As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve had plenty of interactions with celebrities, and most of those instances with athletes. Some of the meetings have been positive, like shooting around with Miami Heat players while in high school because they used my high school gym as a practice facility. Some of the meetings have been negative, like the acerbic, attitude-filled and ego-soaked exchanges with Dan Marino and Hanley Ramirez. And some have been fleeting, like serving Serena Williams coffee while working at Starbucks and trying to ignore the funk that wafted from the woman. But of all my stories with athletes, my time with hall-of-fame running back Thurman Thomas was perhaps the most delightful.
While in college, I worked at Starbucks with a very close-knit group of friends. One summer, we had the opportunity to serve as volunteers for Jim Kelly’s charity auction and golf tournament that benefited his foundation, Hunter’s Hope. At this point in my life, my following of sports bordered very much on overzealous fanaticism, and the opportunity to mingle with current and former professional football players and maybe land an autograph was too enticing to pass up. No matter the menial work that would be assigned. An added benefit of volunteering was a room at the Loews Hotel on Miami Beach for the weekend. (The fact that 6 guys would share one room did not damper our level of excitement.)
All of us being in our early twenties, we jumped at the chance and found ourselves on that Saturday afternoon prowling pool-side. We eagerly awaited the opportunity to circulate amongst some of the greatest football players of the generation. At this point, most of Kelly’s guest had yet to arrive for the charity auction that evening, and the ballroom had already been dressed by the hotel staff, so we were free to swim, drink, and ogle. It wasn’t until later that night that we would really start working.
In the evening, celebrity guests filtered in for the charity auction. Clad in our very best, we watched, practically salivating as player after player entered the ballroom. There were former Dolphins, including Marino; former Canes like Vinny Testeverde and Bernie Kosar; and plenty of former Bills like Bruce Smith and Thurman Thomas. The evening’s emcee was none other than Julius Erving. Dr. J was among the more amiable of the athletes as he stopped to shake our hands (his hand swallowing mine), chat, and even snap a group picture.
Jim Kelly’s assistant stalked the receiving area, repeatedly firing wide-eyed glances at our group if we made too much of a commotion at an arrival. She clearly did not like us, or our zealous appreciation for the guests. At her first opportunity, the clipboard wielding commander shuffled us off to different sections of the auction, and I bitterly found myself stationed outside the ballroom with my friend Larry. We were tasked with distribution of the gift bags for all who attended the auction, and witnessed, green-eyed, as our friends entered the room with the players, their escorts, and other monied guests. All we wanted was to be in that room, near the players, but we were tethered to a table and had to love it. After a flurry of arrivals that had us elbowing each other under the table and whispering, “Did you see _____?”, activity outside the ballroom lulled.
We spent the next hour or so making tissue paper footballs and flicking field goals through finger up-rights. We debated whether or not we had enough time to hustle to the hotel bar and grab a drink before we’d be missed, but seemingly omniscient eye of Kelly’s assistant kept us tied to our station. Our orders were simple, make sure every guest leaves with a gift bag and a parting smile, but the all-pervading assistant trailed almost every person to exit the ballroom, just waiting for a misstep to throw us out of the hotel. The gift bags needed dispersal, even though we had already established over-under odds on the amount of bags to be left in the trash beside the valet counter.
We sat, gift bags arrayed before us, for a couple of hours before guest started exiting. From time to time, a friend of ours would pop his head out of the ballroom to excitedly relay they’d helped one player or another, or that someone had just paid an exorbitant sum for an autographed something-or-other. Each time they returned to the ballroom, we’d be left with the gift bags and maybe a newspaper photographer. It wasn’t until a cocktail carrying Thurman Thomas staggered from the ballroom that our night didn’t truly improve.
