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Chiefs' Thomas Dead at 33
Paralyzed Star Suffers Cardiac Arrest 16 Days After Crash

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2000; Page D01

Derrick Thomas, who established himself as one of professional football's best players and most charitable men during an 11-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs, died in Miami yesterday, just over two weeks after being paralyzed in an automobile accident.

Thomas, 33, was being transferred from his bed at Jackson Memorial Hospital to a wheelchair for a therapy session yesterday morning when he went into cardio-respiratory arrest and could not be revived, hospital officials said. Thomas's doctors had not determined the exact cause of his death, and an autopsy might be performed. One of Thomas's doctors, Barth Green, told reporters in Miami that Thomas's death was "a total shock" and probably was caused by a massive blood clot.

The death of the nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker, whose charitable endeavors made him a former NFL man of the year and one of former president George Bush's 1,000 "Points of Light," sent shock waves throughout the NFL and Kansas City, Mo., where he was among that city's most popular professional athletes.

"Life is not fair; 33 years is not long enough," Chiefs President Carl Peterson said during a news conference in Kansas City. "But he accomplished so much in 33 years."

Thomas broke vertebrae in his neck and back and was left paralyzed from the chest down following the Jan. 23 accident. His doctors, however, recently had expressed optimism about the possibility that he might walk again. Peterson said he visited Thomas on Monday and found him to be "upbeat" and "positive."

Said Chiefs Coach Gunther Cunningham: "I looked at him as one of the finest people I've been around. The one thing I'll always remember is the smile. That's one thing I'll never get out of my mind. I just know this: Derrick will hang over this stadium forever. . . . After every game, he'd walk across the field with a smile on his face, not because the Chiefs won, but because that's what he was. That's how I'll always remember him."

Thomas and two passengers were en route to the Kansas City airport to travel to St. Louis for the NFC championship game when Thomas lost control of the Chevy Suburban he was driving on an icy road. The vehicle rolled over three times. Witnesses reportedly told police investigators that Thomas's vehicle was exceeding the 70-mph speed limit on I-435.

Michael Tellis, a longtime friend of Thomas, was killed in the accident. Thomas and Tellis were not wearing their seat belts and were thrown out of the vehicle's side windows. A second passenger suffered minor injuries.

Thomas underwent surgery to stabilize his spinal column. He was from Miami, and Jackson Memorial Hospital has a reputation as one of the world's finest care facilities for patients with spinal injuries. Peterson said that when he saw Thomas on Monday, Thomas was in a wheel chair and was undergoing therapy.

"I said, 'Son, you're mobile,' " Peterson said. "He said, 'Father, I am. I've got wheels.' I don't know if there's any explanation as to what transpired. I know he had the best medical assistance possible. I know these things do happen with people who've had an accident like Derrick."

Thomas became one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers after being selected by the Chiefs with the fourth overall pick in the 1989 college draft from the University of Alabama. He was big and fast, and he terrorized opposing quarterbacks the way Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor once did for the New York Giants.

Thomas ranks ninth on the league's career sacks list with 126 1/2, and he set a single-game league record with seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks in 1990. He played a central role in reviving a Chiefs franchise that had made only one playoff appearance in 17 years before his arrival. The Chiefs, with Thomas, were one of only three NFL teams to have 100 victories in the 1990s.

He was as kind and giving off the field as he could be fierce on it. He started an inner-city reading program, and would read to children at libraries on weekends. He was the 1993 NFL man of the year. He met Bush in September 1992 after being named Bush's 832nd point of light.

"Derrick Thomas was a true hero," said former Chiefs quarterback Bill Kenney, a Missouri state senator.

The Missouri legislature paused for a moment of silence in remembrance of Thomas yesterday, and Kenney urged lawmakers to support a bill for research about spinal cord injuries in the state. Flags at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play their home games, were lowered to half-staff.

"Derrick Thomas leaves a tremendously positive legacy that will permanently enrich everyone whose life he touched," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, called Thomas a "great humanitarian," and said, "We will not only miss his Sunday afternoon blitzes . . . but his commitment to the sport and his community."

Thomas was 5 when his father Robert's plane was shot down while returning from a mission in Vietnam in Operation Linebacker II. Robert Thomas, an Air Force captain, was declared legally dead in 1980. Derrick Thomas tearily dedicated his seven-sack performance on Veterans Day 1990 to his father, and later made several trips to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to trace his father's name.

Thomas is the second professional athlete to be killed in an auto accident in recent weeks. Basketball player Bobby Phills, a Charlotte Hornets guard, died in a Jan. 12 accident while racing teammate David Wesley following a practice.

Staff writer Richard Justice contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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