Thomas Was One Of Us

In every lifetime, there are moments we never forget - friendships and relationships, births and deaths, and political or historical incidents. We can all think back to certain moments when we realized how precious and fragile life can be, how it affects everything around us.

At an early age, the Chiefs became a central part of my life, and like all young fans growing up, I idolized their gridiron heroes. That player who stood out among those heroes was Derrick Thomas.

I grew up in a family that is completely immersed in Chiefs football. I had the Chiefs winter coat, lucky red and gold socks, Chiefs backpack, and autographed pictures of the local sports heroes who ruled Arrowhead. My entire family would gather for Chiefs playoffs games, discuss football at traditional holiday dinners, and share the season tickets that my grandfather purchased when the Chiefs came to town in 1963. This all still continues to this day.

At school, the Chiefs were just as big as they were for me back home. Thomas made an effort to reach out, teaching both sportsmanship and education to his young fans through his charitable foundation. My school had a special connection to him, and held a joint fundraiser every year. The day after the fundraiser, children who attended with their parents were fortunate enough to ride around Kansas City with Thomas in his limousine. The day after the event, students would brag that they had hung out with Thomas.

Thomas made frequent visits to schools with K.C. Wolf, including mine. His appearances definitely overshadowed Elvis Grbac's. Thomas stayed after the pep assemblies to sign autographs and take pictures with the students and faculty, making an effort to be like one of us.

In a way, he was. To everybody at my school and in my family, he wasn't Derrick Thomas. He was just Derrick.

Thomas was the embodiment of the Chiefs off the field with charitable and generous visits, earning him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 1993. On the field he was a powerful force worthy of myth and his Hall of Fame bust in Canton. From his seven-sack game against Seattle in 1990 to his Monday night meltdown against Denver, Derrick was passionate. That heart showed itself in school gymnasiums and classrooms.

Detractors point to his personal life and ethics, but like every human being, Thomas was mortal. His eventually fatal car accident came as a complete shock not only to the city, but the entire football world. Someone who we all thought was immortal was brought back down to Earth. Thomas' accident proved that we're neither perfect nor invincible, and we learned a valuable lesson about vehicle safety.

It was a cold, damp Tuesday on February 8, 2000 when Thomas passed. I remember coming back from the lunchroom at school, and my sixth grade teacher was sitting at her desk with tears streaming down her face.

"Derrick's gone," she said. We all knew who she was talking about, because he was our friend. He was one of us. She didn't teach for the rest of the day, rather speaking to us about road safety and our fondest memories of Chiefs football. The next day, the entire school encouraged us to wear red and gold rather than our generic school uniforms.

Derrick Thomas had a special connection to Kansas City, the Chiefs, and his young fans. He taught us all that life is genuinely precious and should never be taken for granted. Game film and pictures capture his aura, and like all moments in history, they will stick with us forever. From the bandana to the big smile, Derrick was one of us.

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