Derrick Thomas: A Life Taken Too Soon

By Bryan Dietzler 

The other day, I was watching the NFL Network and happened upon the show, A Football Life.  This show was about Derrick Thomas. Thomas, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, was another one of those players I had admired in my younger years.  And I had not thought about him for quite a few years up until that show aired.

There are several things that I remember about Thomas.  I remember that he was a master at sacking the quarterback.  I recall that he was quite the philanthropist.  I remember that his father, an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, was declared missing in action after being shot down.  I recollect his big smile, his aggressive attitude and how popular of a player he was.

Unfortunately, one more memory of Thomas I have is his death.  It was sudden and shocking. It’s something many football fans will never forget.

To help keep his memory alive and remember the man he was, I have written up a little piece on Thomas.  It will be a great read for fans who remember him to do a little looking back. Or, for those who never got the chance to see him play, they can learn more about one of the NFL’s spectacular players and finer men.

Derrick Vincent Thomas came into this world on January 1st, 1967.  He was born in Miami, Florida and was raised by his mother.  His father was shot down flying a plane in a bombing run during the Vietnam War.  He was declared lost.

Thomas’ football career began when he was very young.  There isn’t a lot of history on before going to college.  We do know that he began playing football when he was three and played at South Miami Senior High School.

He was recruited by the Alabama Crimson Tide and was part of their strong defense during his time there.  During the 1988 college football season, he recorded 27 sacks which is still an NCAA record. In fact, it’s a record that will probably never be broken.  For his effort that year, he was given the Butkus Award for the nation’s top linebacker.  Thomas was named an All-American during that stellar sack filled season to boot.  He registered 52 total sacks during his time at Alabama which is an amazing feat.

There was a place in the NFL for a big talent like Thomas, and he was sure to be a high draft pick.  He was taken by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1989 draft in the first round, fourth overall.  His Hall of Fame NFL career was set in motion.

Right out of the gate, Thomas proved himself to be an asset to the Chiefs.  He played a vital and important role on defense and made a lot of critical plays.  His first NFL season saw him get ten total sacks.  He earned some honors during his first year in the league including being selected to the Pro Bowl and earning the Sporting News’ Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Fans will probably remember the biggest game of Thomas’ life which just so happened to be one of the greatest individual performances in NFL history.  Thomas might have been thinking of his late father on that Veteran’s Day in 1990 when he had a game for the ages.  Perhaps that was his inspiration to do what he did that day.

Against the Seattle Seahawks, Thomas recorded a total of seven sacks.  That is still a record that stands.

An interesting thing about that game is that Thomas had a chance at ending it and sealing the win for the Chiefs himself.   On the game’s final play, Seattle quarterback David Kreig was under heavy pressure from Thomas.  Escaping a sack, Kreig threw a touchdown pass, and the Seahawks ended up with a 17-16 victory.  It was on the only sack Thomas didn’t get that day.  He regretted not getting that sack for the rest of his career.

Some of the stats he put up during his NFL career include posting a whopping 126.5 sacks.  He was voted to a total of nine Pro Bowls and named NFL All-Pro six times.

A few of the Kansas City Chiefs’ team records that Thomas holds include the career record in safeties (3), forced fumbles (41) and fumble recoveries (19).  He had quite a productive career.

Not only did Thomas do a lot on the field but he also helped a lot of people off it.  He helped found his Third and Long Foundation which was geared towards helping tackle illiteracy in urban youth.  His foundation worked to help children escape inner city violence as well.  A school was established in 2002 that helped children for 11 years.  It has since been closed.

The part of the story that I have been trying to avoid telling has come.  But it must be told.

A snowstorm hit the Kansas City area on January 23, 2000.  Driving was dangerous that day and not recommended.  I just so happened that Thomas and a couple of friends were heading to the airport to catch a flight to St. Louis to watch the NFC Championship game.  They would not get to their destination.

It’s been said that Thomas was traveling around 100 miles per hour on icy roads while weaving around cars on the roadway.  His car went off the road and Thomas, along with another passenger, were ejected from the vehicle.  The other person who was ejected was killed.  The third passenger in the vehicle, who had been wearing a seatbelt, walked away unharmed.

Because of being ejected from the vehicle, Thomas was paralyzed from the chest down.  After some time, he was sent to his hometown of Miami to receive treatment.  On the 8th of February, he reportedly stated that he was ill.  Shortly after that, he died.  His death was a result of a pulmonary embolism which developed because of his paralysis.

Honors for Thomas poured in following his death.  In 2009, he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and inducted that August.  He had been declared a finalist four years in a row but had finally made the fifth time.  In December of 2009, his jersey number 58 was retired by Kansas City.  And, the Chief’s Player of the Year honor is named after Thomas.

Although Thomas met a terrible and tragic end his life was a good one, and his NFL career was a great one.   We should never remember the sad things about someone but, instead, should remember the positive things that people do in their lives.  Thomas was a role model to many, a spectacular talent to those he played with and against and one of the greats of the NFL.

His NFL single game sack record will probably never be broken.  People will want to be like him.  They try to emulate him.  He will live in the memory of all football fans who witnessed his greatness.

Derrick Thomas will, forever, have a foothold in the NFL and will never be forgotten.

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