This story will appear in the program for the Pro Football hall of Fame game and induction ceremonies this weekend in Canton, Ohio. It was my pleasure to write this piece and reminiscence with three key figures in Derrick Thomas life about that moment when they understood they had found someone special. The photos are all from Kansas City’s best, Hank Young.
It was a cloudy, muggy day, pretty much standard issue when it comes to Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the month of March.
At the football complex on the campus of the University of Alabama, a handful of men gathered on the artificial turf practice field. Some wore shorts and t-shirts, prepared for physical activity and football drills. Others wore slacks and polo shirts, there to watch the workout.
They had come together at this time and place because of one man: Derrick Thomas.
By the time his career ended with his death in February 2000, Thomas left a lengthy highlight tape of sacks, tackles, turnovers, touchdowns and safeties. There was his rookie season when he had 10 sacks and his second year when he doubled that number, including a still-league record seven sacks in one game against the Seahawks. There were his six sacks against the Raiders in his 10th season. There were the remarkable 45 fumbles he forced and 65 total takeaways.
All those accomplishments led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 2009.
Unfortunately, there is no film or tape of that Tuscaloosa day in March 1989. But what went down that day was a Derrick Thomas highlight that Carl Peterson, Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Cowher will never forget.
Peterson was just months into what would be 20-year tenure as President/General Manager of the Chiefs. Schottenheimer had come on board two months before as the seventh head coach in team history, a job he would hold for a decade. Cowher was not yet 32 years old and preparing for his first season as a defensive coordinator. Within three years he would be head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The trio had come together in Kansas City where they inherited a 4-11-1 football team and a franchise that had made the playoffs just once in the previous 17 seasons. It was going to be one of the most extensive rebuilding projects in NFL history and the 1989 Draft was a big part of the plan.
The Chiefs had the fourth choice in the first round, and there were a handful of players under consideration for the pick. On the radar screen were UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders, Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders, Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich and a pair of linebackers named Thomas, Derrick from Alabama and Broderick from Nebraska.
At the NFL Combine that February, Derrick Thomas made an appearance, ran the 40-yard dash and then at the suggestion of his agent, he did not take part in any of the drills. That decision got under Peterson’s skin. When he was in the personnel department of the Philadelphia Eagles in the late 1970s, Peterson helped push through the concept of the Combine, where potential draft picks would all come to one place and work out for all NFL teams.
“We interviewed him and tried to talk him into working out,” Peterson remembered. “He didn’t and I was very upset, as I was with all the college players who came to the Combine at our expense but refused to work out.”
Peterson was especially disappointed because he believed the fastest way to turnaround the Chiefs franchise was to build a dominating defense and scouts felt Thomas could be that type of player. Peterson had seen some of that himself during the fall of 1988, when he attended the Auburn-Alabama game as an interested fan.
“I saw this guy play a phenomenal game,” Peterson said. “I think he had two or three sacks, blocked a punt, he blocked a field goal attempt. He was all over the field, with such great speed and quickness, with size. He was truly impressive.”
Schottenheimer had read the scouting reports and watched some film of Thomas. “The athletic ability was obvious,” he said. “He was an impactful player; you couldn’t miss him on the film.”
Without a Combine workout, the Chiefs were forced to head to Alabama and a personal workout session with Thomas. Peterson was determined to make a point. “I wanted him to understand that he had missed an opportunity to perform in front of the NFL,” Peterson said.
Cowher was getting ready to start the drills that day when Schottenheimer pulled him aside.
“Marty told me to get after it, to really make him work,” said Cowher. “We had about four or five linebacker types there and we start going through the drills and Derrick is doing everything and he barely broke a sweat. Marty said pick up the pace, so we started going faster. It was kind of a hot day and I remember one guy wanted to stop and get a drink and I said no, no, we’ve got to keep moving.
“After every drill, Derrick was the first one back to me, ready to go for another one. Well, one guy drops out, a second player goes out saying he can’t do anymore. I’m doing every linebacker drill I can think of and it’s down to Derrick and one other guy, and this other guy is struggling.
“By this time, Derrick has started to figure out what’s going on and he’s laughing. Then, that last guy drops out.”
Cowher figured the workout was over.
“Next thing I know, there were some defensive backs there to work out and Carl says to work Derrick with the DBs,” Cowher said. “So we start doing DB drills and it’s the same thing, Marty is telling me to pick up the pace. So I’m running these guys all over the field … let’s go down here, you are dropping in cover two, go get the ball there, bring the ball back here. I’m running all over the field and I’m starting to get tired. But there’s Derrick, running the DB drills and he’s always the first one back, with a smile on his face asking if there’s anything more he could do.
“One of the DBs falls out, then another. We’ve got guys on a knee trying to get their breath. At this point, it’s making Carl madder and madder. I’m trying hard not to start laughing because the kid had figured out that we were trying to work him into submission. He’s just going on forever. I’m thinking ‘I love this kid. Derrick you and I are going to get along just fine.’ It was a pretty amazing, athletic performance, unbelievable endurance.”
Said Peterson: “After every drill, Derrick would come over and say to Marty and me, ‘Coach, Mr. Peterson what more would you like to see?’ He would give us that smile. As mad as I was, you could not help but like this young man. He didn’t do it in a cocky, braggadocio way. It was just our first chance to be around that infectious personality of his.”
Schottenheimer said the workout left little doubt about Thomas and his skills. “There really wasn’t anything that Bill had him do that Derrick didn’t handle,” Schottenheimer said. “His skill was terrific and we couldn’t wear him down.
“We had him do some pass rush drills and it was then that I first really saw that first step of his. In all my years in football, I’ve never seen a guy that was quicker on that first step than Derrick. Not Shawne Merriman, not Lawrence Taylor, no one.”
