Legs paralyzed, but Thomas said to have feeling in toes

Doctors hold out hope for recovery by Chief

January 25, 2000|By KANSAS CITY STAR

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who suffered serious spinal cord injuries in an auto accident Sunday afternoon, was transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami yesterday.

Thomas, one of the most feared pass rushers in NFL history, arrived at the hospital about 6: 30 p.m. and underwent examination at the hospital's trauma center. To stabilize the fractures, he had surgery late last night that was expected to last into early morning.

The star linebacker has paralyzed legs after a car crash on an icy road in which his friend was killed.

Thomas suffered a fractured neck and fractured back in the accident that occurred on the icy roads in Kansas City on Sunday afternoon.

Earlier yesterday, Thomas, 33, had reported feeling sensations in his toes, according to a source close to the family.

Thomas has use of his arms and upper chest, and doctors held out hope he might fully recover. Doctors said Thomas faces extensive rehabilitation and probably will require further surgery.

"I don't think you can say anything right now," Dr. Jon Browne, the Chiefs' team physician, said yesterday. "These types of injuries have a mind of their own and a treatment pattern of their own. They're all uniquely and individually different."

Thomas grew up in the Miami area, and his mother lives there. Jackson Memorial Hospital is affiliated with the University of Miami School of Medicine, which operates the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. It is the nation's largest spinal-cord research center.

Steve Palermo, the former baseball umpire who suffered a spinal cord injury, visited with Thomas at Liberty (Mo.) Hospital before he left for Miami. Palermo is a member of the board of directors of Thomas' charitable foundation, Third and Long. But he also has firsthand experience in what Thomas faces over the next several years.

"I don't think I had to tell him very much," said Palermo, who was told he would never walk again but now walks with the aid of a cane. "He has met a lot of challenges in his life. This is a very good and stern test. But he's of the spirit that he is up to the test."

Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham said Thomas' spirits "were tremendous. He had a smile on his face -- as he always does."

With an infectious smile and fun-loving attitude, Thomas is one of the most popular athletes in Kansas City history, almost on a par with baseball great George Brett. Friends dubbed him "social director of the NFL."

Thomas was driving with two friends to Kansas City International Airport on Sunday headed for the NFC title game in St. Louis.

He lost control of his car on a snowy highway, and it flipped several times. Thomas and Mike Tellis, 49, of Kansas City, Kan., were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from the car, police said. Tellis was killed instantly.

A third man in the car who was wearing his seat belt was treated and released.

The crash happened about 10 miles from another highway pileup in which 10 people died.

Thomas, a nine-time Pro Bowl player, holds the NFL one-game record of seven sacks and ranks ninth all-time with 126 1/2 sacks.

The 6-foot-3, 255-pound player holds Chiefs records for career safeties (three), forced fumbles (45) and fumble recoveries (19). He starred at Alabama and was named to the Pro Bowl his first nine seasons.

"God willing, all the initial reports will be off and he'll be OK," Chiefs center Tim Grunhard said. "Right now, I'm not concerned with Derrick Thomas the football player. I'm worried about Derrick Thomas the person."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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