Around The Web: The Career, Life, and Legacy of Derrick Thomas

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Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas will be enshrined today in Canton, OH as part of the 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.  There are literally thousands of articles floating around today about Thomas and all are worth your time.  Below are three that stood out.

After Thomas chose not to work out at the 1989 NFL combine, the Chiefs had to find other ways to figure out what kind of player they were looking at.  Randy Covitz details the unlikely story of how Thomas worked his way to the top of the Chiefs draft board.

When the Chiefs’ scouting entourage paid a visit to the University of Alabama, Carl Peterson, then in his first months as the club’s president and general manager, put Thomas through as grueling a workout as he could devise.  But it was Thomas who got the last laugh.

“Derrick worked out with about three other linebackers,” recalled Bill Cowher, then the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, who accompanied Peterson to the workout.  “We put them through a bunch of drills, and Derrick just kept going and going.  I looked back, and I said, ‘That’s about enough,’ and Carl says, ‘No, I want to see more.’  So we kept doing more.  And all of a sudden another linebacker dropped out and was about dead, and I looked back at Carl, and he said, ‘More.’

“Then another linebacker dropped out, and I said, ‘Carl, I’ve been through the linebacker drills, I’ve put them through defensive-back drills,’ and he says, ‘No, I want more.’  Finally, the other linebackers couldn’t take anymore.  It was a hot day.  I said, ‘Carl, I don’t have any more drills.’  He said, ‘OK.’

“And Derrick looked at me and grinned, and said, ‘Coach, are you done?  Don’t you have any more?’

“I kind of chuckled, because I know it was making Carl very mad because he was trying to make him get so tired.  Everyone else around him was sick, they couldn’t breathe, and Derrick kept on going, and he wanted more.”

That workout and a brilliant college career persuaded Peterson to select Thomas — the 1988 Butkus Award winner and the SEC’s all-time sack leader with 52 — with the fourth pick of the draft, two spots ahead of another linebacker the Chiefs had been considering, Broderick Thomas of Nebraska.

“There wasn’t any question among us,” Peterson said.  “If Derrick fell to the fourth pick, he would be our guy.”

Can you imagine how different the fortunes of the Kansas City Chiefs would have been if that workout at the University of Alabama never happened?  And instead Carl Peterson decided to go with a different Thomas, Broderick out of Nebraska?

There are so many stories about Derrick Thomas that I will never get tired of and that workout is right at the top.  To me, it perfectly captures the type of player he was.  No one could ever out work him and as his work ethic frustrated people he seemed to feed off of that frustration.  Peterson wanted to show these kids that they weren’t ready for the next level yet in an attempt to bring them back down to earth and Thomas just annihilated that plan.

The off-the-field life of Thomas has been discussed at length over the past few weeks.  Michael Silver at Yahoo! Sports gives one of the more personal accounts you will find out there today.

He drove his Mercedes sedan toward the most crowded corner in Kansas City, surveying a jam-packed Westport intersection on a September Saturday night.  With N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” blasting from the Blaupunkt speakers, Derrick Thomas started to hang a right turn onto Pennsylvania Ave. before calling what appeared to be an audible, settling the car into a diagonal position that swallowed up two crosswalks.

Then, to his passenger’s amazement, Thomas put the Benz in park, killed the engine, set the alarm and prepared to enter the bustling bar a few feet away, the presence of three police cruisers on the block be damned.

I stood in the street and looked at Thomas, the NFL’s best pass-rushing linebacker since Lawrence Taylor, a great player who’ll deservedly be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on Saturday.  He stood on the curb and looked back at me.

“Come on, man,” Thomas exclaimed in his singsong voice, flashing his broad, ivory smile and slightly raising his substantial forehead.  “Everyone knows my car!”

It was 1996, and the chipper Chief’s assessment that he owned the town proved to be an accurate one: Hours later we emerged after last call and re-entered the Benz, untouched and devoid of parking tickets.  From there DT, pro football’s perpetual Pied Piper, rolled out to an after-hours party, where I watched him befriend a homeless man at the door and, after entering, do the Macarena till his long legs were shot.

