Derrick Thomas was not intoxicated on Jan. 23, 2000. He wasn’t under the influence of drugs. He wasn’t fleeing the authorities or any criminal charges. He was about to fly to Atlanta to see the Super Bowl, until fate decided to intervene.
It has been a year of madness for the NFL. According to Sports Illustrated, the odds of a Rams – Titans Super Bowl were 900 to 1. Kurt Warner went from supermarket employee to Super Bowl MVP. Players have been arrested for murder, conspiracy to commit murder and countless incidences of domestic and substance abuse.
Amidst all of this madness, the greatest tragedy of all happened to a man driving to the airport with his best friend. He died on Feb. 8, 2000 at 10:10 a.m., after being paralyzed from the waist down in the car accident of Jan. 23rd. The world is a far darker place for his passing.
On the field, Thomas’s exploits are nearly legendary. Any football fan who saw the Chiefs on his team’s schedule wondered how his team could possibly stop him. Opposing quarterbacks wondered where they could hide from him. He had 126.5 sacks (ninth all-time), 116.5 of them in the 1990s. No one had more in the decade. He had more sacks in a game than anyone ever has (seven on Nov. 11, 1990), more sacks in a season (20 in 1990) than any other Chief, and 10 or more sacks (totaling 58) in his first four years as a player. He went to nine Pro Bowls. In much the same way as John Elway defined the Denver Broncos, Michael Jordan defined the Chicago Bulls, and Bill Russell defined the Boston Celtics, Derrick Thomas defined the Kansas City Chiefs.
Thomas, however, was far more than a great football player. His drive to be an indomitable force on the football field was matched only by his tremendous heart. As Chiefs President Carl Peterson said, “What he gave to other people that a lot of you media and fans don’t even know about, that I was privileged to know about, is [what] Derrick didn’t want people to know about . . . His philanthropic efforts, like I said, some don’t even know the extent of them. Maybe that was his greatest accomplishment.”
In 1991, Thomas founded the Third and Long Foundation to help fix literacy deficiencies in the inner city. On Saturdays before games, he would sit in a library and read to children. In 1992, he was awarded the Distinguished Service to Education award from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education. President Bush honored Thomas as one of his “Points of Light” for his exceptional philanthropy; he was the only NFL player to be so honored. In 1993, he was the Edge Man of the Year for community service and performance, and in 1995 he won the Byron “Whizzer” White humanitarian award.
The National Football League is in trouble. The players run roughshod over societal rules and some of them care very little about the example that they provide. This is true not only of football, obviously, but all of America’s major sports. The loss of Derrick Thomas through such a tragic accident should serve as a beacon, a message to the players of today that they have a responsibility to gain notoriety for something nobler than drunk driving or drug use. But it will not. Thomas, sadly, will be relegated to a distant memory of a forgotten age, when success brought obligation as well as privilege. But until that day, the rest of us will mourn a truly amazing and caring human being, who also happened to play football.