In the 1990s, the National Football League featured a more physical, defensive-minded style of play in which quarterbacks were less free to wheel and deal.
One player who seemed to terrorize opposing QBs during that era was linebacker Derrick Thomas. Standing 6-foot-3 and weighing 255 pounds, he was an impressive physical specimen.
While many remember him for his impressive pro career, it was in high school and college where Thomas started to make a name for himself and establish his reputation.
From Troubled Kid to Tremendous Standout
Thomas was born on New Year’s Day 1967 in Miami, Fla. His father, Robert James Thomas, was a captain in the Air Force and a B-52 bomber pilot who served in the Vietnam War.
When the younger Thomas was just five years of age, his father was gunned down by North Vietnamese fighters. Declared missing in action, and later legally dead, he never got a chance to raise his son during the latter’s formative years.
We salute Bro. Capt. Robert James Thomas who was killed in action when his U.S. Air Force B-52 was shot down over Vietnam. Thomas served with the 340th Bomb Squadron, 72nd Strategic Bomb Wing. Bro. Capt. Thomas was the father of the late Bro. Derrick Thomas @Chiefs. #omegapsiphi pic.twitter.com/nDZxEm1WrH
— Omega Psi Phi (@OfficialOPPF) May 25, 2020
As a result, Thomas was mostly raised by his mother, Edith Morgan, and his grandmother, Annie Adams.
He had his share of run-ins with the law growing up and was even sent to the Dade Marine Institute, a boot camp-like alternative school, at the age of 14 after being arrested. He felt that the incident and its aftermath was a wake-up call for him when it came to his direction in life.
Fortunately, Thomas had a burning passion – football. He started playing the sport at the tender age of three, and after leaving Dade Marine Institute, he became a star at South Miami High School.
He started out playing running back and tight end, but head coach Sam Miller saw the immense potential in Thomas’ ability on the defensive side of the ball. He was moved to the outside linebacker position, and that’s when his budding career started to bloom.
Thomas earned second-team All Dade County honors, while also starring in basketball, wrestling and track. But football was his ticket to greatness, and he caught the attention of University of Alabama coach Ray Perkins, who had recently succeeded the legendary Bear Bryant.
A Force to Be Reckoned With
Thomas signed on with the Crimson Tide and became a lynchpin of one of the greatest defensive lines in the history of NCAA football. The team also possessed Cornelius Bennett, a star linebacker in his own right who was two years older than Thomas.
It was clear early on that Thomas would have to break in slowly and pay his dues behind Bennett, who was an All-American and would go on to win the Lombardi Award and SEC Athlete of the Year Award.
During one incident when Thomas was a freshman, Bennett embarrassed him one day at practice, and Bennett never quite figured out what he did to anger the first-year player.
Whatever the nature of the incident, Thomas decided to use it as fuel for his fire. However, at one point that season, he was considering quitting football and going back home to Florida.
He made a phone call to Nick Millar, a mentor he developed a relationship with while at Dade Marine Institute, who encouraged him to not give up and instead identify and write down some personal goals he wanted to achieve as a college player.
Thomas made Bennett something of a target and made it his mission to one-up the then-junior at the end of the day.
He wrote a note to himself that read simply:
“I, Derrick Thomas, promise when I graduate from the University of Alabama, Cornelius Bennett’s name will not be on any of the record books.”
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 30, 2015
Thomas’ sophomore season got off to an inauspicious start. On Aug. 27, 1986 in East Rutherford, N.J., the University of Alabama faced the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Chase Kickoff Classic, and it looked like it was on its way to victory, leading 16-10 with just eight seconds remaining in the game.
With Ohio State marching downfield, Thomas tackled wide receiver and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter at the 33-yard line – only to be called for a pass interference penalty.
Perkins and his staff were livid, as the Buckeyes would get another shot with no time left on the game clock.
But on the next play, Thomas yet again took down Carter and was called for pass interference. The linebacker was taken out of the game, and the Crimson Tide survived for the win.
It was the type of double gaffe that may have destroyed the confidence of a lesser man. But defensive coordinator Joe Kines was able to look past the indiscretions and see something special in Thomas.
“Somebody got on me after the game,” Kines remembered. “They said, ‘What are you doing putting a linebacker on a wide receiver?’ I said, ‘He didn’t have him man-to-man. He broke on the ball and broke that far.’
“That was his coming-out party,” Kines continued. “Obviously, we were upset and concerned that he got the penalties, but when you looked out there and saw what he did to get the penalties, it was amazing.”
