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55 Days ‘Til Kickoff: Derrick Thomas

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In honor of the 55 remaining days before the kickoff of the 2016, we honor Derrick Thomas, #55, arguably the greatest pass rusher of all time.

Derrick Thomas Never been a better pass rusher than Derrick Thomas not named Lawrence Taylor.

Though a title claimed by several more northerly based universities, it’d be hard to argue against Alabama’s status as "Linebacker U." Over the years, the sheer number of Tide linebackers who’ve made their marks on the college and professional ranks is astounding: Lee Roy Jordon, Woodrow Lowe, Cornelius Bennett, Keith McCants, DeMeco Ryans, Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley…the list goes on and on.

But one name stands above all others, in both the record books of the college and NFL games as well as in the hearts of Alabama fans far and wide. That name is none other than #55, Derrick Thomas, the greatest pass rusher of all time.

In recognition of the 55 days until the kickoff to the 2016 season, we’re recollecting the short yet dynamic life of one of the University of Alabama’s favorite sons.

It’s been said the brightest candles burn only half as long, and such was the case with Thomas. As a young athlete out of Miami, Thomas took the reigns of his own future early, and left his mark at Alabama and later, in Kansas City. He holds, to this days, many sack records at both levels of football, and his lasting impact as a philanthropist stands alongside his accomplishments on the football field in tribute to the man Derrick Thomas was in his brief tenure on this earth.

Early Years

Thomas’ life was a study in overcoming adversity, as he was saddled with such at an early age. At the age of five, Thomas was rendered fatherless by the ravages of war after his dad, Robert James Thomas, became a casualty of war while piloting a B-52 over Vietnam in 1972. (Interesting trivia: that mission on which Robert James Thomas was lost was called "Linebacker II.")

Thomas, who was raised by his mother Edith Morgan and grandmother Annie Adams, had an affinity for football at an early age, beginning his "career" as a three-year-old in talent-rich Miami. As he grew older, Thomas was a phenomenal athlete with great promise, starring at South Miami Senior High School, where his high school coach labelled him one of the best high school athletes he had ever seen (a statement echoed later by former Alabama coach Bill Curry, who said Thomas was the greatest athlete he had coached in his career.)

However, a fatherless teen male is a rudderless ship at times, and Thomas, seeking brotherhood, fell in with a rough crowd. He seemed destined for the wrong road despite his abundant talent, and began to burglarize cars and houses with a group of peers. Inevitably, Thomas was apprehended and charged with the crime, which seemed to mark the first step down a rocky road for the young phenom. However, he had the good fortune of appearing before a magistrate with a mind for the second-chance in Miami Dade Juvenile Court Judge Williams Gladstone. Instead of sending Thomas to jail, he sent him to the Dade Marine Institute, an alternative school for troubled students where they learned snorkeling and scuba diving. The experience gave the young man a new lease on life, and he finished the six month program in a mere three months.

The experience turned Thomas’ life around, and he returned to South Miami Central High School ready to harness his God-given talent. He became a star linebacker at South Miami Central, and as a senior, he received a scholarship offer from former Alabama coach Ray Perkins. The young linebacker was Tuscaloosa bound, and would be joining an already fearsome linebacking corps that featured All-American Cornelius Bennett.

At Alabama

On his first day at freshman camp at Alabama, Thomas was already turning heads. A fellow class of ’85 signee, running back Bobby Humphrey, said what stood out about Thomas immediately was his speed and athleticism for a 255 pound man. The running back recalled that when he showed up for his first practice, he found Thomas running sprints…with the running backs and receivers rather than the linebackers. In a 2015 interview with al.com, Humphrey recounted just how impressive Thomas was physically:

"We were all freshmen and nervous and didn't know what to expect. But I knew he was pretty fast when he would lead the sprints. It was like he was cut out of a rock. He was very ripped. Back then there weren't very many good weight programs for young men to get as defined as he was, but he was already a brick house when he got there."

Former defensive coordinator Joe Kines (who prior to his stint with Alabama during the Mike Shula era was a defensive coach with Perkins in 1985-86) said that Thomas was a physical freak of nature with all of the components one looks for in a player in the defensive front seven.

"Sometimes, a guy's got one part of the package. He had the whole package. He had great get-off. He had great bend. He had a great knack for getting around the guy. He didn't have to run over you. Now, he could run over you, but he didn't have to."

Legend has it that it was an incident early on in his experience at Alabama that propelled the young defender to the heights he enjoyed during his storied Crimson Tide career. Though Bennett recounted in later years that he could not remember exactly what happened, Thomas apparently was embarrassed by something the elder linebacker had done to him in practice. It bothered Thomas so much that he considered packing his bags and returning to Miami. In a phone conversation that evening, one of his mentors at Dade Marine Institute (Nick Millar) told him to stick it out, and to write down his goals. Thomas did that, and this is what he wrote:

"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."

From that point, Derrick Thomas went forth and conquered. He flashed brilliance in his sophomore season, when he blocked a punt against Vanderbilt, then scooped it up and scored. Despite his note to himself as a freshman, Thomas was good but labored in Bennett’s shadow to a degree until "Biscuit" moved on to the Buffalo Bills in 1987. In his junior season, the Alabama defense was Thomas’ to lead.

