out on the field and just kneeled there in the end zone,” said Luksa. “Then he was wandering behind the bench during the national anthem. He was wacko. He was very angry, and he really blew his career.”
Abner Haynes, one of the first stars of the American Football League, disagrees. Though he is 10 years older, Haynes attended the same school as Thomas, Lincoln High in South Dallas. Haynes, who still holds several Kansas City Chiefs (nee Dallas Texans) team records, was very impressed with Thomas on the field and off.
“He was a Hall of Famer in my book,” Haynes said. “He had the tools like Jim Brown and myself. He performed under extreme negativity. In those days, you had a whole lot of white writers looking to poke fun. He had a reason not to talk, and I think he helped solve some of the racial issues in this country.”
Thomas never played a regular-season game for the Chargers. He sat out the 1972 season, then was traded to Washington. After two mediocre seasons with the Redskins, he played for Hawaii in the World Football League before it folded. He tried comebacks with Dallas and Green Bay before ending his football career in 1979. He never regained the form of his rookie year, when he averaged more than 5 yards per carry, or his Super Bowl championship season, when he led the league in rushing touchdowns. Thomas, now 56, is an avocado farmer, is into yoga, and enjoys talking to reporters.
He also is, in his words, “in better shape than some present-day NFL players.” He’s looking for a coaching job in football and says he recently worked with some high school players in Los Angeles. The high schoolers were looking for shortcuts to success.
“I told them there’s no trick to this game,” Thomas said. “The trick is the hard work. The team that works the hardest wins.”
He says he has endured bad times with a good attitude. “I could use some money, but things have been worse,” he said.
In the mid ’70s, he had to sell his Super Bowl and NFC championship rings for $8,000.
“I was blackballed by the Cowboys, so I sold my rings in order to sustain my family and feed them,” Thomas said. “No one would hire me. I’m walking around, and my family is hungry.
You’ve got to do the things your parents would do for you. That’s the way I was brought up in South Dallas. A ring is not more valuable than the welfare of another human being.
“When I was young, hobos used to come and sleep on our porch.
We might not have anything but beans and cornbread, but we always shared what we had.”
Advice for today’s stars
Thomas is glad that team owners are paying athletes better now, but he feels contracts should be incentive-laden.
A case in point is Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez, who has an eight-year, $160-million contract and whose 2003 season, like most of his career, has been highlighted by amazing performances and pockmarked with inexplicable ones. Like Martinez, Ramirez refuses to speak to the media.
“They paid the guy the money, now what about the show?”
Thomas said. “What about the performance? They get the money up-front, and then their priorities start changing. You get that money, you don’t have to worry about the other stuff, and you should resolve yourself to be married to the sport.
“Maybe they should take some psychological help. I guarantee you, it’s not ’cause they’re crazy; it’s to keep from going crazy.
Do it from a spiritual point of view. Not talking is a defense mechanism; [Ramirez] doesn’t know what to do.
“That’s why I got into yoga, in order to deal with this.
I wasn’t used to getting myself into meditation. In spite of their greatness, they don’t have the proper counseling. He needs to pick whatever he feels most comfortable with to develop his spiritual side.”
And to those who say Duane Thomas is “wacko”?
“I’m nothing of the sort,” he said. “[Those reporters] didn’t take the time to know me. And those that did take the time, outside of Dallas, I could see the difference.
“I’m the same person. The only thing that’s changed is I might have a few gray hairs here or there. In terms of spirit, the spirit of a person doesn’t really change. I’m energy. I feel good about myself and other people. Remember, when you hit the field, money means nothing. You can’t buy a touchdown or a home run.”
He has plenty of friendly advice for today’s silent stars: “I think all of them should get press agents to deal with the media.”
After being told that talk radio callers and some media members questioned Martinez’s recent bout with pharyngitis, Thomas was dumbfounded that a veteran star would be distracted by that.
“Talk radio is not the bible of a player,” he said.
“I never read the newspapers. I can’t tell Martinez what to do, he’d tell me to kiss his [expletive], and I wouldn’t blame him. My point is this: If Martinez has money — $17.5 million for one year — hey, I’d be talking to everybody. I would’ve been more than happy to talk.”
But he added that the underlying racism that lingers in society may be a root cause of Martinez’s reaction.
Earlier this season, Martinez said some of the coverage of Chicago’s Sammy Sosa during the corked bat incident was racially motivated. WBZ Radio also reported that Martinez said some of the criticism he received for missing a start with pharyngitis was because he was a “black Dominican.”
“He’s frustrated, OK, show some sensitivity to where he really is,” Thomas said. “The underlying cause of racism is still there. I have compassion; show compassion as another human being.”
But Thomas made it clear that his 1971 silence was totally different from Martinez’s.
“It’s apples and oranges,” he said. “I never got the money. The thing is, [the Cowboys] said, `We’re not going to pay him, we don’t give a [expletive] what he does.’ They were not going to pay black players. The only player [the NFL] was going to pay was O.J. Simpson. If you weren’t Heisman Trophy [material], forget it.”