DERRICK THOMAS REMEMBERED
An open letter to young NFL fans across America
You may be too young to realize it, but a great football player
died last week. As you grow up, older people will tell you that
Derrick Thomas, the leopard-quick Chiefs linebacker, caused
300-pound offensive linemen to tremble with fear and literally
made a star quarterback sick; that he read to more children than
Mr. Rogers; that he packed a lifetime's worth of fun into a
33-year whirlwind and touched everyone lucky enough to be swept
up by it. They'll also say that Thomas dedicated himself to
giving kids a brighter future. I'm here to tell you that it's
On the football field Thomas may have made more game-changing
plays than any defender since Lawrence Taylor, and Kansas City
thrived on his passion. More important, Thomas was a complex,
animated person, a quick-witted, thoughtful original who whizzed
through adulthood as if he were afraid he would miss something.
The NFL's social butterfly could also sting like a bee. Two
years ago, a few days before his final Pro Bowl appearance,
Thomas sat at the poolside bar at the Ihilani Resort and Spa and
held court before a group of NFL stars that included Chester
McGlockton, the Raiders' enigmatic defensive lineman. "Big
Chester," Thomas chirped. "Minimum pay, minimum play. One out of
every five snaps, when he feels like it, he can't be blocked."
It was a major dis, but Thomas was funny, charming and bold
enough to pull it off. Finally, McGlockton startled the group by
admitting, "I am a dog." Three months later Big Chester signed
with the Chiefs.
Like so many others in the NFL community, I was lucky enough to
hang with DT. Over the years I saw him gather teammates like a
pied piper and blow through Kansas City as if he owned the
place, which he did. We drank beers with working-class
Mexican-Americans in a dark alley and swapped JFK conspiracy
theories over burgers and spent more time laughing than anything
Kids, Thomas wasn't a saint. He was simply a good man with a
huge heart and an awesome motor that never stopped. If he could
talk to you now, I'm pretty sure he'd tell you to read a good
book, question authority and live every day as if it were your
last. And wear your seat belt.
I'll never forget him. I hope you won't, either. --Michael Silver
A San Antonio schoolboy threw an elbow in a game. His penalty:
five years in jail
It was one of the nastiest blows on a basketball court since
Kermit Washington shattered Rudy Tomjanovich's face with a
sucker punch in 1977. On Jan. 15, 1999, Tony Limon (right), a
6'3" center for South San Antonio High, intentionally threw an
elbow to the face of Brent Holmes, a 5'11" guard for East
Central San Antonio. The blow, which was captured on videotape,
fractured Holmes's nose and cut his gum and lip. Holmes needed
plastic surgery to repair the damage.
In the 1977 incident, Washington received a 60-day suspension
and $10,000 fine from the NBA. Last week Limon was sentenced to
five years in prison.
The hit took place away from the ball on an inbounds play late
in the second quarter. The video shows Limon raising his right
elbow and stepping into Holmes as Holmes approaches with his
hands at his sides. Limon's forward-swinging elbow hits Holmes
squarely on the nose, and Holmes's head whips backward as he
crumples to the hardwood. Holmes's father, Dwayne, saw the
attack from the stands. "Any head trauma can kill you," says
Dwayne, "and Brent didn't have a chance to defend himself."
Four days after the game South San Antonio High suspended Limon
from the team for the remainder of his senior season. That
didn't placate the Holmes family, who on Feb. 10, 1999, filed
aggravated assault charges against Limon. Brent told the police
that Limon, who is of Mexican ancestry, had been taunting him
from early in the first quarter, saying he was "just a n-----"
and that Holmes was "gonna be washing my car like a slave."
Holmes, now a freshman at Texas A&M-Kingsville, says he has no
idea what provoked Limon or why the trash talk escalated to
violence. "I still don't know what made him do what he did,"
Limon's mother, Olivia Ramey, tells a different story. She says
Holmes had hit another South San Antonio High player in the
groin during the game and had called her son a "taco," charges
Holmes denies. Limon's lawyer, James Rodriguez, says his client
also "took a beating under the boards and finally lashed out."
