The boy lies still in the pitch-black room, his long legs
hanging off the edge of the undersized bed, his eyes fixed on a
small plastic clock resting atop a bedside table. The minutes
pass like hours, each one bringing the boy closer to the reality
he has been avoiding for most of his short life. 4:56 a.m....
4:57 a.m....4:58 a.m.--an ungodly hour even for this 13-year-old
wild child, who often roams the streets of South Miami long
after midnight, meeting up with his friends to steal bikes or
throw rocks at buses.
Any second now, Derrick Thomas thought to himself. Any second
now, my daddy's plane will be landing.
Air Force captain Robert Thomas had been missing in action for
eight years, since Dec. 17, 1972, when the B-52 aircraft he was
co-piloting was shot down during a bombing mission over North
Vietnam. Some members of Thomas's crew had survived and returned
safely to the U.S., but Thomas had been the last one to bail
out, just seconds before the plane exploded. Now he was finally
coming home--in a coffin, for his delayed memorial service. His
cynical teenage son already had a budding mistrust of
authority--he wasn't even convinced the remains were actually
his daddy's--but, still, he knew exactly what time the plane was
touching down. And he knew exactly how it felt to be a
This was the longest night of Derrick's young life, the longest
night he would ever suffer through, and it's a memory he summons
freely as he sits in the rear of a crowded Kansas City
restaurant 16 years later, speaking solemnly amid the boisterous
din of happy hour. The subject is unavoidable, for Robert Thomas
is central to everything in Derrick's life, from his troubled
past to his fascination with airplanes, from his charity work to
his obsession with the assassination of a president.
Even now, as a 6'3", 247-pound, seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker
for the Kansas City Chiefs, Thomas can't let go of the tragedy
of his father's death. Here he is at 29: a rich, famous and
eligible bachelor; a player with more sacks (85) since his 1989
entrance into the NFL than all but two other players; a revered
role model to legions of children, including three of his own; a
man who has overcome obstacle after obstacle. And yet he can't
seem to get beyond this one barrier, the one that has made him a
casualty of war.
"I grew up with a dislike for government because of the whole
Vietnam conflict and the way it was pushed aside," says Thomas.
"When it was over, guys who went there and fought came home and
were treated as outcasts. So now you've got a bunch of people in
their 40's walking around all screwed up in the head, and nobody
In 1993 Thomas was invited to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony
at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. His
audience included President Clinton and Gen. Colin Powell.
Instead of the expected my-father-died-for-his-country tribute,
Thomas, who had been named the 832nd Point of Light by President
Bush in 1992, bared his seared soul. "Vietnam happened, and a
lot of people try to suppress it, put it behind," he said.
"Myself, I can't do that, because I live it each and every
day....I know somebody profited from Vietnam. There are a lot of
Americans that benefited greatly from Vietnam. I am not one of
them. The families, the children, the friends of these 58,000
names that rest on this wall, they aren't one of them. So I hope
that everybody that profited and benefited from the tragedy of
Vietnam can rest in peace."
The last time Thomas saw his father was in 1971, when Derrick
was five, at an Air Force base in Texas. The oldest of Edith
Morgan's seven children, Derrick was raised by his mother and by
her parents, Annie and Ralph Adams, in the lower-class Miami
neighborhood of Perrine. He went through his early adolescence
as an unmotivated student. By the time he was in junior high,
Derrick was already a talented running back, but "he had very
poor attendance and very, very poor classroom performance," says
Miriam Williams, a junior high school teacher who eventually
took Thomas under her wing. "He had a horrible temper, and he
was always in trouble."
Derrick was never in danger of starving or living on the street,
but he made his own trouble. He hung out with a group of friends
from a nearby housing project, and among their favorite
activities were gathering at the local roller-skating rink and
doing battle with gangs from other neighborhoods.
