View Full Version : Strong Memories Prove Power of Thomas' Legacy

10-19-2005, 11:09 PM

Strong Memories Prove Power of Thomas' Legacy
Thoughts of His Early Death, Just Like His Hits, Make Men Weep
Sports Commentary

It is the measure of the memory of a man that on a Friday afternoon in October, with pivotal games only two days away, two of the behemoths of pro football, Carl Peterson, president and general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Marty Schottenheimer, coach of the San Diego Chargers, would return calls to talk about Derrick Thomas.

It is the measure of the memory of a man that when I say to each man, both notorious Type A’s, "You tell me when you want to cut this off," they echo each other, an hour apart. "Take as much time as you need," they say.

It is the measure of the memory of a man that two NFL tough guys, both in their early 60s, both grandfathers, would break down and cry on the phone nearly six years after the tragic death of Derrick Thomas, extraordinary linebacker, extraordinary human being.

How It Happened

Derrick Thomas lived life at warp speed. There was always time to do more, always room to add additional drops to a cup-runneth-over schedule. It was like that on the morning of Jan. 23, 2000, when Thomas had one more thing to do here and one more thing to do there before picking up his two friends, Mike Tellis and John Hagebusch, and heading for Kansas City Airport to catch a flight to St. Louis to watch the Rams play the Bucs in the NFC Championship Game.

Thomas had sideline passes for himself and Tellis. Hagebusch was along for the ride; he would drive the year-old Chevy Suburban back to Thomas’ home. But Thomas was driving now on I-435, and there was a good chance they might miss their plane.

Witnesses said later that the Suburban was going too fast and moving too recklessly - double jeopardy considering the conditions: an ice storm had delivered its wrath to Kansas City, making portions of the freeways more hospitable to men on skates than men on wheels. If Thomas and his pals had been listening to the radio, they also might have heard about a horrendous 24-car accident not far away on I-29 that had killed 10 people and injured more than 25.

But they heard nothing and they sped on, bobbing and weaving through traffic. Worst of all, neither Thomas nor Tellis, in the front passenger seat, had his seat belt on. Hagebusch, in the back seat, had his seat belt fastened.

It had happened, as these terrible things happen, in the blink of an eye - and no one was sure about everything that had happened: How many times the van had rolled…two or three? How many times the van had hit the center divider… once or twice? The certainties: a patch of ice in the fast lane had triggered it... and, through breathtaking twists of fate, no other vehicles had been involved. Hagebusch only had minor injuries. Tellis had been thrown from the van and killed instantly.

Thomas, who had turned 33 on New Years Day, had been thrown from the car and had no feeling in most of his body. He had fractured several vertebrae in his neck and spine.

At Liberty Memorial Hospital, doctors determined that one of the fastest linebackers in NFL history was paralyzed from the chest down.

The 17 Mornings After

Derrick Thomas had grown up on the mean streets of Miami, where his mother, Edith Morgan, still lived. One of the nation’s eminent spinal treatment centers, the Buoniconti Institute at Jackson Memorial Hospital, is in Miami. (The institute was named in honor of Mark Buoniconti, son of Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti, who suffered paralyzing injuries in a college football game many years ago.)

The day after the wipeout on I-435, Thomas was on a private jet headed for Miami.

He knew he would never play football again.

But he had some feeling, some sensation. He always had been the model workout guy and in these days he already was the model rehab guy.

He would walk again. He would get back.

Thomas was deluged with visitors, including Schottenheimer and Peterson, the major mentors in his life. In December 1988, owner Lamar Hunt hired Peterson as his general manager, and the following month Peterson hired Schottenheimer as his head coach. In April, they made a hell-hath-no-fury linebacker out of the University of Alabama named Derrick Thomas the fourth player chosen in the NFL Draft and the NFL had a powerhouse on the plains for the next decade.

Schottenheimer coached Thomas for 10 of his 11 years. He resigned after the 1998 season and was working as an analyst for ESPN at the time of the accident. Schottenheimer drove to Miami from his home in Naples, Fla.

