NFL

Derrick Thomas and the Tragedy That Took a Legend’s Life Too Soon

Derrick Thomas may have been nearing the end of his football career, but he was in the prime of his life. Thomas, a 6-foot-3, 243-pound physical specimen, had just finished his 11th season as an All-Pro linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was dominant on the football field and a pleasure off it. That all changed Jan. 23, 2000.

Derrick Thomas was a monster on the football field

Derrick Thomas was among the future NFL stars selected early in the 1989 NFL draft. Taken immediately after Barry Sanders was drafted by the Detroit Lions at No. 3, the Kansas City Chiefs took Thomas, a linebacker from Alabama, with the fourth pick. He didn’t disappoint.

Thomas was selected to the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Chiefs and then the next eight years as well. In his rookie season, Thomas collected 10 sacks and he forced three fumbles. He was named the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In his second season, he doubled his sack total, leading the NFL with 20. On Nov. 11, 1990, Thomas set an NFL record for sacks in a game with seven against Dave Kreig and the Seattle Seahawks. In 1998, Thomas had six more in a single game. Thomas also added six forced fumbled in his second season and was named First-Team All-Pro.

Thomas was also named First-Team All-Pro the following year when he finished the season with 13.5 sacks. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. Very quick for his size, Thomas finished with 126.5 sacks in a career that was cut short by tragedy.

Thomas paralyzed in car accident

On Jan. 23, 2000, Thomas and two friends were en route to Kansas City International Airport to fly to St. Louis to watch the NFC Championship Game between the St. Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The roads were icy and Thomas’ 1999 Chevrolet Suburban flipped over around 1:30 p.m.

The accident killed his close friend Michael Tellis and left the other passenger hospitalized. Thomas’ spinal column was fractured at the C-5 vertebrae level and in the thoracic vertebrae level. The news left players and coaches stunned. “It’s devastating to me,” Kansas City Chiefs then-coach Gunther Cunningham said. “Forget about the football aspect of it. He has given a lot to this city and this organization. It’s a tough thing to deal with.”

Dr. Barth Green of the Miami Project said Thomas has several fractures in his cervical (neck) and thoracic (chest) spine. Green said Thomas had no movement or control of movement below his chest level.

“Derrick’s injuries are primarily to the spinal column,” Dr. Jon Browne, the Chiefs’ team doctor, said. “He does have some neurological impairment, which is continuing to evolve. He will require some extensive rehabilitation.”

Thomas’ memory lives on after his unexpected death

During his recovery, Thomas was being treated at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. On Feb. 8, 2000, he died unexpectedly at the hospital. Thomas, 33, was being transferred from his bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital to a wheelchair for a therapy session when he went into cardio-respiratory arrest and could not be revived, hospital officials said.

“I looked at him as one of the finest people I’ve been around,” said then-Kansas City Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham. “The one thing I’ll always remember is the smile. That’s one thing I’ll never get out of my mind. I just know this: Derrick will hang over this stadium forever. . . . After every game, he’d walk across the field with a smile on his face, not because the Chiefs won, but because that’s what he was. That’s how I’ll always remember him.”

Twenty years after his death, Thomas is still remembered fondly by family and friends. “As much as he was Derrick Thomas the football player, I mean Derrick Thomas the dad was, you know, who I remember him as,” said Thomas’ son, Derrion Thomas. “It was important for me to kind of be around the people who have been a part of my life throughout this whole thing and just kind of celebrate what he meant to Kansas City.”

“Derrick Thomas was a true hero,” said former Chiefs quarterback Bill Kenney, a Missouri state senator.