More routine is the player who heads home in the off-season to places in Texas, Florida and other tax-free zones. Not so Thomas.
Thomas lived his life in your face. He could be spotted at any time around town, in its clubs, eateries, at any number of functions having to do with the various charities he supported along with his own. His escapades other than football were not always successful and he suffered some embarrassing moments with his reading program and some hijinks on his radio show, to cite two examples.
But the fact that he was so accessible, so easy to bump into on the street, or to come up to engage, makes him truly unique.
You see, the sports landscape has changed so much in the past 25 years that we can get excited when one of our sports stars actually likes living among us - not a passerby who looks to be off to his gated community home far away as soon as he can, or even to a new team with not so much as a thanks for the hospitality.
When the Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs there was much soul-searching over the move from Texas, largely because so many of the players were native Texans. It was reported that Jerry Mays even considered retiring rather than move to Missouri. But still they came, many settled and many still remain.
Over the years, the number of new players who did so began to gradually decline and the number we have who make the Kansas City metro area home today is composed of some old originals and a few contemporaries whose families found the lifestyle to their liking.
As for Thomas, he had the misfortune to die here as the result of injuries suffered in an auto accident. Although he is buried in his hometown of Miami, Florida, I doubt there is anyone who would think of him as anything other than one of our own. His funeral was one of the largest in the history of the city and the steady stream of people that came to pay their respect “in state” at Arrowhead Stadium ran well into the evening.
Derrick Thomas was the face of the franchise’s re-emergence as one of the NFL’s finest organizations in the ‘90s. He relished that role and saw himself as the face of the team.
He bonded with his teammates no matter their position, race, or place on the depth chart. He was a irresistible force in the locker room and sooner or later everyone came there as he held court before and after practice, going so far as to deliver breakfast some mornings for anyone who wanted one.
One incident, however, remains forever in my memory. on how he saw his place. The Chiefs were at training camp in River Falls, Wisconsin, and it was the first year for Joe Montana to be with us. The crowds, you can imagine, were large and when it came time for the annual autograph signing as part of the “Family Fun Day” festivities the players were lined up by position. To no surprise, the line to get Joe Montana’s autograph wrapped around the track circling the field.
Well, Derrick would have none of that. He quickly left his site with the linebackers and made his way to the side of Montana and promptly began signing autographs, which quickly lengthened the line even further.
This was Derrick Thomas’ team, he seemed to be saying, in his own way. It was and so was the town he played in.