That’s how it always seemed to go down with Thomas, and I was hardly the only one lucky enough to get in on the action.  Gregarious and indefatigable, Thomas, when it came to co-mingling with his peers, was the most popular player of his era.

Picture a time without microblogging or social networking; without PDAs or text messaging; when email was something you did at your desktop with a dial-up phone line plugged into the back of your computer; when the bloggers of the future sat on couches and mumbled to themselves; when there was no such thing as Caller ID, and only a few people you knew had cell phones.

Go back to that bygone age, and consider the notion that the NFL’s communal pulse ran through Derrick Thomas.  Now realize that this is not a stretch, and that there are scores of well-known character witnesses who’d willfully testify that the tenacious tackler of quarterbacks was particularly averse to hitting the sack.

Can you even imagine Derrick Thomas trying to play and live in today’s society?  We live in a world where people like me get worried when Larry Johnson spends a weekend in Vegas.  Dick Vermeil, Herman Edwards, Todd Haley or any coach would pull their hair out with the amount of TMZ-quality gossip Thomas would have produced.  I don’t think Derrick Thomas could have been Derrick Thomas in a world where players are being fined for tweeting about training camp food.

SI’s Peter King, who stopped by Chiefs training camp earlier this week, looks at how Derrick Thomas’ legacy lives on with his son Derrion.

There’s going to be a tear or two shed when Derrion comes up on the video board before his dad’s bust is unveiled Saturday night at the Hall here.

Derrion used to sit at the 50-yard-line at Arrowhead Stadium for Chiefs home games, and he and his father would talk about school, life and most anything but football as he grew.  Derrion was a swimmer in his formative years, then followed in his dad’s footsteps by becoming a pass rusher at Blue Springs South High in the Kansas City area.  In his senior season last fall, his team faced prohibitive favorite Rockhurst in the Class 6 state quarterfinals, and the day of the game, one of his dad’s old friends from the Chiefs, equipment man Allen Wright, asked him to come by Arrowhead Stadium beforehand.

“When the accident happened and Derrick passed away, we took all his equipment and put it in a trunk and locked it away,” Wright said this week.  “We figured someday his mom or the Hall of Fame would want it.  But with this game coming up for Derrion, I just got the idea in the back of my mind that maybe this was the special moment and we should open the trunk.  Derrion came by, and I said, ‘You got something a little extra for Rockhurst?  This is a big game.’  And I gave him his dad’s shoulder pads.  It was, well, it was very emotional for both me and him.”

Said Derrion: “It was surreal.  I could not believe it.  I didn’t even know the pads still were around.”

Derrion is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.  His dad played at 6-3, 243.   Derrion didn’t even know if the pads would fit.  But they did — like a glove.  When he put them on for the first time, he thought the pads had been through a lot, and he couldn’t wear them and not play great.

“When I put them on, I just knew I had to try to play at the level he played at,” said Derrion.  “I felt like he was with me.  I don’t want to say it was exactly like this, but I felt like I really had to live up to his legacy that night.”

Rockhurst, one of the favorites for the state title, got blitzkrieged by Derrion Thomas that night.  His five sacks — a career best — led Blue Springs South to a 14-9 upset victory.

“I never felt like that before in a game, that energized.”

This weekend, Derrion will bring the shoulder pads to Canton, to share them with the Hall of Fame.  He thought of bringing the pads with him to the University of Missouri, where he’ll be a walk-on freshman linebacker this fall, but he thought they belonged with his father’s bust.  For posterity.

Derrick Thomas would be so incredibly proud of how his son has handled himself over the past couple of months.  The spotlight has been squarely shining on this young man and he has been nothing short of amazing handling the extra attention.  As I’ve said previously, I cannot wait to see the video later today that he is a part of with his Grandmother.  Congratulations, Derrion and enjoy this weekend.  Your father would have.

One comments

  1. [...] Up next is Ryan from KC Chiefs Blog.  Ryan was nice enough to give me his thoughts on today.  Please thank Ryan, digitally that is, by checking out his DT roundup. [...]

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