“You have these memories,” Thomas says. “And you have to erase them quickly.”
On February 4, 2007, Thomas Jones was exactly where he was supposed to be. He was playing in the Super Bowl, and doing so as the starting running back for the Chicago Bears, just like his childhood idol, Walter Payton. He was a team leader both in the locker room and on the field.
On that day in Miami, in Super Bowl XLI, he was a star: 112 yards on just 15 carries, and the 5th longest run in Super Bowl history. His yardage total would have been a franchise single-game postseason rushing record, if he hadn’t set it the game before with 123 yards in the NFC championship. Those two games made him the first — and still only — player in franchise history with multiple 100-yard rushing games in the playoffs.
None of that mattered, of course. The Bears lost 29-17. And Thomas Jones would never wear the Bears uniform again. That wasn’t his plan. When he signed a four-year, $10 million deal with the team in 2004, he found his home. But he also outplayed his deal. So he and his agent Drew Rosenhaus came to GM Jerry Angelo to restructure it. The Bears wouldn’t bite.
Instead, they traded Jones to the JEts, giving him an unwanted place in history as the only running back to be traded immediately after rushing for 100 yards in a Super Bowl.
His career was forever altered.
“I felt like once I had to transition from a Bear to a Jet, everything else from Chicago kind of got lost,” he says now. “And I never really had a chance to have any kind of closure from a relationship perspective to a football perspective.
“Because my career changed in Chicago. Everything clicked. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’m living my dream.’ But when you get traded so fast, everything fades away.”
He never returned to Halas Hall. He had movers clear out his home in Grayslake to put his belongings in storage in his home state of Virginia. He began preparing for the season ahead with the Jets. There was no big goodbye with teammates and coaches. No closing press conference. The dream was over.
Since winning the 2006 NFC championship in front of the home fans, Thomas has only been back to Soldier Field once: as a member of the visiting Kansas City Chiefs in 2011. And he’s only been back to Chicago once since then: as an actor in 2013, filming an episode of Shameless. His break from the game has been absolute.
Yet he still loves Chicago. He still loves the Bears. He still loves his teammates — his brothers, as he says. Twitter has helped him reconnect with his brothers, and stay close now that they no longer share a locker room. Jason McKie, Adrian Peterson, J.D. Runnels — the men who with Thomas and Cedric Benson coined themselves the “B-Unit.” “Best backs in the league!” they would chant. He’s also stayed close with Olin Kreutz; an interview last month in which Kreutz, Patrick Mannelly and Hub Arkush had Thomas on their show on 670 The Score was a sports radio highlight.
Twelve years after his departure from the franchise, Thomas’s presence is widely felt. Many former teammates, including Urlacher, Kreutz and Charles Tillman, have pointed to Thomas’s departure as a key turning point in franchise history. He was not invited to the team’s 2019 Bears 100 reunion this past June, yet his teammates couldn’t stop talking about him there, and the fans couldn’t stop cheering him.
The fans still cheer him. I see it everyday. Thomas does too. And he wants to soak it in again.
“A couple of years ago, I was looking through all of my old football tapes and highlight reels, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t have a Bears highlight reel,’” he says. “And once you’re finished, you look back at your career and say, ‘The one place that changed my career, I have faint memories of.’ It just really motivated me to want to get something like this done.”
“This” is a highlight reel. And since this summer, videographer Robert Schmitz and I have worked with Thomas to produce a reel that encapsulates his time in Chicago.
On one level, we wanted this video to be a standard highlight reel, something that would let fans bask in Thomas’s Bears greatness. But we also wanted it to be something else — a piece that honors the connection Thomas felt with the city, the franchise and the fans, and that honors the connection that the fans felt to him, #20.
The bond that Thomas and his brothers felt cannot be overstated. Both Jason McKie and Alex Brown mailed to Robert a boatload of game DVDs from 2005 to 2006, and it’s with those, with Thomas’s DVDs from 2004, with existing footage and with Thomas’s narration that we made this tape. It is for Bears fans, and it is for Thomas.
“I was traded pretty quickly after Super Bowl XLI to the Jets, and I never really got a chance to actually say goodbye to my teammates or the fans in the city of Chicago,” Thomas says in the reel. “But I’m forever grateful for the experience. The only regret that I have in my whole career is that we didn’t win that Super Bowl in Miami, and that I didn’t stay for a couple more years to possibly win one.
“But, listen, I had the chance to play for the Chicago Bears. To play running back like my idol Walter Payton. And I’m grateful that I had that chance.”
We are too, Thomas. We are too.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bulls. He is the proprietor of the Chicago sports history Instagram “A Shot on Ehlo.” Say hey at @readjack.