"I loved this kid," Schottenheimer says. "Right from the start I did. He was charming, disarming… and even if you were mad at him, even if he had done something wrong, you couldn’t stay mad for long. He’d just look up and melt you with that smile."

The man who is in his 19th season as an NFL head coach pauses to compose himself, then continues: "That day I saw him in the hospital in early February, he was typically upbeat. He was going to walk again, he was going to have a normal life."

Peterson flew to Miami to visit Thomas on Feb. 7, a one-day turnaround trip from Kansas City.

"I walked into his room and there was no one there and I thought oh-oh," Peterson says. "Then I stepped into the hall and I heard these great, booming shouts and it was him, greeting me -'Father! Father! Father!' and pumping down the hall full speed in a wheelchair. 'Look, I’m mobile.' And I said, 'Son! Son! Son! I can see.' We gave each other the biggest hug."

Peterson’s emotions are raw. "I have a wonderful daughter," he says. "But I never had a son. Derrick is the son I never had. When I signed him to his first contract in ’89 - and it was a big one - I told him I wanted him to give back five appearances to the local community. That’s when he told me about the 'Third and Long' reading program he wanted to start for disadvantaged kids. I knew then that we had someone truly special on our side."

Pause. "I started calling him 'Son,' almost from the start, and he called me 'Father.'"

I try to break the tension. "And Marty was the Holy Ghost?" I interject.

Peterson laughs and says, "No, but that’s good! We should have thought of that. He could have been. The three of us were very close. It was such a great time… the 90's."

We return to the visit of Feb. 7. "It was going to be a long road back for him," Peterson says, "but there was no doubt in my mind that he was going to make it. If you could have seen the determination on his face that day… and determination always had worked for this guy before."

Silence… more silence. "I left there to fly back to Kansas City so upbeat… so convinced that good days were ahead for Derrick."

Shock… and Awful

On the morning of Feb. 8, Marty Schottenheimer was playing golf near his Naples home.

"I had just hit my second shot to the fringe of the par five eleventh," he says, "something I had never come close to ever doing before, when all of a sudden, here comes this cart from the clubhouse tearing out the fairway and this guy's got a message: 'Call your wife at home ASAP.' I get in his cart to go back to the clubhouse with him, thinking this could only be bad news.

"So I call Pat and she says, 'You better sit down… Derrick's gone. He died, very suddenly, earlier this morning while they were transferring him… from his bed… to a wheelchair.'"

The coach who has cut hundreds and hundreds of players over two decades, who is two days away from yet another grudge match against the Oakland Raiders, is crying.

Carl Peterson had just gotten to his office in Arrowhead Stadium when he got the call from Miami: The man he had loved like a son, the man whose future he felt so positive about less than 24 hours earlier, had died at 8:10, Miami time.

"I don’t recall ever being so shaken," Peterson says. "I had researched spinal injuries after the accident and I knew there was a 3-to-15 percent chance of blood clots but I always thought Derrick would fly under the radar. I thought that wonderful smile would be with us a long, long time.

"But it was a pulmonary embolism… a blood clot that starts in a leg, then travels to the heart, where it blocks blood flow to the lungs. It happened… so quick."

The executive who controls the club’s salary cap and bottom line, who has controlled his organization for 17 years, is crying.

Derrick Thomas’ body was brought back to Kansas City in February 2000 and more than 25,000 people paid their respects to him in the end zone at Arrowhead Stadium and more than 6,000 attended a service at Kemper Arena. He was returned to Miami for burial.

In the Beginning

Carl Peterson, Marty Schottenheimer, and defensive coordinator Bill Cowher could not believe their eyes.

New on the job in Kansas City, they would have the fourth choice in the upcoming NFL Draft, thanks to the Chiefs’ abysmal 4-11-1 record the year before (in fact, the team had made the NFL playoffs only once since 1971), and they were in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to watch Derrick Thomas work out.

