On January 2nd, 2000, the Kansas City Chiefs were hosting the Oakland Raiders in a win-and-get-in, week 17 game. The game seemed to be going in favor of Kansas City early when they took a 17-0 lead in the first quarter. But special teams errors led to an Oakland comeback and an eventual win. The season was over and the loss was crushing to the Chiefs and their fans. However, a much bigger loss occurred 21 days later. The heart of the Chiefs defense, Derrick Thomas, was involved in a serious vehicle accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Two weeks later, he would die of cardiac arrest due to a blood clot that traveled from his legs to his heart.
This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of his passing, a week after the Chiefs just won the Superbowl in a stadium that is 30 miles from where Thomas is buried. He never got to play in a Super Bowl, and I know life-long fans would’ve wanted to see him win one. Twenty years later though, defensive ends Frank Clark and Terrell Suggs paid homage to the fallen linebacker by wearing the famous #58 jersey.
From Frank Clark’s Twitter feed:
Derrick Thomas was drafted by the Chiefs with the 4th overall selection in the 1989 draft. In his rookie year with the Chiefs, Thomas recorded 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. He was selected to the Pro Bowl and named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The following year, he would lead the league in sacks with 20 and have one of the greatest games ever for a pass rusher. On November 11, 1990, Derrick Thomas sacked Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg an NFL-record seven times. However, he missed the eighth sack as Krieg slipped through Thomas’ grasp to throw the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds. The Seahawks won 17-16. For Thomas though, he had proved he was one of the best defensive players in the league and he would keep that status for nine more seasons.
Derrick Thomas wasn’t just great on the field; he was great in the community as well. In 1990, Thomas founded “The Third and Long Foundation” which is a reading program for inner-city kids in Kansas City. He gave a large amount of his time to the children in the Kansas City community. The Third and Long Foundation was proof of the kind of man that Derrick Thomas was and became a big part of the legacy that he left behind.
In 1993, Derrick Thomas received the Edge NFL Man of the Year Award (which is now called the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award) for his efforts in the community. “On-the-field accolades are great,” Thomas said about his various awards, “but in order to reach your full potential, you have to overstep the boundaries of football and go out into the community and be an All-Pro there, too.” He certainly lived up to that statement as the Third and Long Foundation is still helping children in Kansas City with reading programs, mentoring opportunities, and scholarships.
On the field, Derrick Thomas was a nightmare in the backfield to opposing quarterbacks. He had one of the fastest bursts off of the line of scrimmage and could out muscle any offensive lineman out of position. When the Chiefs needed that one big play, it usually came from Derrick Thomas. Once he got to the quarterback, he had an uncanny ability to strip the ball as he was making the sack.
“Still, to this day, I don’t know how he was so aerodynamic and able to make those plays,” said Donnie Edwards, who was a teammate of Thomas for four seasons. “Never in my life have I seen anyone that could turn his body sideways and come across that edge. You could always count on D.T. to make a sack and, not only that, strip the ball out.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was asked about preparing to play Derrick Thomas. “I don’t recall planning for another player like we did for Derrick. If you overlooked him, it was a disaster.”
Even dreaded rival John Elway spoke about how impactful Thomas was to the game, “Derrick wasn’t just satisfied with a sack, he wanted a turnover. He wanted the fumble. He had more on his mind than killing the quarterback. He wanted the ball.”
Derrick Thomas would finish his career with the Chiefs tallying 126.5 sacks which ranks 17th all-time. He recorded three safeties, 45 forced fumbles, 19 fumble recoveries, and 728 tackles. In his final year with the Chiefs, he recorded his only interception against the Chargers.
Derrick Thomas was my all-time favorite player and I spent my entire childhood looking up to him and wanting to be him. I was in high school when he passed, and it felt like a piece of my childhood was gone. Watching the games the following season became very difficult for me, as I’m sure it was for the majority of fans. It just wasn’t the same. I always wanted a way to pay my respect to him and show how much he meant to me, so when my wife and I had our youngest son we named him Derrick Thomas Dixon. I’ve shown my kids every highlight you can find of Derrick Thomas and told them countless stories of his games that I witnessed. This past Sunday, I thought of him a lot. I wish he could have been a part of something that special because that’s exactly what he was. Special.
Donations to Derrick Thomas’ Third and Long Foundation are still welcome. To donate, visit thirdandlong.org.