In their early teens Thomas and his friends started stealing
cars, more for the thrill than for the bounty. They would break
into houses, and though Thomas says he never initiated any of
the mischief, he was frequently pressed into duty to mastermind
the plan. "That's how I knew I was smart, because I was the one
who engineered all the stuff," says Thomas. "I'd say, 'If you're
really going to hit this house, let's make sure we do it this
way so we don't get caught.'"
Derrick watched the pimps and pushers cruising the streets of
his neighborhood in their sleek Mercedes and wondered what other
way there was for him to escape poverty. At the time, school
seemed like a dead end. To understand why Thomas now spends his
Saturdays at a Kansas City library reading to children--one of
many activities sponsored by his Third and Long foundation--you
have to go back to his first meeting with Williams at Palmetto
Williams was teaching a class in one section of the school
library while Derrick's class was reading aloud a few yards
away. Frustrated by his inability to pronounce various words,
Derrick created a disturbance, yelling at his teacher, "I don't
have to do this! You can't make me read this stupid story!"
When Derrick, who was then 13 and already six feet tall, stormed
out of the library, the 5'3" Williams followed and caught up
with him, telling him, "Maybe she can't make you, but I can."
After Derrick cursed at Williams, she suspended him for three
days. When he returned to school, she sat him down in her office
and told him he had better shape up.
"He was just a kid in a big body," says Williams, who is still
close to Thomas (he nominated her for the NFL's teacher of the
year award, which she won in 1991). "He felt people were judging
him and saying he wasn't smart, and when he wasn't able to do
things like read in class, he became angry. He was very hostile,
kind of angry at the world. I was a person whose temper and
tenacity could match his."
About a month later someone told Williams that Derrick's father
had taught math at Palmetto before his tour of duty in Vietnam.
That made Williams even more determined to help Derrick, and she
became known around the school as his shadow, often confronting
him at his locker after he had committed yet another of his
various transgressions. Derrick had other teachers looking out
for him too, but it took a judge to finally turn him around.
At 14, Derrick spent 31 days in juvenile hall after being cited
for burglary. When he got out, Judge William Gladstone, along
with a counselor, Judy Gordon, decided to send him to the Dade
Marine Institute, a state-run school for troubled youths.
Derrick was crushed. His friends razzed him mercilessly, and
instead of playing football as a sophomore in high school, he
studied dolphins and coral reefs. But the program's discipline
got through to him. "It was the first time something I really
wanted to do was taken away from me," he says, "and to get it
back I had to apply myself." Derrick became certified as a scuba
diver--it remains one of his hobbies--and he learned to drive a
boat. The change of scenery was welcomed by Annie Adams, his
grandmother. "Once we got him away from the wrong crowd," she
says, "I knew he wouldn't get into any more trouble." Derrick
finished the six-month program in less than four months, faster
than any student ever had, and ended up at South Miami High with
all the kids he used to see at the skating rink.
He was soon back on the football field, and with the help of
William McIntosh, a science teacher at South Miami who woke him
up and drove him to school every morning, Derrick resisted the
temptation to revert to his old ways. "I ran into a conflict of
interest," he says. "I ended up becoming friends with the people
I used to fight, and I essentially made peace between the two
Meanwhile, Derrick was wreaking havoc on the football field.
After a stellar senior season at South Miami--he was
all-conference as a linebacker--he signed with Alabama. In his
sophomore year of college he played behind All-America outside
linebacker Cornelius Bennett, now with the Atlanta Falcons, who
set a school single-season record with 10 sacks. Thomas was told
he would never be as good as Bennett, but in 1987, Thomas's
junior season, he had 18 sacks. He followed that with an
astounding 27 as a senior.
"He rushes the passer just like a great dribbler in basketball,"
says San Diego Chargers running backs coach Sylvester Croom, who
was the linebackers coach at Alabama during Thomas's first two
years with the Crimson Tide. Croom says Thomas's best move is
the football equivalent of the crossover dribble: He lines up in
a three-point stance and takes two quick steps to the outside,
then cuts back to the inside. He repeats this sequence until the
blocker is forced to commit himself to an outside stance, then
Thomas blows past him to the inside.