It was that season that Thomas started to show his potential. The Crimson Tide appeared in the Sun Bowl that season, blowing out the Washington Huskies.
The following season, with Bennett off to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, Thomas was free to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. He recorded 18 sacks in the 1987 season, which was a new record for the esteemed Crimson Tide football program. He also forced seven fumbles that year, which was also a new University of Alabama record.
Thomas’ senior season was a study in pure dominance. He achieved 27 sacks that season, breaking his own record from the previous year. It was the most sacks any player in NCAA history has ever put up in one season.
There were games where he seemed to dictate the outcome by himself, such as a win against Penn State where Thomas had three sacks and the Nittany Lions only managed three points.
“Folks, this is the greatest individual defensive effort I have ever witnessed,” — CBS announcer Brent Musburger talking about Derrick Thomas during the 1988 Alabama-Penn State game.
— Bama Central (@BamaCentral) July 31, 2021
Twice that year, he had at least six tackles for loss in a single game.
Thomas finished the season as the recipient of the Butkus Award, the SEC Athlete of the Year Award and All-America honors. Upon leaving the University of Alabama, Thomas had registered 52 career sacks as a member of the Crimson Tide, another NCAA FBS record.
Some people forget how good Derrick Thomas was. Stats at Bama:
68 career TFL
39 TFL IN ONE SEASON
52 career sacks
27 sacks IN ONE SEASON
5 kicks blocked
7 forced fumbles IN ONE SEASON
Alabama gave up 2.6 yards per rush in 1988. That number would be 3.4 without Thomas' sacks pic.twitter.com/jB1g2r3HiD
— 🅱️🅰️Ⓜ️ (@big__bam) July 8, 2018
In the end, Thomas made good on the promise he made to himself in that dark moment just a few years earlier.
A Chief Part of Kansas City’s Revival
In 1989, the Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of an extended dry spell. It had been 20 seasons since the franchise had won its only Super Bowl championship, and it had been something of a laughingstock in the ensuing years.
Looking to turn its fortunes around, Kansas City drafted Thomas with the fourth overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft. His impact was instantly noticeable, as the team finished 8-7 that season, doubling its win total from each of the past two seasons.
Thomas was named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year in ’89 and was selected to appear in the Pro Bowl, as he notched 10 sacks and 75 tackles.
Under head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who joined the team the same year as Thomas, the Chiefs would become known as one of the NFL’s better defensive squads. They employed a style of ball that became known as “Martyball,” and a large part of it was the team’s aggressive defense, which was led by Thomas’ fearless play.
But the league really started to take notice of the University of Alabama standout in 1990. Thomas led the NFL with 20 sacks that year, and the Chiefs won 11 games, making the playoffs for the first time since 1986. In fact, it was only their second postseason appearance since the early 1970s.
For his efforts, Thomas earned the first of back-to-back All-Pro honors in ’90. His outstanding season was punctuated by a Nov. 11, 1990 game against the Seattle Seahawks, in which he tallied seven sacks, which to this day remains an NFL record.
Seven sacks in one game.
The late Derrick Thomas was a QB's WORST nightmare. 😰
— NFL (@NFL) July 9, 2019
What made Thomas an upstanding figure in the community wasn’t just his play on the field, but also his efforts and service off the field as well.
In 1990, he, along with teammate Neil Smith, co-founded the Third and Long Foundation. The initiative not only helped combat illiteracy in the Kansas City area but also aimed to help at-risk children establish a strong foundation for their future.
As the leading man of the initiative, Thomas would spend his Saturdays reading books to children, even during the hustle and bustle of the NFL season.
The foundation no doubt helped Thomas win the 1993 NFL Man of the Year award, which is given to honor the recipient’s volunteer work and philanthropy. It wasn’t the only accolade he received for his work with children.
— Official Pop Warner (@Pop_Warner) August 10, 2009
After early playoff losses in 1990, ’91 and ’92, the Chiefs realized they needed to make a big splash in order to take the next step. To that end, they rocked the NFL by trading for legendary quarterback Joe Montana in April 1993, then acquiring star running back Marcus Allen.
With Thomas continuing to keep opposing quarterbacks in check, Montana led a revamped West Coast offense that helped K.C. finish 11-5 and win its division that year. After two comeback victories to start the playoffs, the Chiefs finally fell to the Buffalo Bills in a blowout loss in the AFC Championship Game.