Thurman Thomas had, earlier that summer, signed with the Miami Dolphins after ten Hall-of-Fame worthy seasons as the Buffalo Bills featured running back. The man had lead the Bills to four Super Bowls, and almost single-handedly defeated the best Dolphins team I’ve ever seen with his performance in the 1993 AFC championship game. Now the man lumbered over to us, shrugging off gravity’s grip like a defensive back, and parked himself in my chair. He placed his umbrellaed drink beside a gift bag and leaned back, the red in his eyes and his unsteady movements betraying the man’s normally stalwart athleticism.
He wasn’t much of a talker, clearly seeking a short reprive from the ballroom for one reason or another. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for the long-time Bill to sign with his former archrivals, the Dolphins, then attend the charity auction of one of his former Buffalo teammates in Miami. While Larry and I made small talk with the legend, an old couple exited the ballroom, and angled toward the gift bags. Probably because they saw Thurman Thomas sitting there, and not for a dire need to have the bag despite Jim Kelly’s steely-eyed assistant following closely at their heels. When the clipboard carrying woman witnessed what was unfolding before her, she was mortified. We smiled.
The old man carried an encased Bills helmet, the decorated metal adorned with autographs from Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and our guest at the gift bag table, Thurman Thomas. The old woman carried a Dolphins helmet signed by Dan Marino, her husband having fetched both prizes earlier at the auction. Kelly’s assistant stood helplessly as the old man sang the praises of Thurman, announcing that all Bills fans mourn his loss to the Dolphins and scorn the fact that Ralph Wilson, long-time owner of the Bills, didn’t pony up the cash to keep their legend a Bill for life.
When the old man’s wife realized Thurman had signed with the Dolphins, she wanted the drunk running back to sign her Dolphins helmet. He hesitated, sipping his drink. Kelly’s assistant plucked a gift bag from the table and handed it to the old man, placing her clipboard at the small of the man’s back and nudging him ever slightly toward the lobby. But the old man’s wife stoodfast, refusing to leave without the signature. Thurman shrugged and said he didn’t have a marker, but we produced one quickly. (We had a stash of markers in hopes of procuring our own autographed paraphernalia.) Thurman tried to focus on the writing utensil, and after another sip, he grabbed it. I removed the casing from the helmet as the old woman clapped in delight. Kelly’s assistant glared at us.
Thurman Thomas’ focus glazed over as he uncapped the pen. His look lingered on the red Bills helmet, then slipped to the white Dolphins one. His eyes shifted from Jim Kelly’s name on one to Marino’s name on the other. Then, with a drunken flick of the wrist, Thurman Thomas scrawled his name illegibly beneath the logo on the metal, capped the pen, and sipped his drink. The woman hopped, scurried around the table and planted a kiss on the man’s cheek. We offered to snap a picture for the couple, and the pair croutched beside a near-comatose Thurman.
Kelly’s assistant fumed beside us, her pen clicking the clipboard. She could stand it no longer. She pulled the woman away, her most politcal smile pasted on her plastic face, and chatted as she forced a gift bag into the wrinkled hands of the old man’s wife. As we replaced the case on the helmet, a glazed look sat on Thurman’s face. He stared lifelessly at the Dolphins helmet before him. His sight swirled to a more readible rendition of his name on the Bills helmet. The old man thanked him again, and Thurman grunted his response.
The legend’s focus remained on the two helmets before him as the old man turned to Kelly’s assistant to thank her for a wonderful evening. At this point, Larry leaned in, gestured with his chin toward the helmets and asked Thurman, “How does that feel?”
The man sat. He clutched the last of his drink, and downed it in a shot. Then he spoke.
“That’s fucked up.”
At this, he rose wobbily from the gift bag table and patted us on the back, though probably just to maintain balance. He staggered back to the ballroom. The old couple gathered their helmets, pilfered a second gift bag, and hustled toward the lobby. Kelly’s assistant waved her clipboard, then spun on her heel, and retreated to the auction without so much as a glance at Larry or myself. I returned to my seat, leaned back with my feet propped on the edge of the table, and knew we now had the best story from the evening, and once we got to booze it up with our buddies, we’d delight in their jealousy.