Work in Sports
SI Flashback: Man on a mission
Kansas City's Derrick Thomas had many obsessions, including the war that claimed his father the pilot
By Michael Silver
Issue date: Pro Football '96
The boy lies still in the pitch-black room, his long legs hanging off the edge of the undersized bed, his eyes fixed on a small plastic clock resting atop a bedside table. The minutes pass like hours, each one bringing the boy closer to the reality he has been avoiding for most of his short life. 4:56 a.m.... 4:57 a.m....4:58 a.m. -- an ungodly hour even for this 13-year-old wild child, who often roams the streets of South Miami long after midnight, meeting up with his friends to steal bikes or throw rocks at buses. Any second now, Derrick Thomas thought to himself. Any second now, my daddy's plane will be landing.
Air Force captain Robert Thomas had been missing in action for eight years, since Dec. 17, 1972, when the B-52 aircraft he was co-piloting was shot down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. Some members of Thomas's crew had survived and returned safely to the U.S., but Thomas had been the last one to bail out, just seconds before the plane exploded. Now he was finally coming home -- in a coffin, for his delayed memorial service. His cynical teenage son already had a budding mistrust of authority -- he wasn't even convinced the remains were actually his daddy's -- but, still, he knew exactly what time the plane was touching down. And he knew exactly how it felt to be a fatherless child.
This was the longest night of Derrick's young life, the longest night he would ever suffer through, and it's a memory he summons freely as he sits in the rear of a crowded Kansas City restaurant 16 years later, speaking solemnly amid the boisterous din of happy hour. The subject is unavoidable, for Robert Thomas is central to everything in Derrick's life, from his troubled past to his fascination with airplanes, from his charity work to his obsession with the assassination of a president.
Even now, as a 6'3", 247-pound, seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, Thomas can't let go of the tragedy of his father's death. Here he is at 29: a rich, famous and eligible bachelor; a player with more sacks (85) since his 1989 entrance into the NFL than all but two other players; a revered role model to legions of children, including three of his own; a man who has overcome obstacle after obstacle. And yet he can't seem to get beyond this one barrier, the one that has made him a casualty of war.
"I grew up with a dislike for government because of the whole Vietnam conflict and the way it was pushed aside," says Thomas. "When it was over, guys who went there and fought came home and were treated as outcasts. So now you've got a bunch of people in their 40's walking around all screwed up in the head, and nobody really cares."
In 1993 Thomas was invited to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. His audience included President Clinton and Gen. Colin Powell. Instead of the expected my-father-died-for-his-country tribute, Thomas, who had been named the 832nd Point of Light by President Bush in 1992, bared his seared soul. "Vietnam happened, and a lot of people try to suppress it, put it behind," he said. "Myself, I can't do that, because I live it each and every day....I know somebody profited from Vietnam. There are a lot of Americans that benefited greatly from Vietnam. I am not one of them. The families, the children, the friends of these 58,000 names that rest on this wall, they aren't one of them. So I hope that everybody that profited and benefited from the tragedy of Vietnam can rest in peace."
The last time Thomas saw his father was in 1971, when Derrick was five, at an Air Force base in Texas. The oldest of Edith Morgan's seven children, Derrick was raised by his mother and by her parents, Annie and Ralph Adams, in the lower-class Miami neighborhood of Perrine. He went through his early adolescence as an unmotivated student. By the time he was in junior high, Derrick was already a talented running back, but "he had very poor attendance and very, very poor classroom performance," says Miriam Williams, a junior high school teacher who eventually took Thomas under her wing. "He had a horrible temper, and he was always in trouble."
Derrick was never in danger of starving or living on the street, but he made his own trouble. He hung out with a group of friends from a nearby housing project, and among their favorite activities were gathering at the local roller-skating rink and doing battle with gangs from other neighborhoods. In their early teens Thomas and his friends started stealing cars, more for the thrill than for the bounty. They would break into houses, and though Thomas says he never initiated any of the mischief, he was frequently pressed into duty to mastermind the plan. "That's how I knew I was smart, because I was the one who engineered all the stuff," says Thomas. "I'd say, 'If you're really going to hit this house, let's make sure we do it this way so we don't get caught.'"
Derrick watched the pimps and pushers cruising the streets of his neighborhood in their sleek Mercedes and wondered what other way there was for him to escape poverty. At the time, school seemed like a dead end. To understand why Thomas now spends his Saturdays at a Kansas City library reading to children--one of many activities sponsored by his Third and Long foundation--you have to go back to his first meeting with Williams at Palmetto Junior High.