Cowher remembers watching tape of Thomas in his senior season at Alabama and being impressed by the young man’s ability to control his body.
“I never saw a guy who could get so low to the ground and contort his body in so many positions,” said Cowher. “He had this amazing flexibility and explosion, more than I’ve ever saw from anybody else. There was no question he had this natural rush ability.”
It was that first step and his body control that led to so many missteps for opponents in the 179 regular and post-season games Thomas played for the Chiefs. He bedeviled numerous blocking schemes over the years.
“Everybody knew what was coming and they couldn’t stop him,” said Schottenheimer. “He had an effect on game plans. Protections were changed. Players were assigned to chip him on the pass rush. Teams pushed the pocket away from him.
“But he was still productive, still getting sacks, still forcing turnovers. That’s true testimony to what kind of player he was.”
Thomas did not rely only on athletic ability; he put in time studying opposing quarterbacks and pass protections.
“He searched for any edge he could find,” Schottenheimer said. “He would pick up something and he would make it work for him. He used to watch the quarterbacks knees. Most quarterbacks right before they take the snap will flex their knees. Derrick was always watching for that.”
Stripping the quarterback at the end of a sack became D.T.’s signature play. In 169 regular season games, he caused 45 fumbles. Only one pass rusher can match that total: Bruce Smith. A fellow member of the Hall of Fame class of 2009, Smith forced 45 fumbles in 279 games, or 110 more games than Thomas.
“He wasn’t satisfied with just a sack, he wanted a turnover, he wanted the fumble,” said former Denver quarterback and Hall of Famer John Elway, who was D.T.’s leading victim with 17 sacks. “He was always grabbing with his left hand, while chopping at your arm with his right hand. He had more in mind than killing the quarterback. He wanted the ball.”
Schottenheimer and Cowher always stressed the turnover ratio as the most important statistic in football after the final score. Thomas was the personification of that attitude.
“We always talked about stripping the ball and for him it became a very natural thing,” said Cowher. “He would always come around the quarterback and rather than take his head off, he would locate the ball and go after it. He always went right for the arm, grab the arm and go for the ball as it was coming up.
“When you measure defense, the Number One objective is to take the football away. If you can get off the field on one play then you are getting it done. That’s what Derrick did.”
And so often that turnover became much more for the Chiefs; few pass rushers put points on the scoreboard like Thomas. He scored four touchdowns on fumble returns. Only two players have more (Jason Taylor and Jesse Tuggle.) He scored three safeties; only two NFL players have more (Doug English and Ted Hendricks.) His sacks led to six other touchdowns scored by teammates who recovered a fumble.
He was a true impact player. He did it with his overall play. He did it with his sacks. He did it by causing turnovers. He did it by putting points on the scoreboard and he did all of those things as well as player in the game’s recent history.
On top of his athletic ability and endurance, there was something else bigger than life with Thomas: his personality. His smile could light up a room, even a stadium.
“I will never forget early in his career there was something he didn’t get done and I sent for him to come to my office,” said Schottenheimer. “He came in and he could tell I was ticked off and he sat in a chair and I started reprimanding him and he just slumped down and got this woebegone look on his face. I was really giving it to him and he kind of gives me this look and I just couldn’t chew him out anymore. He could hear the tone of my voice change and he got this big smile on his face. I melted like butter.”
Said Cowher: “He had that infectious smile. He had fun playing the game. It resonated throughout the rest of the team.”
That quick first step, the contorting of his body, the endurance and durability and that smile; they were the biggest parts of Thomas and they were visible in that workout in Tuscaloosa. As they flew home from Alabama, Peterson, Schottenheimer and Cowher all were on the same page: Thomas was their man.
“The only question came because it was a position change from him, going from defensive end to outside linebacker,” said Schottenheimer. “But what you saw on the tape and what we saw in that workout was evidence that he could do what we wanted.”
When the 1989 NFL Draft began, the Chiefs had Thomas as the No. 2 player in the draft, behind only Aikman, who was selected with the first choice by the Dallas Cowboys. The Kansas City draft room sat on pins and needles when Green Bay went on the clock with the second pick. “We were pretty sure Detroit at No. 3 was going to take Barry Sanders,” said Peterson. “But we didn’t know what Green Bay was going to do.”
When the Packers grabbed Mandarich, there were happy faces at Arrowhead Stadium. As expected, Sanders became the third selection.
“There was no hesitation by us, there wasn’t any discussion, other than hugging each other,” Peterson said. “We knew we got ourselves a terrific player. I asked Marty and Whitey (Dovell, the team’s personnel director) and everybody else in the room, if they had any hesitation about this young man and there was none.
“We felt if he could come in and we could get Neil Smith going on the other side, we would have a combo. Both of these guys coming off the edge, as a LB and DE, could create a lot of havoc.”
The havoc that Derrick Thomas created played out for 11 seasons in the league and led to his enshrinement as one of the most dynamic defenders in the game’s history. There were so many highlights in that career, but the three men responsible for bringing him to Kansas City will always remember that day in Tuscaloosa.
“When we got a chance to be around him and watch him, when you look back on that workout, you have a great appreciation for what he did that day,” Cowher said. “He did everything he was asked to do. Derrick didn’t say, ‘I’m only going to do this or do that.’ That’s what I walked away from that workout with. This kid was going to be a high draft pick and he put on a show, and he really didn’t have to do that. He was going to be a high pick anyway. He wasn’t upset or mad about what happened. He just went out and did the drills. That said a lot about him right there. He enjoyed it. He embraced it. That’s what I respected the most about him.
“We were trying to make a point to him, but he was probably a kid that didn’t need to have a point made to him. I think the only message sent that day was that he was a special player, and that was a message he sent to us.”