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Tribal Warfare
02-08-2010, 11:35 PM
Posnanski in 2000: Father's spirit was his guide throughout life (http://www.kansascity.com/sports/chiefs/story/1727848.html)
By JOE POSNANSKI
The Kansas City Star

Editor's note: This column originally ran on Feb. 9, 2000, the day after Derrick Thomas' death.

MIAMI | People wander in and out of Jackson Memorial Hospital now, some crying, some laughing, some trying hard to look brave. Newcomers drift through the halls aimlessly. Regulars walk with purpose, like police officers on the beat. A few hours have gone by since Derrick Thomas died so suddenly. Night falls. Rain drizzles. The hospital goes on. The hospital always goes on.

Derrick Thomas was just one man in this gigantic assembly of hospital buildings. Just one story. In the various children's wards at Jackson Memorial the kinds of places that Derrick so often visited during his life little kids deal with the most terrible kinds of pain: cancer, leukemia, paralysis, cystic fibrosis. Across a half-dozen halls, across parking lots, people cling to their last days. Babies are born. People die young. Rape victims try to put their lives back together. Doctors massage human hearts, trying to make them pump again.

Yes, in every building, they all have stories.

Derrick Thomas was just one story. He grew up in Miami, an angry kid who never understood exactly why his father did not come home. He would wait for his father all his childhood. Every single day, he used to say, he had this faint feeling that Robert Thomas would just suddenly burst through the door. Even after Derrick had given up all real hope, even when he felt all this wildness running through him and he just had to let it out on the Miami streets, even when everything in his entire body told him that Robert Thomas would never come home, that faint feeling would never quite go away. Derrick Thomas stared at doors.

Air Force Capt. Robert Thomas was some kind of man. He was a brilliant student, a teacher for a short while, and, at last, a hero. He was the last man to eject from a burning plane as it fell over North Vietnam. Derrick Thomas last saw his father when he was 5. When Derrick was 13, his father's body was flown back from Vietnam.

Derrick Thomas held his father's spirit close after that.

And, surely, it was his father's spirit that helped push Derrick Thomas to become the man he became. He played football fiercely. He lived fiercely. He partied hard and read books to children in the library on Saturday mornings. He rushed the quarterback with terrible and wonderful vengeance, and he carried the biggest presents to the sickest little kids at Christmas. He was like a big kid himself so much of the time, smiling huge, mocking everybody around him. He was party coordinator at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, the guy who yelled loudest at his teammates at halftime, the man who every year predicted he would set the NFL sack record.

He always played his best games closest to Veterans Day, after the jets roared over Arrowhead Stadium.

No, Robert Thomas was never too far away. You always wonder what drives a football player to bear his soul on the field, to fearlessly throw his body into the blur, to play with that kind of unchecked fury. For all those years, Derrick Thomas relentlessly chased after quarterbacks, knocked footballs free and turned around so many games with just one bold play. No matter what anyone thinks, you can't play football like that just for money or fame or ego or the cheers. There has to be something more.

"My father," Derrick Thomas said softly in those rare moments when you could get him to talk softly.

The sadness always strikes a little harder when an athlete dies young. It's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it's because Derrick Thomas made so many people in Kansas City feel more alive. He made folks jump out of their chairs and scream at the television. He made Sundays a bit brighter. He made children smile. When he was at his best, Derrick Thomas always seemed to move just an instant before anybody else on the field. And it was thrilling. It's hard to imagine he's gone. It's hard to understand.

Jackson Memorial Hospital goes on on a dreary night in Miami. An ambulance siren wails. A worried mother sobs softly in a waiting room. A doctor promises to do the best he can. This is life and death, even for remarkable athletes, even for remarkable men, and the only comfort left is the unmistakable feeling that Robert Thomas sits in heaven now and waits for his oldest son to burst through the door.

Tribal Warfare
02-08-2010, 11:35 PM
Another KCStar REPOST