Paralyzed Thomas dead at 33

Chiefs star linebacker dies in Miami hospital

blood clot suspected

`He was upbeat positive'

Jan. 23 auto accident fractured his spine

February 09, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, a nine-time Pro Bowl pick and a former NFL Man of the Year who was paralyzed in an auto accident on Jan. 23, died yesterday in a Miami hospital.

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

Doctors could not specify the exact cause of death and may perform an autopsy, although one of his physicians, Barth Green, said a massive blood clot that entered the lungs probably killed the player.

Thomas, 33, died 28 years after his father, Air Force Capt. Robert Thomas, died when his fighter plane was shot down in the Vietnam War during Operation Linebacker II.

Thomas, who made frequent visits to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington to trace his father's name, set the single-game NFL sack record of seven the same week as Veterans Day in 1990, when fighter jets flew over Arrowhead Stadium in pre-game ceremonies.

"Seeing those Air Force jets really inspired me," he said at the time. "I kept thinking that my father was up there watching me. I wanted to make sure he was proud of me."

His father was not declared officially dead until nine years later, when Thomas was 14.

The linebacker's death came one day after Chiefs president Carl Peterson visited him.

"He was upbeat, he was positive, he was Derrick," an emotional Peterson said.

"He was in a wheelchair. I said, `Son, you're mobile.' He said, `Father, I am. I've got wheels.' "

Peterson added: "Something good will come of this because a good man left our presence."

As Peterson fought to keep his composure, he said, "I think and I hope that people do do one thing, and maybe I'm taking some liberties here and I have personally ever since this tragedy happened, buckle that seat belt. Take care of yourself. Take care of your loved ones."

Thomas was paralyzed in an accident as he was driving his car during a snowstorm on the way to the airport to catch a flight to St. Louis to see the Rams play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game.

He lost control of the car and it overturned at least three times. Police said Thomas was speeding and weaving in traffic and not wearing a seat belt.

Thomas and passenger Michael Tellis, 49, were thrown from the vehicle and Tellis was killed. Thomas suffered spinal fractures in the back and neck.

The third person in the car was wearing a seat belt and sustained only minor injuries.

Flags were lowered to half staff at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and the Missouri legislature paused for a moment of silence after his death was announced by state Sen. Bill Kenney, a former Chiefs quarterback.

"Derrick Thomas was a true hero," said Kenney, who urged lawmakers to support a bill for spinal cord research in Missouri.

Thomas grew up on the mean streets of Miami, had some brushes with the law and was taken out of public school by a judge and placed in the Day Marine Institute, which he said was like a boot camp.

"It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me," he said. "I gained a positive outlook and learned to set goals and see them through. I gained a sense of pride and the value of reading."

Peterson and Chiefs coach Gunther Cunningham held a somber news conference yesterday.

Cunningham said: "I looked at Derrick Thomas as one of the finest people I had ever been been around and a friend. The thing I'll always remember is his smile."

He paused several times to regain his composure, and added, "I just know this, that Derrick will hang over this stadium forever."

Peterson said Thomas wanted three things in life. The first two were to be the greatest linebacker ever and the greatest businessman. The third was to be the "biggest charity-giving guy there was possible, and he did it."

Thomas was involved in various charities, including literacy programs for children, and one of his teachers was once named NFL Teacher of the Year.

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