Williams was teaching a class in one section of the school library while Derrick's class was reading aloud a few yards away. Frustrated by his inability to pronounce various words, Derrick created a disturbance, yelling at his teacher, "I don't have to do this! You can't make me read this stupid story!"
When Derrick, who was then 13 and already six feet tall, stormed out of the library, the 5'3" Williams followed and caught up with him, telling him, "Maybe she can't make you, but I can." After Derrick cursed at Williams, she suspended him for three days. When he returned to school, she sat him down in her office and told him he had better shape up.
"He was just a kid in a big body," says Williams, who is still close to Thomas (he nominated her for the NFL's teacher of the year award, which she won in 1991). "He felt people were judging him and saying he wasn't smart, and when he wasn't able to do things like read in class, he became angry. He was very hostile, kind of angry at the world. I was a person whose temper and tenacity could match his."
About a month later someone told Williams that Derrick's father had taught math at Palmetto before his tour of duty in Vietnam. That made Williams even more determined to help Derrick, and she became known around the school as his shadow, often confronting him at his locker after he had committed yet another of his various transgressions. Derrick had other teachers looking out for him too, but it took a judge to finally turn him around.
At 14, Derrick spent 31 days in juvenile hall after being cited for burglary. When he got out, Judge William Gladstone, along with a counselor, Judy Gordon, decided to send him to the Dade Marine Institute, a state-run school for troubled youths.
Derrick was crushed. His friends razzed him mercilessly, and instead of playing football as a sophomore in high school, he studied dolphins and coral reefs. But the program's discipline got through to him. "It was the first time something I really wanted to do was taken away from me," he says, "and to get it back I had to apply myself." Derrick became certified as a scuba diver -- it remains one of his hobbies -- and he learned to drive a boat. The change of scenery was welcomed by Annie Adams, his grandmother. "Once we got him away from the wrong crowd," she says, "I knew he wouldn't get into any more trouble." Derrick finished the six-month program in less than four months, faster than any student ever had, and ended up at South Miami High with all the kids he used to see at the skating rink.
He was soon back on the football field, and with the help of William McIntosh, a science teacher at South Miami who woke him up and drove him to school every morning, Derrick resisted the temptation to revert to his old ways. "I ran into a conflict of interest," he says. "I ended up becoming friends with the people I used to fight, and I essentially made peace between the two sides."
Meanwhile, Derrick was wreaking havoc on the football field. After a stellar senior season at South Miami -- he was all-conference as a linebacker -- he signed with Alabama. In his sophomore year of college he played behind All-America outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett, now with the Atlanta Falcons, who set a school single-season record with 10 sacks. Thomas was told he would never be as good as Bennett, but in 1987, Thomas's junior season, he had 18 sacks. He followed that with an astounding 27 as a senior.
"He rushes the passer just like a great dribbler in basketball," says San Diego Chargers running backs coach Sylvester Croom, who was the linebackers coach at Alabama during Thomas's first two years with the Crimson Tide. Croom says Thomas's best move is the football equivalent of the crossover dribble: He lines up in a three-point stance and takes two quick steps to the outside, then cuts back to the inside. He repeats this sequence until the blocker is forced to commit himself to an outside stance, then Thomas blows past him to the inside.
It wasn't until Thomas arrived at Alabama that he really began to inquire about his father. He discovered that Robert Thomas had been a remarkable man: He graduated with honors from high school and Tennessee State, where he ran track and was at the head of his ROTC class. He went on to teach math at Palmetto for one year before entering the service. But Derrick's research wasn't restricted to his father's life. By then a criminal justice major at Alabama, he also began to ask questions about the war that had caused his father's death. As he read more about Vietnam, he became obsessed with an event that had occurred more than three years before his birth.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. But Thomas, based on his research, sees an elaborate, sinister scheme behind the murder. "Definitely a conspiracy," says Thomas. "Government, military, big business. Not the Cubans, not the Mafia. Caterpillar Company. Twenty billion dollars. Bell Helicopter. All the oil, all the machinery was coming out of Texas."
When he discusses the Kennedy assassination, he does not speak off the top of his head. He has gleaned information from numerous books, CD-ROMs and videos and cultivated a friendship with Jean Hill, a Dallas-area schoolteacher who claims she saw smoke coming from a rifle beyond the grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting. In 1994 he approached and spoke with Oswald's widow, Marina, when she visited Kansas City to speak at a symposium. Thomas's conclusion is that Kennedy was murdered because U.S. government officials and leaders of American business feared he would withdraw troops from Vietnam and thus threaten lucrative opportunities in Southeast Asia. Thomas believes Oliver Stone's conspiracy-based film, JFK, is "almost true to life."
