ATLANTA - All alone on the bench yet accompanied with inner despair and disappointment sat a forlorn man in full uniform, cradling his helmet, as the clock mercifully put an end to another painful Buffalo Bills' experience in football's grand finale, the Super Bowl.
This was the strong and prideful Thurman Thomas, wearing jersey No. 34, who has never known what it is to be a liability to himself or a team. He twice fumbled away what converted into 10 opposition points at critical moments and is Exhibit A when it comes to personifying the continual frustration of the Buffalo Bills.
Super Bowl XXVIII, with 72,817 in-house witnesses to what was transpiring, offered a striking tableau of Thomas' enduring this overload of unfortunate torment. He needed a shoulder to cry on and two Dallas Cowboys were to offer personal compassion, in this moment of anguish, by embracing him in the middle of the field before he made the long, lonesome walk to his fourth straight losing Super Bowl locker room.
Huge Charles Haley hugged him and then his opposite number, Emmitt Smith, the best running back in all of football and the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player, were there to offer the solace true professionals try to give each other in crushing moments such as this.
Thomas' first miscue led to a field goal for the Cowboys and then his second error translated into a touchdown in the third period. After that the competence of Dallas asserted itself. The Bills were history.
In fact, the final score of 30-13 wasn't a true indication of the Cowboys' dominance. They were much better than that. Thomas said he would "take the blame" but, bottom line, the Bills didn't have enough weapons to win.
Then Thurman followed up by saying he would live with the failure and assured the reporters around him that "I'm not going to drink myself to death or go kill myself." After all, it's just a game and what happened to him is all apart of being a ball carrier.
For the Bills to have beaten the Cowboys it would have been necessary for them to play well beyond their ability, to not commit a mistake and prevent the Cowboys from ever getting into their offensive rhythm. That was too large an order. It wasn't to be.
The Bills, to their credit, made a powerful emotional effort. But it wasn't enough. They were outclassed and when the outcome was still on the line, at 13-13, after Thomas' second bobble enabled the Cowboys to tie the proceedings, they weren't able to scratch up a point in the remaining 29 minutes of action.
Now the Bills must assume an infamous place in history. Four trips to the coveted Super Bowl and nothing to show for the mighty effort it takes to get there but successive losses.
Dallas and its loquacious Jimmy Johnson is difficult to endure but he obviously can coach. He took a team that first fell into disarray when he got there in 1989, winning one game and losing 15.
Now, in record time, he has joined Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll and Don Shula as the only coaches to ever win consecutive Super Bowls. Johnson can handle the technical part and, even if he's a bore, is able to extract the most from his players. Like him or not, he's a winner.
The Bills' Jim Kelly used a hunt-and-peck passing attack early on, preferring to gain nickel and dime yardage as he kept his team in contention. When the Cowboys caught up and went ahead, 20-13, Kelly tried to force a pass and paid the price - an interception by James Washington that all but extinguished any fire they had left.
Smith's ability to perceive what's happening up front, to juke a bit and run with extraordinary speed, strength and balance makes him a back that reminds you only of Emmitt Smith. He's just different enough to be in a class by himself.
Nate Newton, a mere 325-pound pulling guard, said from his perspective, "Emmitt was making all the right moves. A couple of times I pulled out on sweeps and he cut it up early, but the linebackers were keying me and he was gashing them."
Newton insisted the Cowboys' offensive line had too much size for the Bills to handle. "Up front we controlled them," he said. "When you're messing with a bunch of 350-pound men you've got to 'root hog' or die."
Marv Levy, the Bills coach, knew his team had made a full effort. Kelly is no Troy Aikman as a passer or a runner. So Dallas over-matched Buffalo.
Thomas, the best back in the AFC, has never been a fumbler. "You take that chance when you walk out on the field," was the simple way Levy explained the turnovers but he also knew they contributed to the loss.
The Bills weren't embarrassed as a year ago when they fell to the same team, 52-17. This was a case of something more simplistic. They were in over their heads.