ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Thurman Thomas recalled a phone call he received a couple of weeks ago from former Buffalo Bills teammate Bruce Smith.
“Do yo know what it means to have your jersey retired?” Smith asked Thomas. “Do you realize the importance?”
“I do now,” Thomas told a sold-out crowd at New Era Field on Monday night. “Now that I’m here with you, I realize it even more.”
The Bills retired Thomas’ No. 34 during a ceremony at halftime of Buffalo’s game against the New England Patriots. He is the third player in Bills history to receive the honor. Jim Kelly had his No. 12 retired in 2001, and Smith’s No. 78 was retired in 2016.
With the lights turned out at the sold-out stadium, highlights from Thomas’ Hall of Fame career were shown on the video scoreboard while two spotlights projected 34s onto the field.
Longtime ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman introduced Thomas, who was joined by his family on an elevated platform at midfield. His name and number were unveiled on a wall above the east end zone.
“When I look up and see the No. 34 retired under my name, I’ll be reminded that number doesn’t just belong to me,” Thomas said. “It belongs to the Bills fans everywhere.”
Kelly and Smith were among several former teammates who watched the ceremony on the field. Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy and former general manager Bill Polian were also among the group.
Earl Campbell, one of two Hall of Fame running backs along with Walter Payton who inspired Thomas to wear No. 34, recorded a video message for the ceremony.
Thomas played 12 of his 13 seasons in Buffalo and is the franchise’s all-time leader in rushing yards (11,938) and yards from scrimmage (16,279). He was voted NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 1991 and led the league in yards from scrimmage in four straight seasons from 1989 to ’92.
The Bills put Thomas on their Wall of Fame in 2005, two years before he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Nine other players have worn No. 34 for the Bills, including Cookie Gilchrist, the 1962 American Football League MVP and star of Buffalo’s 1964 AFL championship team.
Oklahoma State College and Willowridge High School in Houston also have honored Thomas by retiring No. 34.