Death happens every day, and as well as we try to prepare for it, we are never fully ready when it strikes, especially when it's unexpected. Athletes are portrayed as bigger than life with nearly superhuman physical abilities and an air of invincibility. That's one reason we experience a period of disbelief when we hear of a Randie Carver, a Payne Stewart, or now a Derrick Thomas. But every day obituaries are filled with names familiar only to family and friends, and we forget that behind every loss of a loved one are a thousand stories, adventures, and times of extreme happiness and devastating pain. Each human life is a drama and comedy, and when it ends, we are ultimately reminded that if these great athletes are mortal, then we must reflect on our own mortality.
All that is magnified when we lose someone woven into the fabric of our community. Such is the case with Thomas. My introduction to him came not as a writer but as an observer and fan. My first regular-season visit to Arrowhead came in 1990 with the Chiefs taking on the Seattle Seahawks. Although the young defensive end, Carl Peterson's first draft pick, had already established himself as a top NFL defender, this seven-sack effort, still a single-game NFL record, was the game that elevated Thomas to the elite as one of the truly great pass rushers of all time. He also came to symbolize the Peterson/Marty Schottenheimer revival of the Chiefs, who had suffered through a decade and a half of mediocrity after the early glory days of Hank Stram and Len Dawson.
A couple of years later came my opportunity to witness the Chiefs from the press box and the locker room. Win or lose, Derrick was usually available for reporters after a game, flashing his trademark grin after a victory and patiently answering question after question following a loss. Although some players preferred to shower and dress before answering questions, Thomas often sprawled himself on the floor in front of his locker, totally exhausted, his uniform covered with mud and grass stains, as he dealt with the mob of media types who wanted a piece of his time.
One image I can't shake is the one of Thomas after the heartbreaking playoff loss to the Colts, in which the defense had played well enough to win. In the locker room the silence was deafening, and Thomas sat motionless in disbelief, still wearing his uniform, as if the reality of the loss would not manifest itself as long as the jersey and pads were on.
By the time this column hits the street, there will be scores of columns written about how Thomas could take over a game defensively, how he brought a new level of speed to his position, how he perhaps lost a step over the last few years but still showed that on a given day he could dominate and make offensive linemen look foolish in trying to impede his path to the quarterback. Others will write about how in his earlier days he may have spent more than his share of time in Westport bars, while others will talk about his dedication and service to the community with his Third and Long Foundation.
I've never shared this in public before, but once I was the driver in an accident that resulted in a broken leg of a ninth-grade student, one of my son's friends who had been helping me during a household move. The young man was a huge sports fan and idolized Derrick Thomas. Although I normally never, ever asked any athlete for any type of favor, the next time the Chiefs played, I waited patiently for about an hour for the media frenzy that accompanied Thomas to subside. Then I took my portable tape recorder over to Thomas and explained the ninth-grader's situation and asked whether he would say a few words of encouragement. Not hesitating, he took the recorder and spoke the young boy's name, then said, "I hope you get better soon, and God bless."
That is the memory that will always come to mind whenever I think of Derrick Thomas, because for me, it transcends anything he did on the football field. No doubt there are thousands of other stories like mine, stories about the lives he touched and the people he helped. If anything good is to come of something like this, it's to be a reminder that there are lessons to be learned and lives that can be saved.
One lesson is that the loved ones in our lives should never be taken for granted, for they can be taken away at any time. The other is that the five seconds it takes to fasten that seat belt is more than an inconvenience. It's a daily life and death decision.