In December, Limon pleaded no contest to aggravated assault with
serious bodily injury. He expected to get probation, and he
might have if not for his previous record. In March 1999 Limon
was sentenced by Bexar County Judge Mark Luitjen to probation
after pleading no contest to two counts of attempted burglary in
connection with a December '98 incident. On Feb. 7 Limon again
stood before Luitjen, for sentencing in the Holmes episode.
Moments into the hearing the judge retired to a juror's room to
review footage of the elbowing. When he returned, Limon pleaded
for leniency, citing his exemplary behavior during his first
year on probation. "I'm still young," Limon said. "I feel that I
can still make something of my life, sir."
Luitjen's reply: "You came into this court [before]; I granted
probation. And within a month of committing those burglaries,
you're out knocking people down, coldcocking them. It's outlawed
in the NFL to do what you did if you were wearing full pads, and
that's not going to be tolerated."
Limon's basketball is now limited to a small court at the Bexar
County Jail. He has until March 8 to file a motion to appeal.
Whether or not the case serves as a legal precedent--a fuzzy
issue, since his criminal record weighed in the ruling--the
harshness of Luitjen's sentence may cause others to think twice
before striking a blow in the heat of battle.
BASEBALL AND ANDRO
Ban It, Bud
Between Ken Griffey's big splash (page 30) and John Rocker's
appeal of his 73-day suspension, baseball's decision last week
to continue to allow players to use androstenedione caused
hardly a ripple. Given the findings of a just-completed Harvard
study on andro funded in part by Major League Baseball and the
players' union, that stance is shameful.
Andro, of course, is the dietary supplement made famous by Mark
McGwire during his record-setting 70-home-run season in 1998.
That use sparked a debate over the validity of the record and a
rush for the over-the-counter substance classified by the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration as a nutritional supplement but by
some medical experts as a steroid. (McGwire, to his credit, said
he stopped taking andro before the '99 season.)
In the study, conducted by Harvard endocrinologists Benjamin
Leder and Joel Finkelstein, 42 healthy men aged 20 to 40 were
given 300 milligrams of andro, the daily dose recommended by the
makers of andro-based supplements, once a day for seven days.
Results showed that the supplement, while causing no short-term
ill effects, raised the body's testosterone level an average of
34% above normal. Higher testosterone levels have been
associated with increased muscle mass, which is why andro is
seen by many as a legal alternative to anabolic steroids--and
why it's so popular. But high testosterone levels have also been
linked to elevated cholesterol counts, cardiovascular disease
and liver dysfunction, among other problems. According to NYU
Medical School professor Gary Wadler, the author of Drugs and
the Athlete, those potential dangers are amplified as the dosage
of andro increases. "The people I've talked to are taking four
and five times the recommended amount," says Wadler. "We're
talking about a very, very serious public health problem."
Commissioner Bud Selig and union chief Don Fehr have called for
a second study, which they hope will determine whether elevated
levels of testosterone enhance athletic performance. But given
that few in the medical community dispute testosterone's effect
on performance, and that virtually every other major athletic
organization--including the NFL, the NCAA and the IOC--has
banned andro, baseball's wait-and-see approach is irresponsible.
In any event, baseball may not have the luxury of waiting for
that second study. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency, in
conjunction with the White House's Office of National Drug
Control Policy, is studying andro, a development that raises the
possibility that the substance could be reclassified as an
anabolic steroid under U.S. law. It would then be available only
with a doctor's prescription. "Baseball needs to recognize that
the potential dangers of andro are many," says White House
spokesman Bob Weiner, "and that it should be doing much more
than just sitting around and waiting."
Inaction gives tacit approval to the ingesting by thousands of
teens of a product that works like an anabolic steroid, with
unknown long-term side effects. If for no other reason than
that, baseball must outlaw andro.
