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In his 11 seasons with the Chiefs, nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Thomas had become almost as familiar a figure off the field as he was on it. Kansas City fans knew of his interest in JFK conspiracy theories. They knew about the pain he still felt over the death of his father, an Air Force B-52 pilot who was shot down over Vietnam in 1972. They knew that he read to children at libraries on Saturdays before most home games as part of a program he started called the Third and Long Foundation. Now they know that Thomas needs every ounce of the indomitable spirit he has shown over the last decade to overcome the obstacle before him, one that has ended his Hall of Fame career at age 33.
On Monday, a day after the one-car accident in Kansas City that killed one of his best friends and threatens to leave him paralyzed from the waist down, Thomas was flown to Jackson Memorial Hospital in his hometown of Miami, where he'll receive treatment for injuries to his spinal column. The facility is on the same campus as the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which was cofounded in 1985 by ex-Dolphin Nick Buoniconti after his son, Marc, was paralyzed during a college football game. Chiefs physician Jon Browne said Thomas had "good use of his upper extremities and his upper chest area." The injury, said Browne, was at the fifth cervical vertebra (which is right below the neck); Thomas also had a fracture of a thoracic vertebra.
Thomas was the cornerstone of the Kansas City franchise during the '90s. He conjured up memories of Lawrence Taylor, whose mantle as the game's top pass-rushing linebacker Thomas inherited in '90 with a 20-sack season; his breakout game was an NFL-record seven-sack outing that year against the Sea-hawks on Veteran's Day, a performance he dedicated to the memory of his father. "If you wanted to be a pass rusher," says Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom, "you studied film of Derrick Thomas."
Thomas's star had begun to fade a bit in recent years, but if an offensive lineman didn't bring his A game, Thomas would still make him pay. Raiders left tackle Pat Harlow found that out in the 1998 opener at Arrowhead, in which Thomas turned quarterback Jeff George's afternoon into a nightmare. When insiders began to talk about Titans rookie pass-rush phenom Jevon Kearse, one name kept coming up as the standard of comparison: Thomas.
This off-season he was to have taken a ride in a B-1 bomber at an Air Force base in Missouri. No doubt that flight would have honored the memory of Air Force Capt. Robert Thomas. Derrick thought his father a man of courage, a quality that the son needs now.
JORDAN AND FALK
Michael Jordan may no longer be playing, but it appears he still gets all the calls—at least the important ones. When Jordan became part owner and president of basketball operations for the Wizards last week, his relationship with his agent, David Falk, who also represents more than 40 NBA players, immediately constituted a conflict of interest. But don't expect the league to blow a whistle.
Several league sources think commissioner David Stern will stop short of requiring Jordan to sever all business ties with Falk. True, the players' association prohibits player agents from representing general managers, coaches and other front-office personnel in basketball matters. But Falk could—and probably will—continue to handle Jordan's endorsement deals. That's unfortunate, because conflicts of interest aren't so much about unethical behavior as they are about its possibility, and the only way to avoid such concerns is for Jordan and Falk to extricate themselves entirely from each other's bank accounts. Otherwise their motives will be questioned every time either one makes a move that even indirectly involves the other.
Consider this scenario: Three years from now Washington goes after free agent-Falk client Elton Brand of the Bulls. Does Falk advise Brand to re-sign with Chicago, or does he steer him toward the Wizards to make sure Jordan, his endorsement cash cow, doesn't get peeved? Or envision next summer, when Washington center Jahidi White, represented by Falk, becomes a free agent. Does Jordan offer White a fatter contract because Falk helps Jordan make hundreds of millions of dollars in various deals? Does Falk fail to drive as hard a bargain on White's behalf if Jordan is sitting on the other side of the negotiating table?
"It doesn't concern me at all," says Wizards forward Juwan Howard, a Falk client, of the relationship. "Michael will do what's best for his team. All he cares about is winning the championship, and if I'm not getting the job done, he'll ship my butt right out of here." But the integrity of Falk and Jordan isn't the issue. As long as they have the incentive to help each other for personal profit, they and the league will never be entirely free of suspicion.