Column - Pete Moris
Remembering Derrick Thomas (1967-2000)Dec 05, 2009, 6:58:58 AM
LB Derrick Thomas passed away in his hometown of Miami, Florida, but his effervescent personality, his unforgettable smile, his unbridled spirit and his unquenchable thirst for life will live on.
Designated by former President George Bush as his “832nd Point of Light” for his efforts in the Kansas City community, Thomas not only was a bonafide NFL star in terms of his contributions on the field, but more importantly, he illuminated the lives of the countless individuals he touched through his “Third and Long Foundation” and other charitable endeavors.
Thomas received the National Football League’s most prestigious honor when he was named the ‘93 NFL Man of the Year for his community activities. Among Thomas’ many other notable philanthropic honors, in June of ‘95 he was the winner of the Bryon “Whizzer” White Humanitarian Award for his service to his team, his community and his country.
The son of Air Force Captain Robert Thomas, the Chiefs linebacker was just five years old when his father’s plane was shot down while it was returning from a mission in Vietnam on December 17, 1972, codenamed “Operation: Linebacker Two.” A longtime supporter of a variety of veterans’ causes, Thomas gave the keynote speech at the Memorial Day services conducted at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in ‘93, received the prestigious Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall of Fame Award, and had frequently flown and trained with Air Force pilots.
After a stellar prep tenure at South Miami (Florida) High School, Thomas went on to an All-America career at the University of Alabama, where he won the ‘88 Butkus Award as the best linebacker in collegiate football and was a consensus All-America selection.
Thomas joined the Chiefs family as Kansas City’s first-round selection (fourth overall) in the ‘89 NFL Draft. After wearing #55 in college, he donned #58 for the Chiefs, a number which would soon become synonymous with defensive excellence, symbolized by Thomas’ signature sack and strip move.
It was not only the beginning of Thomas’ NFL career, it was a rebirth for a Chiefs franchise which had made just one playoff appearance since ‘71, the last year the club won an AFC West division title. He earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and the Chiefs Mack Lee Hill Award with 10.0 sacks in ‘89. He also merited the first of his nine consecutive Pro Bowl berths.
Kansas City would then make the playoffs in just Thomas’ second season in ‘90, when he led the NFL with 20.0 sacks. One of Thomas’ defining moments came during that ‘90 season when he set a league single-game record with 7.0 sacks in a contest vs. Seattle. Appropriately, that contest came on Veteran’s Day, November 11th. The Chiefs lost that game 17-16 as an eighth sack slipped through his grasp as QB Dave Krieg escaped to hit WR Paul Skansi for the game-winning, 25-yard TD on the game’s final play. Although upset over the loss, Thomas maintained his usual sense of levity after that contest.
“I was on a mission today,” he said following the game. “I read in the paper that Derrick Thomas was in a sack slump.”
Such slumps were rare during Thomas’ career. In ‘91, he became the first linebacker in Chiefs history to earn the team’s MVP award. It was in that same year that Thomas founded his “Third and Long Foundation,” a nationally-renowned reading program for inner-city youths in Kansas City. His contagious enthusiasm sparked the imaginations of countless young students throughout the Midwest. (In 2009, “The Third and Long Foundation” is celebrating its 20th anniversary in Kansas City with Thomas’ longtime friend and teammate, DE Neil Smith, currently serving as the organization’s driving force).
While Thomas was firmly cementing his place as a philanthropist in the Kansas City community, he was also set on engraving his name as one of the finest to ever play the linebacker position. In ‘93, Kansas City made a remarkable playoff march – upsetting the red-hot Houston Oilers who had won 11 straight games – to advance to the first AFC Championship Game in the franchise’s history.
“For me, my goals are a lot higher than just being a successful linebacker or being All-Pro,” Thomas said after the ‘94 campaign. “When my career is over, I want people to look back and view me as the best, or one of the two best to ever play the position.”
There was no question that the individual Thomas viewed as the best to ever play the position was N.Y. Giants Hall of Famer, Lawrence Taylor. D.T. frequently hypothesized about how his career would stack up against that of the “other” linebacker who was known on an initials-only basis, L.T.