It wasn't until Thomas arrived at Alabama that he really began
to inquire about his father. He discovered that Robert Thomas
had been a remarkable man: He graduated with honors from high
school and Tennessee State, where he ran track and was at the
head of his ROTC class. He went on to teach math at Palmetto for
one year before entering the service. But Derrick's research
wasn't restricted to his father's life. By then a criminal
justice major at Alabama, he also began to ask questions about
the war that had caused his father's death. As he read more
about Vietnam, he became obsessed with an event that had
occurred more than three years before his birth.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by
Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. But Thomas, based on his research,
sees an elaborate, sinister scheme behind the murder.
"Definitely a conspiracy," says Thomas. "Government, military,
big business. Not the Cubans, not the Mafia. Caterpillar
Company. Twenty billion dollars. Bell Helicopter. All the oil,
all the machinery was coming out of Texas."
When he discusses the Kennedy assassination, he does not speak
off the top of his head. He has gleaned information from
numerous books, CD-ROMs and videos and cultivated a friendship
with Jean Hill, a Dallas-area schoolteacher who claims she saw
smoke coming from a rifle beyond the grassy knoll at Dealey
Plaza at the time of the shooting. In 1994 he approached and
spoke with Oswald's widow, Marina, when she visited Kansas City
to speak at a symposium. Thomas's conclusion is that Kennedy was
murdered because U.S. government officials and leaders of
American business feared he would withdraw troops from Vietnam
and thus threaten lucrative opportunities in Southeast Asia.
Thomas believes Oliver Stone's conspiracy-based film, JFK, is
"almost true to life."
In Thomas's eyes, the people responsible for killing Kennedy
were also responsible for the Vietnam war and thus for killing
his father. Among those culpable industrialists, if Thomas's
theory is true, is the family of the man who now signs his
paychecks--Chiefs founder and owner Lamar Hunt, son of Texas oil
baron H.L. Hunt.
"You notice I conveniently left out the owner of the oil
company," Thomas says after laying out his hypothesis of the
assassination. He and Lamar Hunt have never discussed the
matter. Says Thomas's good friend and teammate, linebacker Tracy
Simien, "I told him he should leave that stuff alone. It's a
little too close to home."
But Thomas can't leave it alone. As a rookie in 1989, he and
teammate Todd McNair read all the books they could as they
researched theories about the Kennedy assassination. After the
government declassified some files associated with the
assassination investigation in 1992, Thomas and McNair planned a
trip to Washington to pore over the material. But they elected
not to go because, says Thomas, "we figured there was nothing in
there we hadn't already read about."
There is no end to Thomas's questions. "When John Connally died,
why didn't they go get the bullet out of his wrist?" he asks.
"And if Oswald fired a shot, how come ballistics showed he had
no traces of gunpowder? What about the fact that a bio on Oswald
came across a teletype overseas an hour before he was named in a
"You've got the magic-bullet theory, which is one of the most
outlandish things of all time. How do they expect the American
public to believe that? You've got [J. Edgar] Hoover, who hated
Kennedy. The bottom line is, someone changed the parade route
and someone pulled the security off its detail. The Mafia can't
do that. The Cubans can't do that. So when everybody finishes
their arguments, you tell me, Who changed the route? Who pulled
the security off? Find out who did that and ask that person who
really killed JFK, because they know."
When you trace the history of Thomas's interests--of his
obsessions--they invariably originate in the same place: with his
father, his father the pilot. "I remember going to Del Rio,
Texas, where my father was stationed," Thomas says. "I had just
turned five, and it was the last time I saw my daddy. His
next-door neighbors gave me some model airplanes, and I took
them back to Miami."
To this day, Thomas says he "can tell you all about every kind
of plane there is." He has been a guest of the Blue Angels and
several other flying groups, and, he says, "I've done stick
control with all of them." Thomas has plans to eventually earn a
pilot's license and already has nine hours of flight credit.