Montana retired after the 1994 season, yet the fortunes of Thomas and the Chiefs continued to improve. Sporting the NFL’s top scoring defense, they won 13 games in 1995, setting a new franchise record.
With the help of Thomas’ five tackles, Kansas City only gave up 10 points to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional Playoff Game that season. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough, as the Chiefs were upended 10-7 due to a very poor offensive outing.
For the 1996 season, the Chiefs were still considered one of the top picks to win the Super Bowl. With Thomas putting up 13 sacks, they won their first four games of the regular season, but they were up and down for the rest of the schedule, only winning nine games and missing the playoffs.
By 1997, Kansas City’s roster looked dramatically different, with 11 new starters, including new quarterback Elvis Grbac, who replaced Steve Bono. Yet the biggest mainstay was Thomas, who would earn his ninth consecutive Pro Bowl nod that year.
Just like two seasons ago, the Chiefs allowed the fewest points in the NFL, helping them to a 13-3 record and another AFC West title, largely because of Thomas’ exploits at linebacker.
In the AFC Divisional game against the Denver Broncos, Thomas and his boys did their job on the defensive side of the football, holding John Elway, Terrell Davis and company to just 14 points. But K.C.’s offense was impotent, and the team lost to the eventual world champs by just four points.
Unfortunately, that would be Thomas’ last ever NFL playoff game. The Chiefs’ fortunes declined afterward, as they finished just 7-9 and 9-7 the next two seasons.
Still, Thomas was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s NFL All-Decade Team of the ‘90s, as he had 116.5 sacks in the decade, more than anyone else during that span.
Gone Too Soon
On Jan. 23, 2000, just weeks after the final game of the ’99 season, Thomas and two others were driving to Kansas City International Airport to catch a flight to St. Louis in order to see the NFC Championship Game, which would feature the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Kansas City area was dealing with a snowstorm, and the roads were marred with snow and ice. Thomas’ 1999 Chevrolet Suburban was speeding down Interstate 435 at about 70 miles per hour when it hit a median and flipped over numerous times.
One of Thomas’ passengers was killed. Thomas himself survived, but he suffered a broken neck and T5 vertebrae and was rendered paralyzed from the chest down. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
Taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, his chances of walking again seemed slim, but he told his friends and family that he would beat the odds and get back on his feet.
With the help of one of the best spinal cord injury research centers around, Thomas’ hopes of returning to a normal life grew stronger that winter.
Then on Feb. 8, he was being moved from his hospital bed to a wheelchair in advance of a therapy session when things went awry. Thomas’ eyes rolled back, and he instantly suffered a heart attack, as well as a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that had made its way into his lungs.
Thomas was pronounced dead shortly afterward, at the age of 33.
Gone, But Not in Vain
Although the South Florida native left the world way too soon, his legacy has continued to live on in an unmistakable way.
His Third and Long Foundation has continued to serve at-risk kids in the years since. Thomas’ former teammate Neil Smith has run the foundation in his absence and helped it to continue fulfilling its mission to “sack illiteracy.”
With the help of Third and Long, the Derrick Thomas Academy, a tuition-free public charter school, was founded in 2001. Over the next dozen years, it would serve numerous kids from Pre Kindergarten to the eighth grade in Kansas City.
Finally, in 2009, the bookend to Thomas’ career arrived, as he was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“On the field accolades are great, 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.” – @Chiefs great & HOF LB Derrick Thomas #MotivationMonday #MondayMotivation #Motivate #Monday pic.twitter.com/TEFwaATYxU
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 28, 2018
His son Derrion accepted the honor for him, while also recognizing the board members of Third and Long and the administration of the Derrick Thomas Academy during the reception.
Just months later, the Chiefs retired his No. 58 jersey at Arrowhead Stadium during a contest against the Denver Broncos. The opponent that day was fitting, as no one else had sacked Elway, the former Bronco QB and one of the titans of the game, more frequently.
One more honor came in 2014, when Thomas was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) May 22, 2014
In addition, Crimson Tide fans voted Thomas the best player in the school’s history.
Congratulations to Derrick Thomas! Alabama fans have voted you the best football player in program history. We'll never see 27 sacks in one season again. RIP to the G.O.A.T. pic.twitter.com/ttQxXOmAUZ
— Alabama Crimson Tide (@forevercrimson_) April 7, 2018
Those who saw him play over the years will never forget the passion, flash and ferocity that he embodied during one of the game’s more memorable eras.