When Mike Thomas arrived at the San Diego Charger training camp last summer, a number of his new teammates were skeptical about his migration west from Washington.
"You know how it is in this game," Charger tight end Bob Klein said. "A guy's reputation always precedes him. Naturally, we have heard the stories."
The stories, as Klein called them, came from Washington. In them, Thomas was the villain of a 1978 contract dispute with the Redskins. After announcing that he would play out his option, Thomas suffered a heel injury and missed three games. Many of his Washington teammates privately accused him of dogging it because he did not want to risk serious injury while playing out his option.
Thomas angrily denied the allegations and said bon voyage to Washington at the end of the season. He was traded to the Chargers in May for a third-round draft pick. He says now he has put the bad days in Washington behind him.
"Everything has been beautiful since the day I got here," Thomas said today. "This is a great team to be a part of. I have the same feeling I had when I was in college. I'm loving the game again. We work hard, but we have a lot of fun together too. Things could not have been better all season."
According to the Chargers, Thomas quieted all skeptics quickly in camp by working hard and immediately accepting his role as a part-time halfback, sharing time with former Baltimore Colt Lydell Mitchell.
"I don't know what happened in Washington and I don't care," Charger Coach Don Coryell said. "All I care about is what's happened here. Mike's been super; he's done a great job for us and worked hard. That's all I judge from. I think he's a great person."
Thomas' teammates agree. "It took about 15 minutes for him to fit in," Klein said. "It's really hard to believe that he had trouble in Washington. In a lot of ways he's been an inspirational player on this team."
With Mitchell hurt much of the season, Thomas was the Chargers' second-leading ball carrier with 353 yards on 91 carries. He also caught 32 passes for 388 yards in the Chargers' pass-minded offense, known out here as "Air-Coryell."
"This role has worked out well for me," said Thomas, who took a beating as the Redskins' main ball carrier for four years. He gained 3,359 yards during that time, second to Larry Brown on the all-time Washington rushing list."When I carry I want the ball, I want the yards. I don't feel tired or beat up like I did sometimes in Washington."
At 26, Thomas feels reborn in San Diego, where he has been leasing the house of former teammate Joe Lavender. He says he has no regrets and holds no grudges against anyone in Washington.
"I don't miss Washington at all," he said. "But look, I think the Redskins are a class organization. I have nothing against them. They were trying to do one thing last year, I was trying to do something else. I have no hard feelings. I'm just glad to be here and not there."
Thomas was scheduled to start at halfback Saturday in the AFC divisional playoff game against the Houston Oilers. But when he missed two days of practice with the flu, Coryell decided to start Mitchell.
"I'll be out there, though," Thomas said. "No way I'm going to miss this one. It just wouldn't be right after the season we've had. I'll play. I guarantee it."