His infatuations with aircraft and with his father's military
career have had a curious carryover effect on the football
field. Over the years, Thomas has excelled in games played on or
around Veterans Day, in early November. He had an NFL-record
seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks on Veterans Day 1990.
Before the game, four Air Force jets flew over Arrowhead
Stadium, and an officer presented Thomas with a yellow bandanna
that had a pattern of fighter planes printed on it. Thomas, who
wore the bandanna during the game, was virtually unblockable.
That is not to say that he has been unblockable only around
Veterans Day. In 1989 the Chiefs, in their first year under
general manager Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer,
made Thomas the fourth overall pick of the draft. Since Lawrence
Taylor burst onto the scene with the New York Giants in 1981,
every team in the league had been looking for another player who
could rush and terrorize the quarterback from the outside
linebacker spot. Of the dozens of players who have been heralded
as "the next L.T.," Thomas has come closest. Perfectly suited to
Kansas City's 3-4 defense, he had 10 sacks as a rookie and a
league-leading 20 in his second year.
But as impressive as Thomas's pro career has been--he has been
named to the Pro Bowl in each of his seven seasons--it has
assumed the arc of an air-show routine, dipping, peaking and
spinning unpredictably. He is undeniably one of football's great
defensive playmakers, as his 33 career forced fumbles and 15
recoveries attest, but for all of the occasions on which he has
dominated, there have been other games in which he has been
The Chiefs have been consistent winners during Thomas's career
but have never advanced beyond the AFC Championship Game. The
franchise has struggled, inexplicably at times, and Thomas has
been emblematic of that. In the 1993 AFC title game at Buffalo,
he spent most of the last three quarters on the sideline because
the Chiefs' coaches went with a unit they felt would be more
effective against the Bills' rushing game. Kansas City lost
30-13, and an irate Thomas vowed to become a more complete
player. "It strengthened me as a person," Thomas says. "I
decided I'd never give another coach the opportunity to make me
feel like I felt that day."
Schottenheimer says that Thomas has made good on his vow and
that though he has averaged just nine sacks in the last three
years--compared with 14 1/2 during his first four years--last
season was his best ever. "Derrick has become a well-rounded
linebacker," Schottenheimer says. "People think you can run the
ball on Derrick, but you can't. I don't think there's a tight
end in this league who can block him."
Thomas's inconsistency can also be partly attributed to the fact
that he has switched positions almost annually. He went from an
outside linebacker in a 3-4 to a defensive end in a 4-3 to a
"rush-backer" to an outside linebacker in a 4-3 to a "stack"
linebacker who played off the line of scrimmage last season.
This year Thomas will play both stack linebacker and "base"
linebacker, in which he'll start on the line of scrimmage,
usually opposite the tight end. He will also continue to rush
from the weak side on passing downs. Kansas City defensive
coordinator Gunther Cunningham says this of Thomas's history of
inconsistency: "In the past, I think he was like the home run
hitter who says, 'I'm not bunting, I'm not hitting singles.' Now
he'll do whatever it takes to help the team win."
Sometimes that means rekindling the temper that plagued Thomas
as a teenager. Says Simien: "Whenever he gets mad, he looks like
the little guy on the Red Devil hot-sauce bottle." For example,
at halftime of the Chiefs' shocking playoff loss to the
Indianapolis Colts last season, Thomas found himself beside
kicker Lin Elliott, who had missed a field goal in the first half.
"We gotta have you in the second half," Thomas said to Elliott.
"We gotta have you in the second half too," Elliott shot back.
Thomas was incredulous, but he held his tongue until after the
game, when Elliott told reporters that if the Chiefs didn't
retain him in 1996, he hoped to come back and beat them. Thomas
then publicly blasted Elliott (who is now out of football),
saying, on a radio show, that he "would kick his ass."