Thomas’ workouts were wearing the older men out. Over and over and over Thomas ran the Bryant Denny Stadium steps. Over and over and over the two-time All-America put his sculpted body through everything they asked. Alabama coach Bill Curry told them there was no downside.

"Wow!" Peterson said, and Schottenheimer and Cowher agreed. (Cowher would spend three years in Kansas City before taking the Steelers’ head job).

The only question was whether Thomas would last until the fourth pick. Dallas, Green Bay and Detroit stood between the Chiefs and Thomas. The Cowboys took quarterback Troy Aikman of UCLA, the Packers tackle took tackle Tony Mandarich of Michigan State and the Lions took running back Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State - two superstars and a sore thumb. Thomas was there for the Chiefs.

The Thomas Years

There were 50,000 empty seats in Arrowhead in the last game of 1988. There wasn’t an empty seat in all of the 11 seasons Derrick Thomas played there.

The team that had made the postseason a wasteland for most of two decades, made the playoffs seven times in his 11 seasons. From 1990 to 1999, only the 49ers (113-47) and Bills (103-57) had better records than the Chiefs (102-58).

Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl team after his first nine seasons. He punished quarterbacks for 126 1/2 sacks in 11 seasons, six less than his idol, Lawrence Taylor had in one more season.

One more season…who knows how many more seasons Thomas might have played? In his worst season, he had 7 sacks. (In his best game, in1990 vs. Seattle, he had 7 sacks - still the NFL record).

Derrick Thomas narrowly missed the Hall of Fame last January in his first chance. He will get another opportunity this January along with, among others, Troy Aikman.

Aikman no doubt will get in. He also might be thrown for a loss by a guy wearing a red No. 58 Chiefs' jersey and a big smile.

10-19-2005, 11:17 PM
Good Story, I wish he would make into the Hall this year. He deserves it more than anybody.

10-19-2005, 11:23 PM
Good Story, I wish he would make into the Hall this year. He deserves it more than anybody.

I don't see no reason why he should not be in the HOF.

11 Years played in the NFL.

126.5 Career sacks. Take 126.5, divide it by 11, and Thomas average is 11.5 per season.

7 times he sacked Dave Krieg in one game. An NFL record.

9 number of Pro Bowl appearances. 9 times out of 11. That's pretty good.

10 playoff appearances. 10 out of 11.

Hammock Parties
10-19-2005, 11:26 PM
There's no way Aikman deserves the HOF over Derrick Thomas.

10-19-2005, 11:27 PM
Good Story, I wish he would make into the Hall this year. He deserves it more than anybody.

...Yup! He was simply the best! IMO

10-19-2005, 11:37 PM
Great story. Damn I miss DT :(

10-19-2005, 11:38 PM
...Yup! He was simply the best! IMO
LT had better stats, but I agree with the sentiment. He was definitely top tier and deserves recognition.

10-19-2005, 11:51 PM
LT had better stats, but I agree with the sentiment. He was definitely top tier and deserves recognition.

…True and I mean no disrespect to LT - although I think DT might have exceeded them had he been able to continue his career. It’s just speculation, however, and your right: my comment was just that "sentiment".

10-20-2005, 12:03 AM
Should be in the Hall already.

10-20-2005, 01:51 AM
That was hard to read. DT brought me so much personal joy as a Chiefs fan.

Dr. Chief
10-20-2005, 02:09 AM
That was hard to read. DT brought me so much personal joy as a Chiefs fan.

I agree. My Chiefs fanatacism began at this time. I was 11 and my uncle got season tickets. I got to go to a couple of games a year, and really started paying attention. I miss those great defenses that DT lead.

10-20-2005, 06:56 AM
Great. Now I'm crying. I miss DT.

Rain Man
10-20-2005, 07:04 AM
He definitely made Chiefs football fun again.

10-20-2005, 07:59 AM
I used to have his first game on tape against the Bengals I believe...may have to crawl up in the ol attic and see if I still have it.

10-20-2005, 09:06 AM
I'm speechless

10-20-2005, 11:40 PM
He definitely made Chiefs football fun again.

...That he did my friend, that he did.