Saturday, February 26, 2011

South Florida Legend: Derrick Thomas

Hall of fame linebacker Derrick Thomas pictured as a senior at South Miami High School in 1984

Derrick Thomas was one of the most fierce pass rushers to ever play the game of football. He terrorized NFL quarterbacks for 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1989 to 1999. But it's hard to believe Thomas wasn't considered the best linebacker on his high school team. When college recruiters visited South Miami High School during the 1984-85 school year, Thomas was considered a talented and raw prospect. But his teammate Keith Carter was hailed by recruiting experts as a complete and finished product ready for college. Thomas went on to stardom as an All American linebacker at the University of Alabama before playing for the Chiefs. Carter would go on to a decent college career at Florida State, but never had near the success as Thomas.

Born and raised in Miami's West Perrine section, Derrick Thomas didn't seem destined for greatness on the football field. He was more likely to end up in jail than the hall of fame. His father Robert Thomas was a B-52 fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, who was killed in action. Growing up without a dad, Thomas didn't have many positive male role models in his life. He hung out with a bad crowd and often got into trouble. He was arrested several times as a youngster. By age 14, he seemed like a lost cause. He was sentenced to juvenile hall. But it was there where he found his true calling.

Judge William Gladstone recommended Thomas to be sent to the Dade Marine Institute (DMI), an alternative day school for troubled youngsters. It was at DMI Thomas met director Nick Millar, one of several mentors who helped Thomas get his life on track. Millar was a former college wrestler and recognized Thomas's athletic gifts. Thomas spent two years at DMI and was a model student. He channeled his energy towards his passion--athletics. His next goal was to play football for South Miami High School.

Thomas enrolled at South Miami prior to his junior year of high school. Head football coach Sam Miller didn't know much about Thomas at the time. But it didn't take long to notice his startling speed and size. Thomas played running back at tight end his junior year and scored a few touchdowns. But Miller realized Thomas's aggresiveness and physical nature was better suited for the defensive side of the football. He played outside linebacker and rush end, quickly gaining attention from college recruiters. He earned second-team All Dade County honors from the Miami Herald and Miami News. But his teammate Keith Carter was considered the big-name star on the team. Carter was selected to every high school All American team in existence including Parade Magazine, Scholastic Coach Magazine and USA Today. The Miami Herald rated Carter as the second best player in Dade County for the Class of 1985, behind Michael Timpson of Hialeah Miami Lakes.

But while Keith Carter was getting all the headlines and attention from recruiters, Thomas wasn't a complete unknown. He competed in football, wrestling, basketball and track at South Miami and was a standout in every sport. He actually gained more recognition as a wrestler--earning All Dade honors. The Miami Herald ranked him among Dade's 10 best senior prospects and several colleges were showing interest. In the end, he decided to attend the University of Alabama coached at that time by Ray Perkins. From the time he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Thomas dominated and got better and better. He saw action as a true freshman. But once again, he found himself in the shadow of another linebacker teammate-- Cornelius Bennett. But when Bennett graduated in 1987, Thomas had the spotlight to himself for his final two years of college and never looked back. He became the most feared player in college football. Thomas was so quick off the ball, he literally was in the backfield once the ball was snapped. By his senior year he racked up an amazing 27 sacks and won the Butkus Award, given annually to college football's best linebacker.

Thomas was the 4th overall selection in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1989 NFL Draft and he didn't disappoint. He was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1989 and went on to become a 9-time Pro Bowl selection. Off the field, Thomas also made his mark. He never forgot his troubled past or the people who helped him turn his life around. This time Thomas decided he wanted to help kids realize the importance of eduacation. He established the Third and Long Foundation, which helps children with their reading skills. Thomas had suffered from reading disabilities when he was a kid. In 1993, Thomas was honored by the NFL and was given the prestigious Walter Payton Man of the Year award.

On January 8, 2000, Derrick Thomas' SUV went off the road as he and two friends were driving to Kansas City Airport, where they were going to fly to St. Louis to watch the NFC Championship game. Not wearing seat belts, Thomas and one of his passengers was thrown from the car. The first passenger was killed instantly while the second passenger, who was wearing his seat belt, walked away from the scene uninjured. Thomas was left paralyzed from the chest down. Derrick was later flown back to Miami to be treated by renowned Neurological Surgeon Dr. Barth Green at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Despite receiving the best state-of-the-art paralysis care, Derrick succumbed to his injuries on February 8, 2000, after suffering a pulmonary embolism. Derrick Thomas was 33 years old.

Derrick Thomas left behind a huge legacy. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009. His son Derrick Jr. gave his inductment speech. Thomas' mother, Edith Morgan, established the Moms2Moms58 to honor his legacy. The foundation works with professional football players, non-profit organizations, community leaders, political figures and entertainers to educate the public on car seat and seatbelt safety, children's health and sports safety outreach to inner-city youth. Each year Moms2Moms58 hosts the "Celebration of Life Celebrity Weekend" in Derrick's hometown of Miami. On September 2, 2002, the Derrick Thomas Academy, a charter school, opened. It currently has an enrollment of 950 children from kindergarten to eighth grade.

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