In ’87, Derrick Thomas became a household name in the state of Alabama, as he set the school record for sacks in a season at 18 in that campaign. That trend continued in 1988, as he established himself as the top linebacker prospect in the nation, and he built upon the success he enjoyed in the previous season. In what would become his signature game in crimson, Thomas single-handedly took over the ’88 game against Penn State at Legion Field. According to former Tide corner Kermit Kendrick, after Penn State quarterback Tony Sacca completed a long pass for a touchdown that was called back due to a hold, Thomas told his teammates not to worry, that the Lion quarterback wouldn’t have that much time to throw the rest of the game. He made good on that promise, sacking Sacca three times in the game (once for a safety) in addition to recording nine quarterback hurries as the Tide won a defensive struggle by a score of 8-3.

By the time Thomas’ senior season was over, he had done exactly what he promised himself he’d do when he began his career at Alabama. Bennett, a Lombardi Trophy winner and All-American who had been one of the most acclaimed and accomplished linebackers in Alabama history, no longer appeared at the top of any of the main defensive record columns in Tuscaloosa.

Thomas, conversely, owned them all. Thomas laid claim to Alabama records for sacks in a single game (5 vs. Texas A&M in ’88), most sacks in a season (27 in ’88), most career sacks (52), most tackles for loss in a single game (seven vs. Texas A&M in ’88), most tackles for loss in a season (39 in ’88), most career tackles for loss (68) and most career blocked kicks (5 – 4 punts, one field goal). In addition, Thomas is still actually listed both first and second in single game sacks and sacks in a season. Thomas’ 27 sacks in a season is not only an Alabama record, but an NCAA record that may never be broken.

The NFL

Following his senior season, Thomas was labeled a hot commodity among NFL coaches and managers. Not only did he possess the physical measurables to make scouts drool (he was a fast 6-4, 255 pounds), but he also had the production to match at a storied institution of college football.

Thomas was the fourth overall pick in the 1989 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Thomas immediately set about proving the wisdom of the Chief’s decision, as he received The Sporting News Defensive Rookie of the Year honors (Bobby Humphrey of the Broncos won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award…Roll Tide) following his first season. He made his first Pro Bowl in his rookie season, one of nine in his 10 year career. Thomas was named to the All-Pro team six times, and he was the 1993 Edge NFL Man of the Year for his performance on the field and off. The linebacker’s on-field exploits were rivaled only by his philanthropy in the community, as in 1990 he and teammate Neil Smith founded the Third and Long Foundation in Kansas City, a program designed to guide at-risk youth between the ages of 9-13 years old.

Thomas’ most lasting impact on the professional game came in a game against Seattle in 1990, when the linebacker set the record for sacks in a single game, sacking Seahawk quarterback Dave Krieg seven times in what would eventually be a Chiefs loss. That record has stood for 25 years, and in that time, no player has come closer to 1.5 sacks from breaking it. He is the Chiefs’ record holder for career sacks, career safeties, career fumble recovered and career fumbles forced. Thomas is one of only 25 NFL players to accrue more than 100 sacks in a career, as he had earned 126.5 sacks when his career abruptly ended in 2000.

The End

Thomas’s short life ended abruptly. On January 23, 2000, Thomas and two friends were traveling through a snow storm to catch a flight to the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis. Reportedly, Thomas was driving at a high rate of speed, and the frozen roads proved more than he could handle. A fatal accident instantly took the life of one passenger who was ejected from the vehicle, and Thomas, who was not wearing a safety belt, was ejected and paralyzed from the waist down.

After being stabilized, Thomas was moved to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. On the morning of February 8, 2000, the linebacker was being moved from his bed to a wheelchair when he reported feelings of illness. He immediately went into cardio-pulmonary arrest due to a pulmonary embolism, and he died as a result at the age of 33.

On January 21, 2009, Thomas was posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH, his lasting mark on the pro game recognized (Click here to watch his induction, and a fine recollection of Thomas by former Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson). However, it was not until 2014 that Thomas, one of the college game’s most prolific pass rushers, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Derrick Thomas’s single-game sack records in the college and professional games may never be broken. Sure, the game has changed in the decades since Thomas stalked between the sidelines, but even in today’s game, the qualities that made him great would still carry weight. He was fast, powerful, intuitive, inexhaustible and relentless. It was the latter quality that probably accounted for more of his records than the prior four combined.

A gridiron hero to those who followed the game in the late 80’s and early ‘90s, Thomas was an unstoppable both on the field and the community he called home. Had he enjoyed a full life and career, there’s no way of knowing the scope of the impact he could have made on the field and off. But if his prior 33 years had been any indication, one could anticipate only greatness.

As Carpenter recalled in his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech linked above, when Thomas died, a light went out in Kansas City. While this is true, his life was not a flickering orange lick of flame struggling against the draft, but rather a supernova that scattered light across the football landscape, so dynamic were his accomplishments in such a short period of time.

(Watch the Greatest of All-Time work at his craft. Here are some highlights from Thomas’ landmark record-setting performance against Texas A&M, in which he set the single-game records for sacks and tackles for loss. Here are some highlights from Thomas’ magnum opus, the 1988 game against Penn State at Legion Field. Here is a fine collection of highlights from his days with Kansas City. This is a great collection of quotes from former NFL teammates, coaches and opponents (and the man himself) on #58. Finally, here are recollections from some of Thomas’ teammates recorded for his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.)