View Full Version : Even after his death, Thomas kept his word

02-02-2005, 03:54 AM
In case you haven't had a chance to see the other two threads.

Maybe you know the story about Derrick Thomas' final victory. A few people do. The folks who were there, inside that auditorium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., four months after his death, they'll never forget.
Most people have never heard. That wasn't how Thomas operated, for cameras or the attention. His college coach, Bill Curry, didn't know.

That's where this starts, with Curry on the phone last week from Hawaii, where his job at ESPN had taken him. He tells stories about Thomas, funny ones, about the 36 speeding tickets and about the constant curfew-cutting.

Curry says he had one regret. When Thomas left Alabama, he was less than a year from graduation. Curry says he wishes Thomas would have gotten his degree. That was Derrick's grandmother's wish, too; she refused to ever fly unless it was to his graduation ceremony or to the Super Bowl.

“He promised me he would graduate,” Curry says.

“Coach,” you tell him, “I've got a story for you.”

You begin, and when you're done, when he hears the story that you're about to hear, Bill Curry can't even speak.

The final victory began for Thomas at a training-camp lunch table. Lamonte Winston, the Chiefs' director of player development, was eating. He and Thomas had never really gotten along, so Winston focused on the young guys, hoping to succeed in motivating them to pursue education where he'd failed with Thomas.

But that day, Thomas saw Winston at the table and sat down next to him. He did something Derrick Thomas rarely did. He reached out.
“Can you help me go back to school?” he asked Winston.

Lamonte agreed. They found classes at UMKC that would transfer to Alabama. Terri Kendall, the executive director of Thomas' Third and Long foundation and the mother of one of his children, helped him register. Derrick began attending.

This was part of a grander growing-up plan. He knew he had one contract left. The lavish spending habits would have to change. After a comical stream of business failures, he was coming up with more solid ideas. It was a work in progress, to be sure — a work never completed, ultimately — but friends say they were noticing a change. The biggest example was the chase of his degree.

He took Spanish. Algebra. A computer-science class. He met a tutor, who didn't realize Derrick Thomas was a big star. Thomas loved that guy, who sat patiently with him and helped with difficult assignments. Thomas began leaving him tickets; when they parted ways, the tutor was a Chiefs fan.

During the offseason, he'd slowly check off the hours. He carried around a backpack like the other students. His friends laughed at the crushed M&M's in the bottom. Seems Thomas ate the things by the case to stay awake.

“He was slowly, slowly working,” says Kevin Almond, then an associate athletic director at the University of Alabama. “Trying to complete his degree.”

Thomas got closer and closer. Finally, in January of 2000, he was one class away, according to Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson. Then, the car wreck. Graduation dreams were placed on hold while he tried to regain feeling in a Miami hospital. Tougher challenges than a degree awaited. If anyone could do it, D.T. could.
Of course, he never got the chance.

On Feb. 8, 2000, Derrick Thomas died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. Winston, who'd come to respect and even love Thomas, was there. He won't ever forget the doctors and nurses carrying streams of equipment into the hospital room, frantically trying to save his friend. He won't forget the nurse asking him and Derrick's mom if they were spiritual, and then holding their hands, saying, “Let us pray.”

Nor will he forget the end, when the medical staff slowly wheeled out the machines, one by one, like on television, until nothing was left but an empty room and Derrick Thomas.

“He was in the huge room by himself, dead,” Winston says. “Then to have to call back and say he's gone, it's the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. To just see him, manicured fingernails, 58, gone.”

That's where it could have ended.

Except the University of Alabama has a policy. If a student dies within a certain amount of credits before graduation, the school will award a posthumous degree. That year, they had several. One was Derrick. Almond helped set the wheels in motion, contacting the NFL and Winston.

The school invited Peterson, his former coach Marty Schottenheimer, Derrick's mother, Edith Morgan, and his grandmother Annie Adams to campus on May 13, 2000. Everyone showed, sat in the family section. It was the first time his grandmother had gotten on an airplane; he had lived up to his half of the bargain, so she lived up to hers.

They sat around the other families, to whom this day symbolized a beginning of life's journey, not an end. The names were read. Starting with the A's, working their way down the alphabet. They got close. Emily Rachel Terry. Zora Lynn Terry.

Derrick Vincent Thomas. Independence, Missouri. Criminal Justice.
Something happened. The crowd, some of whom had cheered him on at the stadium a few miles away, rose. It got loud, then louder.

“His mother, Edith, and his grandmother, who he just adored, walked to the stage to get his degree,” Peterson says. “You talk about emotional. They didn't take long in the program, but everybody knew. And for a moment, everything stopped.”

Edith Morgan and Annie Adams stood on the stage and listened to the ovation Derrick didn't get to hear. They soaked it up for a minute until the ceremony continued. Leonard Austin Thompson. Amy Lynn Thorne. Lives moved forward as Thomas' family looked back.
Edith now wears a University of Alabama graduation ring on her finger.

One of Derrick's sons, Derrion, has a copy, too. They can look at them from time to time. They can look and be proud.
That's the end. Curry cries when the story is over, and after a moment of silence, all he can say is, “Bless his heart.”
He tries to be funny again, but it isn't the same.

“You caught me off-guard there,” he says. “I didn't know that story.”
For a moment, all he can think about is a promise a kid had made to him, a promise that kid had made to a lot of folks, a promise that had been fulfilled.

“I didn't know he went back,” Curry says. “God bless him. I loved that kid.”

http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansa...10782890.htm?1c (http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/sports/football/nfl/kansas_city_chiefs/10782890.htm?1c)