In Thomas's eyes, the people responsible for killing Kennedy were also responsible for the Vietnam war and thus for killing his father. Among those culpable industrialists, if Thomas's theory is true, is the family of the man who now signs his paychecks -- Chiefs founder and owner Lamar Hunt, son of Texas oil baron H.L. Hunt.
"You notice I conveniently left out the owner of the oil company," Thomas says after laying out his hypothesis of the assassination. He and Lamar Hunt have never discussed the matter. Says Thomas's good friend and teammate, linebacker Tracy Simien, "I told him he should leave that stuff alone. It's a little too close to home."
But Thomas can't leave it alone. As a rookie in 1989, he and teammate Todd McNair read all the books they could as they researched theories about the Kennedy assassination. After the government declassified some files associated with the assassination investigation in 1992, Thomas and McNair planned a trip to Washington to pore over the material. But they elected not to go because, says Thomas, "we figured there was nothing in there we hadn't already read about."
There is no end to Thomas's questions. "When John Connally died, why didn't they go get the bullet out of his wrist?" he asks. "And if Oswald fired a shot, how come ballistics showed he had no traces of gunpowder? What about the fact that a bio on Oswald came across a teletype overseas an hour before he was named in a warrant?
"You've got the magic-bullet theory, which is one of the most outlandish things of all time. How do they expect the American public to believe that? You've got [J. Edgar] Hoover, who hated Kennedy. The bottom line is, someone changed the parade route and someone pulled the security off its detail. The Mafia can't do that. The Cubans can't do that. So when everybody finishes their arguments, you tell me, Who changed the route? Who pulled the security off? Find out who did that and ask that person who really killed JFK, because they know."
When you trace the history of Thomas's interests -- of his obsessions -- they invariably originate in the same place: with his father, his father the pilot. "I remember going to Del Rio, Texas, where my father was stationed," Thomas says. "I had just turned five, and it was the last time I saw my daddy. His next-door neighbors gave me some model airplanes, and I took them back to Miami."
To this day, Thomas says he "can tell you all about every kind of plane there is." He has been a guest of the Blue Angels and several other flying groups, and, he says, "I've done stick control with all of them." Thomas has plans to eventually earn a pilot's license and already has nine hours of flight credit.
His infatuations with aircraft and with his father's military career have had a curious carryover effect on the football field. Over the years, Thomas has excelled in games played on or around Veterans Day, in early November. He had an NFL-record seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks on Veterans Day 1990. Before the game, four Air Force jets flew over Arrowhead Stadium, and an officer presented Thomas with a yellow bandanna that had a pattern of fighter planes printed on it. Thomas, who wore the bandanna during the game, was virtually unblockable.
That is not to say that he has been unblockable only around Veterans Day. In 1989 the Chiefs, in their first year under general manager Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer, made Thomas the fourth overall pick of the draft. Since Lawrence Taylor burst onto the scene with the New York Giants in 1981, every team in the league had been looking for another player who could rush and terrorize the quarterback from the outside linebacker spot. Of the dozens of players who have been heralded as "the next L.T.," Thomas has come closest. Perfectly suited to Kansas City's 3-4 defense, he had 10 sacks as a rookie and a league-leading 20 in his second year.
But as impressive as Thomas's pro career has been -- he has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons -- it has assumed the arc of an air-show routine, dipping, peaking and spinning unpredictably. He is undeniably one of football's great defensive playmakers, as his 33 career forced fumbles and 15 recoveries attest, but for all of the occasions on which he has dominated, there have been other games in which he has been scarcely visible.
The Chiefs have been consistent winners during Thomas's career but have never advanced beyond the AFC Championship Game. The franchise has struggled, inexplicably at times, and Thomas has been emblematic of that. In the 1993 AFC title game at Buffalo, he spent most of the last three quarters on the sideline because the Chiefs' coaches went with a unit they felt would be more effective against the Bills' rushing game. Kansas City lost 30-13, and an irate Thomas vowed to become a more complete player. "It strengthened me as a person," Thomas says. "I decided I'd never give another coach the opportunity to make me feel like I felt that day."
