He drove his Mercedes sedan toward the most crowded corner in Kansas City, surveying a jam-packed Westport intersection on a September Saturday night. With N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" blasting from the Blaupunkt speakers, Derrick Thomas started to hang a right turn onto Pennsylvania Ave. before calling what appeared to be an audible, settling the car into a diagonal position that swallowed up two crosswalks.
Then, to his passenger's amazement, Thomas put the Benz in park, killed the engine, set the alarm and prepared to enter the bustling bar a few feet away, the presence of three police cruisers on the block be damned.
I stood in the street and looked at Thomas, the NFL's best pass-rushing linebacker since Lawrence Taylor, a great player who deservedly will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, on Saturday. He stood on the curb and looked back at me.
"Come on, man," Thomas exclaimed in his singsong voice, flashing his broad, ivory smile and slightly raising his substantial forehead. "Everyone knows my car!"
It was 1996, and the chipper Chief's assessment that he owned the town proved to be an accurate one: Hours later we emerged after last call and re-entered the Benz, untouched and devoid of parking tickets. From there DT, pro football's perpetual Pied Piper, rolled out to an after-hours party, where I watched him befriend a homeless man at the door and, after entering, do the Macarena till his long legs were shot.
That's how it always seemed to go down with Thomas, and I wasn't the only one lucky enough to get in on the action. Gregarious and indefatigable, Thomas, when it came to commingling with his peers, was the most popular player of his era.
Picture a time without microblogging or social networking; without PDAs or text messaging; when email was something you did at your desktop with a dial-up phone line plugged into the back of your computer; when the bloggers of the future sat on couches and mumbled to themselves; when there was no such thing as Caller ID, and only a few people you knew had cell phones.
Go back to that bygone age, and consider the notion that the NFL's communal pulse ran through Derrick Thomas. Now realize that this is not a stretch, and that there are scores of well-known character witnesses who willfully would testify that the tenacious tackler of quarterbacks was particularly averse to hitting the sack.
Now here's the hard part of the story: The party ended in January 2000 in a horrific burst of slippery tires and smashed metal. Racing to catch a flight on a rain-slicked freeway, Thomas crashed his car and was paralyzed from the chest down, his close friend and passenger Mike Tellis killed on impact. Sixteen days later Thomas suffered a pulmonary embolism at a Miami hospital and died at 33.
There hasn't been anyone quite like him since, on or off the field.
In the nine years that passed between Thomas' death and last February's Super Bowl in Tampa, I hadn't given much thought to whether my fallen friend's bust would be displayed in Canton. It seemed almost incidental in light of the tragic way he went out and the messy aftermath – seven kids from multiple mothers, financial loose ends exacerbated by the absence of a will and the inevitable lawsuits that followed.
Certainly, Thomas left behind a legacy that went beyond those complications and exceeded his social status: He was a tireless worker for charitable causes who specialized in improving youth literacy, conspicuously spending his Saturday mornings at the library reading with kids from lower-income areas.
He was also a fantastic defender who made nine Pro Bowls, set an NFL single-game record with seven sacks (he had 126½ during his 11-year career) and had a knack for coming up with pivotal plays at crucial times. Opposing offensive coordinators game-planned around him, and on one particularly memorable day at Arrowhead Stadium in 1994, I saw him hit future Hall of Famer Steve Young so consistently and ferociously that the Niners quarterback blew chunks in the huddle.
So yeah, Thomas absolutely belonged in Canton. But it still took me by surprise when I heard the news on the morning before Super Bowl XLII that he'd been voted into the 2009 class, and my immediate reaction was more euphoric and exultant than I could have anticipated.
Suddenly, it was December 1997, and I was back in my house in Oakland looking at a list of players who'd been voted into the '98 Pro Bowl. Thomas, who'd made it for the ninth consecutive year, was one of the first names I circled.
I called his house, got an answering machine and told him congratulations. "That is just an unbelievable achievement for a pass rusher," I said.
A few days later, I stopped by the Chiefs' hotel in San Diego the night before they faced the Chargers in their second-to-last regular season game. Emerging from a meeting, Thomas spotted me and, before I could say hello, intoned incredulously, "Whaddaya mean for a pass rusher?"
Caught off guard, I hemmed and hawed for a second before giving my explanation: Sometimes sacks are fleeting, lost when quarterbacks launch ill-advised passes or intentionally ground the ball or run into backside defenders who slop into a takedown. Marquee defensive ends like Reggie White and Bruce Smith, who were also known as great run-stoppers, made the Pro Bowl even when their numbers were down, but the only way a pass-rushing terror like Thomas got to Hawaii was to get to the quarterback. To keep doing that, year after year, was just remarkable.
"I'm not a pass rusher," Thomas replied, raising his voice. "I'm a football player!"
He glared at me for a second, and then he smiled and changed the subject. A few weeks later, he held court with a bunch of other football players at the Ihalani Resort and Spa's poolside bar in Ko Olina, and I have seldom laughed so hard while managing not to spill a Mai Tai.
When Thomas' bust is unveiled on Saturday, I'm going to shed some tears, for there have been few athletes with whom I've connected so organically and whose company was so enjoyable to keep. It wasn't just a joyride, either: The first time we had a meal together, we discussed Thomas' trouble-prone childhood in Miami that included a month-long stint in juvenile hall for burglary and the way he transformed himself into a self-made football prospect and college-graduate-to-be.
We also talked about the Vietnam combat death of his father, Air Force captain Robert Thomas, and the JFK conspiracy theories Derrick blamed for setting the event in motion. He even had the guts to tell me, on the record, that he believed one of the families responsible for the assassination of a president was the same one which spawned the man (Lamar Hunt) who signed his paycheck.
As I liked to write back in the day, the NFL's social butterfly could sting like a bee, on and off the field. And almost a decade later, Thomas' death still stings (as does Tellis', for those of us fortunate enough to have known the jovial gentleman). Even though I know "58" packed centuries worth of fun and fulfillment into those 33 years, and though I'm certain he would have been one of the people most ill-suited to a wheelchair I've ever encountered, it completely sucks that he's gone.
I miss the hell out of the guy, and I'm a little speck of sand on a crowded beach of fellow mourners.
On Saturday, football's greatest individual honor will be bestowed upon Thomas. I like to think that he'll somehow be able to be part of the experience, that he'll feel a sense of pride and satisfaction, and that the enduring strength of his spirit will bring smiles to our faces and provoke a series of celebrations late into the night.
I truly hope that the great football player is in a better place – and that everyone there knows his car.