JOHN ROCKER CASE
John Rocker's most powerful ally in his appeal of his suspension
may not be the players' association but precedent. Most people
know that Rocker's lineage as an inflammatory speaker martyred
by baseball's disciplinarians traces back at least as far as
former Reds owner Marge Schott, who in 1993 was suspended for a
year and fined $25,000 for insensitive remarks about blacks and
Jews. Less familiar is former Yankees outfielder Jake Powell,
baseball's first muzzle victim.
New York acquired Powell from the Senators in 1936 for Ben
Chapman, whose popularity in New York had waned after he made
anti-Semitic comments (for which he was never disciplined).
Before a road game against the White Sox on July 29, 1938, the
Yankees found out what they had really gotten in return. During
a live pregame radio interview, WGN's Bob Elson innocuously
asked Powell how he spent his off-seasons, to which Powell, a
Dayton resident, replied that he worked as a cop and liked to
beat "n-----s" over the head with his nightstick.
Elson cut the interview short, but not short enough. Hundreds of
calls from outraged listeners flooded the station, the Yankees'
hotel and the office of commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
The next day prominent members of Chicago's black community,
including executives of the Urban League and the Defender, the
city's black paper, protested at Comiskey Park and called for a
lifetime ban of Powell.
Faced with threats of black boycotts in several major league
cities, Landis, who was instrumental in keeping baseball
segregated during his 24-year tenure, suspended Powell for 10
days. Landis acknowledged Powell's "uncomplimentary reference to
a portion of the population" but added that he believed the
remark "was due more to carelessness than intent."
The New York front office ordered Powell to issue an apology
through black newspapers and to undergo the 1938 equivalent of
sensitivity training: He toured Harlem bars and begged the
forgiveness of patrons. When Powell returned to the lineup on
Aug. 16 in Washington, black fans greeted him with boos and
hurled bottles onto the field.
Powell played in only 43 games over his next two seasons with
the Yankees and then finished his career with a three-year minor
league stint and three unspectacular seasons with the Senators
and the Phillies. In November 1948 Powell was arrested in D.C.
and charged with writing bad checks. While in police custody he
committed suicide. That police station may have been as close as
Powell ever got to law enforcement. It turns out he was never an
officer, though he often joked about being a cop and beating up
Like Rocker, Powell thought his actions spoke louder than his
words. In his letter of apology to the Defender, he wrote, "I
have two members of your race taking care of my home while
myself and wife are away and I think they are two of the finest
people in the world."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY RANDY DAHLK
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MARK ZINGARELLI
COLOR PHOTO: KYODO NEWS
Say It Ain't SUMO!
Talk of fixed fights taints Japan's sacred sport
In sumo, the 2,000-year-old national sport of Japan, secrets
appear to be as sacred as traditions. Last month former sumo
wrestler Keisuke Itai (right) alleged in the popular Japanese
weekly magazine Shukan Gendai that the sport is fraught with
rigged matches from the highest level down. Itai, who was a
well-known wrestler from 1978 to '91, claims that about 80% of
top pro bouts--including his match against Hawaiian-born grand
champion Akebono, which Itai says he threw for 400,000 yen
(around $3,700 U.S.)--were fixed. Though Itai says the
percentage of fixed A-list bouts has dropped significantly in
recent years, he told a Feb. 2 meeting of the Foreign
Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) that the sport must be
cleaned up to address a decline in ticket sales.
The Japan Sumo Association, the sport's governing body, has
denied Itai's allegations. To add to the association's rebuttal,
chairman Katsuo Tokitsukaze has threatened legal action against
Itai, who refuses to retract his statements despite having no
physical evidence to support his claims. "I am the evidence,"
Itai has said.
