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Chiefs' Thomas dead at 33

Apparent heart attack claims 9-time Pro Bowl star

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Posted: Tuesday February 08, 2000 11:01 PM

  Derrick Thomas A nine-time Pro Bowler, Thomas holds the Chiefs' record for career sacks with 126 1/2. Jonathan Daniel/Allsport

MIAMI (AP) -- Derrick Thomas, one of the most feared defenders in the NFL and a nine-time Pro Bowl player, died Tuesday, less than a month after being paralyzed in a car crash on an icy road. He was 33.

Thomas was being transferred from his hospital bed to a wheelchair on his way to therapy when he uttered something to his mother and his eyes rolled back, said Dr. Frank Eismont, a neurosurgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"We were hoping that Derrick's story would have been a happier ending," he said. "This is very much unexpected."

The Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, who held the NFL record of seven sacks in a game, went into cardio-respiratory arrest, he said.

SI's Michael Silver

It's such a loss to the NFL community, because he just brought so much life and energy not only to his on-the-field performance, but the way he approached life as an NFL star. The most significant legacy he leaves behind is the way he tried to impact young people, by showing up at the public library and reading to kids and constantly giving time, money and energy to try to help kids have a better reality.

The thing that's really sad is that this guy had just an impeccable career -- clearly one of the great players of his era -- and yet his Monday Night Meltdown last year, which was so uncharacteristic and so out of the blue, made a lot of casual football fans think that he was this junkyard dog of a guy. I'm sure Derrick regretted what he did against the Broncos that night every day that he was alive after that.

Q & A with Michael Silver


Doctors have not determined an exact cause of death and might perform an autopsy. One of Thomas' doctors, Dr. Barth Green, said a massive blood clot probably killed Thomas.

"This is a total shock," Green said. "Derrick was an extraordinary person and was breaking all the records while he was here."

A shaken Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham recalled telephoning Thomas at the Miami hospital from the Pro Bowl on Sunday in Hawaii, after seeing players and fans honoring Thomas by wearing his number. Thomas had not been selected for this year's game.

"Derrick said, 'Coach, be strong.' He never told me how strong I needed to be," Cunningham said.

After a game, Thomas would always walk across the field "with a smile on his face," the coach said. "Not because the Chiefs won, but because that's the way he was. And that's the way I'll always remember him."

Flags were lowered to half staff at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and the Missouri Legislature paused for a moment of silence after Thomas' death was announced by state Sen. Bill Kenney, a former Chiefs quarterback.

"Derrick Thomas was a true hero," said Kenney, who urged lawmakers to support a bill for spinal cord research in Missouri.

Thomas was driving a car during a snowstorm on Jan. 23 as he and two friends headed to the Kansas City airport to fly to St. Louis for the NFC Championship game. He lost control of the car and it overturned at least three times, police said.

All-Time Sack Leaders
Player  Sacks 
Reggie White  192.5 
Bruce Smith  171 
Kevin Greene  160 
Chris Doleman  151 
Richard Dent  137.5 
Lawrence Taylor  132.5 
Leslie O'Neal  132.5 
Rickey Jackson  128 
Derrick Thomas   126.5  
Clyde Simmons  114 

Police said Thomas was speeding and weaving in traffic, but prosecutor Don Norris said there wasn't enough evidence to file charges.

Thomas and passenger Michael Tellis, 49, were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from the car. Tellis was killed and Thomas' spine and neck were broken. The third person in the car, who was wearing his seat belt, sustained only minor injuries.

Thomas was brought to the hospital in Miami, his hometown, where doctors stabilized his spinal column with screws, rods and hooks and grafted bone from his hip. Though he was paralyzed from the chest down, doctors had hoped he would walk again.

Jackson Memorial is the home of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world's largest spinal cord injury research center, and its surgeons have operated on injured athletes before, including race car driver Emerson Fittipaldi.

An All-American at Alabama, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Thomas became an immediate star as a pass-rushing specialist after being taken in the first round of the 1989 draft. He was an All-Pro in his first nine seasons and ranked ninth on the career list with 126.5 career sacks.

With one of the quickest first moves of any defender in the league, Thomas became known for his "sack and strip" move, where he closed fast on a quarterback's blind side and hacked at his arm to knock the ball out of his hand.

He set the single-game sack record in 1990 in a game against Seattle. That game was the same week as Veterans Day and Thomas dedicated his performance to his father, an Air Force pilot killed in Vietnam.

Thomas also made headlines in 1998 when he lost his temper during a Monday night game against Denver and committed three personal foul penalties in the Broncos' final touchdown drive. He was fined and suspended for one game and apologized to the Broncos and his fans.

Derrick Thomas'
Team Records
Record Number 
Sacks, career 126.5 
Sacks, season 20 (1990) 
Sacks, game 7* 
Fumble recoveries 19 
Pro Bowls 
Playoff appearances 10 
*NFL Record -- Nov. 11, 1990 vs. Seattle

Kansas City Chiefs president Carl Peterson had visited Thomas on Monday.

"He was upbeat, he was positive, he was Derrick," a tearful Peterson, wearing a button with Thomas' No. 58, said from Arrowhead Stadium.

"He was in a wheelchair. ... I said 'Son, you're mobile.' He said, 'Father, I am. I've got wheels.'"

Thomas was one of the most popular athletes in Kansas City, and Peterson called the death a "devastating tragedy."

"He has done so much for this team and our city during the time that he had with us," Peterson said. "He had so much love for the game, for his teammates and for our town. ... A light has gone out."

Former Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer visited his former player on Monday "and he was doing quite well. His spirits were very high."

"We're all in a situation at this juncture where I don't think any of us can appreciate the personal loss."

Thomas is survived by his mother, Edith Morgan; his son, Derrick Thomas Jr., 8; and a half-brother, Gregory Morgan, 19.

Related information
Chiefs' Thomas could face charges in crash
Witnesses: Chiefs' Thomas speeding before wreck
Derrick Thomas made sure something positive would come out of his father's death. (971 K)
Thomas' life may have been short, but Chiefs president Carl Peterson says the linebacker's list of accomplishments is very long. (924 K)
Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham knows that as good a football player as Derrick Thomas was, he was a better person.
  • Start(1.04 M .MOV)
Thomas always knew there was more to life than football. (206 K)
Cunningham is confident Derrick's legacy will never be forgotten at Arrowhead Stadium. (278 K)
Cunningham was struck by the fact that such a fearsome player had such a sweet smile. (259 K)
Chiefs president Carl Peterson can't explain why Thomas is gone. (155 K)
Peterson says that Thomas gave more than most people will ever know. (208 K)
Peterson is proud of Thomas for accomplishing his goals in life. (332 K)
Peterson is aware that Thomas had a rare quality about him. (151 K)
Chiefs Hall of Famer Bobby Bell hopes Thomas will be remembered for more than his on-the-field accomplishments. (172 K)
Dr. Frank Eismont describes the circumstances surrounding Thomas' death. (328 K)
Dr. Barth Green says Thomas was eager to make progress on his rehabilitation. (107 K)
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