Russ Thomas was a curmudgeonly soul, a sort of modern day Charles Dickens-type character.
He walked with a limp and had an old, craggy face and seemed to live in a time about two generations before the rest of us.
And he was tight-fisted with the cash that his boss charged him with overseeing.
Thomas was the Lions’ GM, way before Matt Millen soiled himself in that role.
Thomas had played for the Lions in the early-1950s, was a radio broadcaster for the team, and ended up in the good stead of Bill Ford when Ford bought out the syndicate owning the Lions in 1964.
Ford made Russ Thomas his general manager, and it was as if the Lions were under the thumb of Ebeneezer Scrooge reincarnated.
Thomas had yearly go-rounds with players and coaches, almost always about money. Ole Russ had this funny thought: why pay them fair market value before putting them through the wringer first?
And even then, Russ might not loosen his grip on the wad.
The Lions, maybe out of blind luck than anything else, had drafted some Hall of Fame players in the middle of the 1960s. Legendary names, truth be told.
Receiver Fred Biletnikoff. Safety Johnny Robinson. Quarterback John Hadl.
Trouble was, each and every one of them were legends for teams in the American Football League—Biletnikoff with the Oakland Raiders; Robinson with the Kansas City Chiefs; Hadl with the San Diego Chargers.
This is because the tightwad Russ Thomas wasn’t willing to meet the contract demands of these priceless players, so they jumped to the rival AFL.
Who knows how successful the Lions might have been with players like that toiling for them in the 1960s and part of the ’70s.
It was stuff like that, and more, that made Russ Thomas Matt Millen in Detroit before Millen even graduated from high school.
Thomas was vilified in Detroit; the most-hated executive this town has ever seen. And we’re talking about a city that has seen the likes of Ned Harkness with the Red Wings and the lightning rod Millen with the Lions.
It’s the view of this grizzled rabble-rouser that the hatred for Thomas ran deeper than that for Millen, because Thomas’ own players despised him.
Twenty years ago, Thomas had announced that 1989 would be his last season. But he had time for one last go-round with a superstar player.
The Lions, those blind squirrels, had lucked upon a nut in the ’89 draft. The Green Bay Packers gift-wrapped running back Barry Sanders for them after passing on Barry to take mammoth tackle Tony Mandarich.
Yeah, I know.
So here comes Barry, the most electrifying player the Lions had on their hands since the days of Billy Sims and, before Billy, Lem Barney.
But Russ Thomas was being miserly again.
Barry and his dual agents wanted a certain dollar figure to sign with the Lions. Russ balked. Lions fans rolled their eyes, but with a twist.
If Russ Thomas blows this for us, they said, then there’s no telling what we’re capable of doing—to the Lions financially, and to Russ physically.
There was no AFL, of course, for Barry to use as leverage, but there was the Canadian league. Rumors started that Barry Sanders might take his jitterbug running style north of the border.
Training camp came and went. The stand-off between Thomas and Sanders’ people dragged on throughout the summer.
The exhibition season came and went. Still, Sanders remained unsigned.
Then, just days before the Lions’ season opener against the Cardinals at home, the word came: Barry Sanders had, finally, come to agreement on a contract.
But it was only about 72 hours before game time. And Sanders hadn’t so much as attended one practice session.
The Lions hosted the Cardinals, and Barry was in uniform, though he didn’t start. Information leaked that Sanders would certainly play, at least a little—though it was unknown when in the game he’d get the chance.
In the second quarter, Sanders jogged onto the field with the rest of the Lions’ offense, and the Silverdome crowd went mad. He was wearing no. 20, the number worn so well by Sims and Barney.
He took a handoff, and, without the benefit of training camp, practice, or anything football-related, Sanders slithered through the Cardinals’ defense to the tune of 17 yards.
He earned his first contract on that initial carry alone.
Sanders’ contract squabble was Thomas’ going away present. He retired, as promised, at the end of the 1989 season.
Russ is gone now, but he’s not forgotten, at least not by fellow curmudgeons who’ve been following the team for almost 40 years, like the one banging on his keyboard right now.
Twenty years later, the Lions got their prized rookie, Matthew Stafford, signed in a heartbeat.
No CFL for him, I guess.
I wonder what Russ Thomas would think of Matthew’s contract terms? If he wasn’t already dead, it would no doubt kill him.