Family, friends mourn death of Chiefs star

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 9, 2000

The Associated Press

Miami – Nearly 12 hours after Derrick Thomas died, his family and friends remained at Jackson Memorial Hospital, consoling one another and sharing their memories of the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

Wednesday, February 09, 2000

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Miami – Nearly 12 hours after Derrick Thomas died, his family and friends remained at Jackson Memorial Hospital, consoling one another and sharing their memories of the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

They congregated on the third floor of the rehabilitation center, the place where Thomas was recovering from a paralyzing car crash last month.

Coaches, teammates and childhood buddies sat alongside Thomas’ relatives, all of them still shocked by his sudden death Tuesday.

Thomas probably died from a massive blood clot, doctors said. He was 33.

”We’re all in a situation at this juncture where I don’t think any of us can appreciate the personal loss,” former Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said.

Thomas was being transferred from his hospital bed to a wheelchair on his way to therapy Tuesday morning when he uttered something to his mother and his eyes rolled back, said Dr. Frank Eismont, a neurosurgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The Chiefs linebacker, who held the NFL record of seven sacks in a game, went into cardio-respiratory arrest, he said.

Doctors have not determined an exact cause of death, and an autopsy might be performed today.

Blood clots are more common in people with paralysis, Eismont said, and Thomas was on medication to prevent clotting.

”His family is devastated. We all are,” said Spencer Hammond, who played alongside Thomas at Alabama and spent much of Tuesday with Thomas’ family. ”It’s very upsetting.”

Thomas’ death surprised everyone, mainly because of the progress he had made in just a short time since his injury.

”Derrick was an extraordinary person and was breaking all the records while he was here,” Dr. Barth Green said.

Thomas was driving a car during a snowstorm on Jan. 23 as he and two friends headed to the Kansas City airport to fly to St. Louis for the NFC championship game. He lost control of the car, and it overturned at least three times, police said.

Police said Thomas was speeding and weaving in traffic, but no charges were filed.

Thomas and passenger Michael Tellis, 49, were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from the car. Tellis was killed and Thomas’ spine and neck were broken. The third person in the car, who was wearing his seat belt, sustained only minor injuries.

Thomas was brought to the hospital in Miami, his hometown, where he remained paralyzed from the chest down after having surgery to repair his spinal column. Doctors had hoped he would walk again.

Others were certain.

”He would have won the battle, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Schottenheimer said.

Jackson Memorial is the home of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, the world’s largest spinal cord injury research center, and its surgeons have operated on injured athletes before, including race car driver Emerson Fittipaldi.

An All-American at Alabama, the 6-foot-3, 255-pound Thomas became an immediate star as a pass-rushing specialist after being taken in the first round of the 1989 draft. He was an All-Pro in his first nine seasons and ranked ninth on the career list with 126.5 career sacks.

With one of the quickest first moves of any defender in the league, Thomas became known for his ”sack and strip” move, where he closed fast on a quarterback’s blind side and hacked at his arm to knock the ball out of his hand.

He set the single-game sack record in 1990 in a game against Seattle. That game was the same week as Veterans Day, and Thomas dedicated his performance to his father, an Air Force pilot killed in Vietnam.

Thomas is survived by his mother, Edith Morgan; his son, Derrick Thomas Jr., 8; and a half-brother, Gregory Morgan, 19.

”I’ll always remember two things: the ever-present smile and the great sense of pride that was a part of everything he was involved in,” Schottenheimer said.