You may be too young to realize it, but a great football player died last week. As you grow up, older people will tell you that Derrick Thomas, the leopard-quick Chiefs linebacker, caused 300-pound offensive linemen to tremble with fear and literally made a star quarterback sick; that he read to more children than Mr. Rogers; that he packed a lifetime's worth of fun into a 33-year whirlwind and touched everyone lucky enough to be swept up by it. They'll also say that Thomas dedicated himself to giving kids a brighter future. I'm here to tell you that it's all true.
On the football field Thomas may have made more game-changing plays than any defender since Lawrence Taylor, and Kansas City thrived on his passion. More important, Thomas was a complex, animated person, a quick-witted, thoughtful original who whizzed through adulthood as if he were afraid he would miss something.
The NFL's social butterfly could also sting like a bee. Two years ago, a few days before his final Pro Bowl appearance, Thomas sat at the poolside bar at the Ihilani Resort and Spa and held court before a group of NFL stars that included Chester McGlockton, the Raiders' enigmatic defensive lineman. "Big Chester," Thomas chirped. "Minimum pay, minimum play. One out of every five snaps, when he feels like it, he can't be blocked." It was a major dis, but Thomas was funny, charming and bold enough to pull it off. Finally, McGlockton startled the group by admitting, "I am a dog." Three months later Big Chester signed with the Chiefs.
Like so many others in the NFL community, I was lucky enough to hang with DT Over the years I saw him gather teammates like a pied piper and blow through Kansas City as if he owned the place, which he did. We drank beers with working-class Mexican-Americans in a dark alley and swapped JFK conspiracy theories over burgers and spent more time laughing than anything else.
Kids, Thomas wasn't a saint. He was simply a good man with a huge heart and an awesome motor that never stopped. If he could talk to you now, I'm pretty sure he'd tell you to read a good book, question authority and live every day as if it were your last. And wear your seat belt.
I'll never forget him. I hope you won't, either.
CHUCK AND DUCK
Pity Jose Lima. The Astros righthander served up 30 gopher balls in 1999, tops among National League Central pitchers who return to the division this season. Now, to Jose's dismay, the homer-happy Central-stomping grounds of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa—gets even giddier with Ken Griffey Jr.'s Cincinnati homecoming. But as Lima endures the barrages from that trio he can take comfort in one thought: At least he doesn't have to pitch to Jeff Bagwell.