Most of Japan's major newspapers, notorious for their reluctance
to take a stance against the establishment, have given Itai's
claims scant attention. "Since the entire sumo world is
involved, we don't want to risk our relations with [the sport],"
says one editor at Sankei Sports, a major daily sports tabloid.
"Nobody has a problem with fixed bouts in pro wrestling, right?"
said another sportswriter for the magazine Shukan Bunshun, who
requested anonymity. "These issues are incessantly raised
because sumo is glorified as the national sport."
Since revealing his story, Itai, who now runs a restaurant
specializing in chanko-nabe, the rich stew that is the staple of
wrestlers' diets, reports having received harassing phone calls
at 5 a.m. He's all too aware of the fate of two whistle-blowers
who alleged in 1996 that sumo was tainted with match fixing, tax
evasion and links to the yakuza, Japan's version of the mob.
Days before they were scheduled to make a speech to the FCCJ,
the informants, Itai's former stable master Konoshin (Onaruto)
Suga and another sumo insider, Seiichiro Hashimoto, died within
12 hours of each other in the same hospital, both reportedly of
respiratory ailments. Doctors for the two called it a
coincidence, and the police saw no foul play.
Still, with public suspicion surrounding those deaths lingering,
Itai's allegations weigh heavily on some sumo officials and
athletes. "This charge has to be seriously investigated," said
Giichi Hirai, a member of the council that selects sumo's grand
champion. "If true, there have to be measures taken to warn all
Rank of Greg Norman Estates' Cabernet-Merlot Coonawarra among
the Wine Spectator's 100 best wines of '99.
Visits Michael Jordan has made to 23, his restaurant in Chapel
Hill, N.C., since its opening in October.
Pounds gained from his opening-day weight of 307 by Suns center
Oliver Miller, now on injured reserve.
Rank of books by pro wrestlers the Rock and Mankind on The New
York Times nonfiction best-seller list.
Fans out of 210,594 attending Lightning games through December
who got in on free tickets.
CHUCK AND DUCK
Pity Jose Lima. The Astros righthander served up 30 gopher balls
in 1999, tops among National League Central pitchers who return
to the division this season. Now, to Jose's dismay, the
homer-happy Central--stomping grounds of Mark McGwire and Sammy
Sosa--gets even giddier with Ken Griffey Jr.'s Cincinnati
homecoming. But as Lima endures the barrages from that trio he
can take comfort in one thought: At least he doesn't have to
pitch to Jeff Bagwell.
World 200-meter champion Inger Miller, who pulled out of an
indoor meet in Ghent, Belgium, last Thursday for fear that an
admirer who had been sending her love letters from Leuven,
Belgium, would show up. "That man is dangerous," said meet
organizer Wilfried Meert of Miller's harasser. "Now [his letters
say] he wants to take her to heaven with him."
Thirty-nine percent of the winter sports athletes at five
Indianapolis public high schools, who were declared ineligible
under a new policy that requires student-athletes to maintain
a C average and 90% attendance.
Of the U.S. Olympic boxing trials, 18-year-old identical twins
Tiger and Rock Allen. On Feb. 9 Tiger weighed in 4 1/2 pounds
over the limit for his 125-pound bout and was disqualified; that
afternoon Rock won his fight at 132 pounds, but when officials
determined that Tiger had weighed in for his overweight brother
and signed paperwork for him, Rock was DQ'd too.
Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, by Michael
Jordan in a 30-second TV spot. A spokesman for Vice President
Gore, referring to an earlier endorsement of his candidate,
said, "We've got Shaquille O'Neal. He's bigger."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Angered by baseball's treatment of Pete Rose, the Cincinnati
city council has proposed the establishment of a citywide Bud
Selig Exclusion Zone.
Thomas wasn't a saint. He was simply a good man with a huge heart
and an awesome motor that never stopped.
They Said It
On the impending return of the Spurs' Sean Elliott from a kidney
transplant: "As soon as he steps on the court, that means he's
healthy. I'll have no problem putting an elbow to his gut."