Away from the field, Thomas's loquacious and gregarious nature
has made him one of the NFL's social butterflies, with a circle
of friends that includes the flamboyant (Deion Sanders and
Michael Irvin) and the imposing (Greg Lloyd and Bruce Smith).
One of his buddies is country singer Hank Williams Jr., whom
Thomas has known since college, when he attended a Williams
concert on a dare from his teammates. Thomas, who joined four of
his Chiefs teammates in singing the national anthem before their
final regular-season home game last December, has crooned
onstage with Williams and appeared in the video of his 1992 song
Come On Over to Country. In July the two cut a single for an
upcoming CD that pairs NFL players with musicians. But their
most memorable onstage moment came during a concert in Bonner
Springs, Kans.: When an inebriated Williams began cursing the
audience, his crew and other performers, Thomas walked out and
put his arm around the singer to comfort him.
Thomas makes time for his friends, but he doesn't have much of
it. His business ventures include a custom-tailoring company, a
graphics company and Jake's, a restaurant in Birmingham. And, in
part to keep a promise he made to Adams, his grandmother, Thomas
has been taking classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas
City for the past two years--even during the football
season--and is a few units short of earning his bachelor's
degree. He plans to take part in commencement ceremonies at
Alabama next May.
Though he is the father of three children--son Derrion (five)
lives in Kansas City with his mother, and daughter Burgandie
(six) and son Derrick Jr. (four) live in Miami with their
mother--Thomas has never married. He says he tries his best to
be an attentive dad, but his crowded schedule often leaves him
feeling inadequate as a father.
"When Derrion goes to T-ball or wrestling practice and I'm too
busy to stay there and watch, I think about my own father,"
Thomas says. "I say to myself, Damn, look at what you're doing.
This is what you always wanted, and now you're moving too fast
to be there for them."
Thomas dreams of a life devoted to his children. "I want to send
my daughter to tennis school in Boca Raton," he says. "I'd love
to travel around the world to see her matches. I want to watch
my kids grow up. Wherever they are, I want to be there."
The din in the restaurant is fading as the evening winds down,
and once again Thomas is talking about his father. He has met
two of the three surviving members of the B-52 crew and learned
the details of the aborted bombing mission (ironically, it was
code-named Operation: Linebacker Two). He has replayed the
images of the ill-fated flight in his mind so many times it's as
if he had been there, beside his dad.
"My father's crew isn't even scheduled to go, but the guys who
were supposed to relieve them get snowed in in New York," Thomas
says. "Nixon gives the command that no one in Vietnam can come
back, so they have to go. They get ready to take off from Guam
and an earthquake delays the takeoff. Something happens to the
first and second planes in their sequence, so they're out there
alone. Then they miss their fuel tanker, and that causes a
delay. Finally they get there and drop their bombs, and within
10 seconds of opening the doors, they get hit with a SAM
missile. The pilot and gunner are killed on impact, and three
others eject, then my father...."
Thomas pauses, as if to add to the story, but he says nothing
more. There is nothing more to say.
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ/DUOMO [Derrick Thomas with silhouette of airplane in background]
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ/DUOMOThomas surveys Arrowhead Stadium from aloft but comes to earth to ground his opponents. [Derrick Thomas flying airplane]
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN STEELE/DIPACE PHOTO [See caption above--Derrick Thomas tackling opponent]
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF DERRICK THOMASHank Williams Jr. is his friend, but Thomas (58) sang the national anthem with a bunch of amateurs. [Hank Williams Jr. performing with Derrick Thomas]
COLOR PHOTO: HANK YOUNG [See caption above--Derrick Thomas singing with teammates in stadium]
COLOR PHOTO: ELI REICHMANThomas has read volumes on Kennedy's assassination but seeks reading time with Derrion, too. [Derrick Thomas with stack of books]
COLOR PHOTO: WILLIAM R. SALLAZ/DUOMO [See caption above--Derrick Thomas and Derrion Thomas]