“Well, I don’t know if you can really categorize L.T. as a true linebacker because L.T. never dropped in coverage,” Thomas chuckled during one such conversation in ‘94. “L.T. never covered anybody, but that wasn’t his thing. His job was to blitz and to create havoc. L.T. went about things in his own way and he was very successful at it.”
In 13 seasons with the Giants from ‘81-93, L.T. played in 184 games, producing 132.5 sacks and 10 Pro Bowl berths. In 11 seasons with the Chiefs, Thomas played in 169 games recording 126.5 sacks and nine Pro Bowl appearances. However, it was in the turnover department where D.T. truly overshadows his counterpart. Thomas established Chiefs career records with 45 forced fumbles, 19 fumble recoveries, four TDs and three safeties, compared to 33 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, two TDs and no safeties for Taylor.
The ‘95 season may have marked the crowning moment of Thomas’ gridiron tenure as the Chiefs defense led by Thomas was simply stifling. Kansas City led the NFL in scoring defense (15.1 ppg), TDs allowed (23) and yards per play (4.3), while ranking second in total defense by permitting just 284.3 yards per game. The Chiefs finished the year with a 13-3 regular season record, capping that performance with a 26-3 thrashing of Seattle in the regular season finale, permitting the Seahawks to just 89 yards of total offense in the game, the lowest tally in franchise history. Following the game, Thomas and Smith emerged from the locker room for a parade lap around the stadium to celebrate another AFC West title. Bearing a Chiefs flag in his hands, it was yet another fitting salute from Thomas to Kansas City’s ravenous fans who loved him so much.
In ‘97, the Chiefs and Thomas were back to their dominating ways once again as Kansas City again captured the AFC West crown with another 13-3 regular season record. In a thrilling 24-22 win vs. the Denver Broncos (11/16/97), Thomas reached another milestone, getting career sack number 100.0. Appropriately, that sack came against QB John Elway, the adversary Thomas sacked more times than any other.
“To document it in the record books that the 100th came on Elway makes it more special because John is one of the best to ever play the game,” Thomas said afterwards.
Of course, Thomas also loved defeating the Raiders, something he did 19 times during his career. He scored the fourth and final TD of his career on a 44-yard fumble return at Oakland (12/26/98), a game that would also conclude the Chiefs tenure of head coach Marty Schottenheimer, a man whom Thomas admired so much.
“Derrick Thomas spent his entire professional career in Kansas City and it was my good fortune to coach him all but one year,” Schottenheimer said. “Arriving in Kansas City as a young man of 22, he distinguished himself not only athletically, but also as a caring and giving person.”
In ‘99, Thomas registered his first career interception, the one stat that had eluded him for the first 10 years of his pro career. That pickoff came in a 34-0 shutout win vs. San Diego (10/31/99), as the Chiefs defense stirred memories of its dominating past.
After Gunther Cunningham, his defensive coordinator of four years, was promoted to the club’s head coaching post, it was Thomas who delivered the game ball following Cunningham’s first regular season win with the club, a 26-10 win vs. Denver at Arrowhead (9/19/99).
“He hasn’t come back down to Earth yet,” D.T. said of Cunningham following the game. “As soon as he comes back down, I’ll let you know how he’s doing.”
Despite suffering serious injuries in a traffic accident on January 23rd of this same year, until the very end, it was Thomas who was always concerned about how others were doing, including Cunningham.
“The last time I talked to Derrick, it was halftime of the Super Bowl,” said an emotional Cunningham. “I saw all of the guys out there for the coin toss with the number 58 on their chests. I saw some fans in the stands wearing Derrick’s jersey, so Carl (Peterson) and I called him. I wasn’t doing real well at the time and Derrick said, ‘Coach, be strong.’ He never told me how strong I had to be.”
Derrick Thomas was undoubtedly one of the strongest players the Chiefs, the NFL, or the entire game of football has ever known.
Derrick Thomas was unquestionably one of the strongest, most giving and most caring men the Kansas City community has ever embraced.
“Coach, be strong.”
Derrick Thomas the man, Derrick Thomas the player, Derrick Thomas our friend would have wanted us to be strong right now.
So our beloved “D.T.”, what else can we do?
You know none of us could ever say “no” to you.