Schottenheimer says that Thomas has made good on his vow and that though he has averaged just nine sacks in the last three years -- compared with 14 1/2 during his first four years -- last season was his best ever. "Derrick has become a well-rounded linebacker," Schottenheimer says. "People think you can run the ball on Derrick, but you can't. I don't think there's a tight end in this league who can block him."
Thomas's inconsistency can also be partly attributed to the fact that he has switched positions almost annually. He went from an outside linebacker in a 3-4 to a defensive end in a 4-3 to a "rush-backer" to an outside linebacker in a 4-3 to a "stack" linebacker who played off the line of scrimmage last season. This year Thomas will play both stack linebacker and "base" linebacker, in which he'll start on the line of scrimmage, usually opposite the tight end. He will also continue to rush from the weak side on passing downs. Kansas City defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham says this of Thomas's history of inconsistency: "In the past, I think he was like the home run hitter who says, 'I'm not bunting, I'm not hitting singles.' Now he'll do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Sometimes that means rekindling the temper that plagued Thomas as a teenager. Says Simien: "Whenever he gets mad, he looks like the little guy on the Red Devil hot-sauce bottle." For example, at halftime of the Chiefs' shocking playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts last season, Thomas found himself beside kicker Lin Elliott, who had missed a field goal in the first half.
"We gotta have you in the second half," Thomas said to Elliott.
"We gotta have you in the second half too," Elliott shot back.
Thomas was incredulous, but he held his tongue until after the game, when Elliott told reporters that if the Chiefs didn't retain him in 1996, he hoped to come back and beat them. Thomas then publicly blasted Elliott (who is now out of football), saying, on a radio show, that he "would kick his ass." Away from the field, Thomas's loquacious and gregarious nature has made him one of the NFL's social butterflies, with a circle of friends that includes the flamboyant (Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin) and the imposing (Greg Lloyd and Bruce Smith). One of his buddies is country singer Hank Williams Jr., whom Thomas has known since college, when he attended a Williams concert on a dare from his teammates. Thomas, who joined four of his Chiefs teammates in singing the national anthem before their final regular-season home game last December, has crooned onstage with Williams and appeared in the video of his 1992 song Come On Over to Country. In July the two cut a single for an upcoming CD that pairs NFL players with musicians. But their most memorable onstage moment came during a concert in Bonner Springs, Kans.: When an inebriated Williams began cursing the audience, his crew and other performers, Thomas walked out and put his arm around the singer to comfort him.
Thomas makes time for his friends, but he doesn't have much of it. His business ventures include a custom-tailoring company, a graphics company and Jake's, a restaurant in Birmingham. And, in part to keep a promise he made to Adams, his grandmother, Thomas has been taking classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for the past two years--even during the football season--and is a few units short of earning his bachelor's degree. He plans to take part in commencement ceremonies at Alabama next May.
Though he is the father of three children -- son Derrion (five) lives in Kansas City with his mother, and daughter Burgandie (six) and son Derrick Jr. (four) live in Miami with their mother -- Thomas has never married. He says he tries his best to be an attentive dad, but his crowded schedule often leaves him feeling inadequate as a father.
"When Derrion goes to T-ball or wrestling practice and I'm too busy to stay there and watch, I think about my own father," Thomas says. "I say to myself, Damn, look at what you're doing. This is what you always wanted, and now you're moving too fast to be there for them."
Thomas dreams of a life devoted to his children. "I want to send my daughter to tennis school in Boca Raton," he says. "I'd love to travel around the world to see her matches. I want to watch my kids grow up. Wherever they are, I want to be there."
The din in the restaurant is fading as the evening winds down, and once again Thomas is talking about his father. He has met two of the three surviving members of the B-52 crew and learned the details of the aborted bombing mission (ironically, it was code-named Operation: Linebacker Two). He has replayed the images of the ill-fated flight in his mind so many times it's as if he had been there, beside his dad.
"My father's crew isn't even scheduled to go, but the guys who were supposed to relieve them get snowed in in New York," Thomas says. "Nixon gives the command that no one in Vietnam can come back, so they have to go. They get ready to take off from Guam and an earthquake delays the takeoff. Something happens to the first and second planes in their sequence, so they're out there alone. Then they miss their fuel tanker, and that causes a delay. Finally they get there and drop their bombs, and within 10 seconds of opening the doors, they get hit with a SAM missile. The pilot and gunner are killed on impact, and three others eject, then my father...."
Thomas pauses, as if to add to the story, but he says nothing more. There is nothing more to say.
Issue date: Pro Football '96