While it seems like ages ago, the Kansas City Chiefs used to be a good team. One of their best players was Derrick Thomas, a linebacker from the University of Alabama. Modeling his game after Lawrence Taylor, Thomas was a dominant player with an uncanny ability to rack up sacks. He posted over 100 in his career and holds the top two places on the list of most sacks by a player in a single game (7 and 6). During the height of his career, Thomas sat down with Scoop Jackson to explain his motivation. Tragically, Thomas died in February 2000, a year removed from his last NFL game and just weeks after a car accident left him paralyzed. Rest in peace, DT. —Ed.
THE SECOND COMING
Derrick Thomas says his on-field idol is L.T. Go figure.
Welcome to hell. A place to die. It’s called the lower gym. It doesn’t exist anymore. The University of Alabama closed it down. Derrick Thomas had to live there. Die there. In the 100-plus degree temperatures in 94 feet of space, doors closed, zero outside oxygen, he had to survive for an hour, moving constantly. This wasn’t punishment; it was a ritual. Throughout these sessions Derrick would ask himself, “Could LT do this? Could LT handle this?” Too often the answers would come up, “Yes,” and a young brotha’s life would go on.
Derrick Thomas is Lawrence Taylor’s little brother. DT and LT. Prodigy and role model. It’s forever good when a young brotha has someone to look up to, someone to follow. Someone who paved the way to succeed and made it just a bit easier because the pressure to reach unheard-of heights gets drowned in the non-stop comments of, “You’re the next Lawrence Taylor!”
But it’s this same reference and association that makes people feel that Derrick Thomas has underachieved. He ain’t LT. Then again, who is? Trying to follow the career of a legend, tackle for tackle, sack for sack, is one of the illest forms of struggle a man has to go through in order to get his. For his entire career, Derrick Thomas has done everything Lawrence Taylor has done (except win a Super Bowl ring and league MVP), plus some. He’s the best since Taylor and will probably stay that way, unless Simeon Rice makes Thomas his big brotha. Nobody is quicker off the snap, to the ball or on that ass than DT. And while LT gave us 56 reasons to watch, DT gives you two more: humility and intellect.
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Blitz: What separates you from everybody else in the game, at least at your position?
DT: Being a student of the game. Studying and knowing the guy across from me as well as I possibly can.
Blitz: Yeah, but your intensity is a little bit different than a lot of other LBs out there.
DT: Yeah, and that gives me the opportunity not to waste a lot of energy. Never mistake activity for productivity. I think that’s what separates me. It’s like going to war: you can shoot all of your bullets, but how many high-percentage shots are you going to have? How many hits are you going to have? That’s been my approach to the game.
Blitz: Tell me about the lower gym.
DT: At Alabama we went through this thing called “the lower gym.” They don’t even do it down there anymore. It was down in the basement of the Coliseum—turn the heat up to about 100-105 degrees; you had to stay down there for 55 minutes and from the time you get there until the time you leave, you could never stop moving. And if one fails, all fail. The only thing in the whole gym with you are four garbage cans in the corner, and you can figure out that they are for [laughs]. That right there helped me develop my mental toughness that I need when the game gets long. I always use that to reflect on. That and LT.
Blitz: Yeah, talk to me about LT…
DT: The man. I always look at LT and what he was able to do and accomplish. He always had it; no matter what point of the game it was, he always had it. I’ve tried to carry on everything LT left behind when he left the game. I figure the only way you can reach or exceed the things that he accomplished is to know what he accomplished and how he accomplished them.
Blitz: Have you done that?
DT: Almost. See, I guess I had a little cheat sheet. My college coach, John Guy, recruited and coached LT at North Carolina, coached Pat Swilling at Georgia Tech and then coached me at Alabama. So we used to call LT when I was a junior. And we would never get him; we’d just leave him a message. And it would blow me away that we called LT. And I’ll never forget this, we pulled out an old media guide and we charted everything that LT did. All the sacks he had in his first year, his second year. And we mapped them out and said, “All right, this is what you gotta do. This is how you do it.” And to this point, I’ve done everything that he’s done except I missed one thing: the MVP of the season. Everything else I hit, even the NFL Man of the Year and Byron White Awards which he didn’t get. LT didn’t care too much about that humanitarian stuff [laughs]. But I won those on the other side.
Blitz: So what was it like when you finally played against him?
DT: You know, and this is strange, I’ve never actually had the opportunity to play against him. My rookie year, in the pre-season, I wasn’t signed yet when we played the Giants and he played. Then three years ago we played them and that was when he was injured, so I never really got the chance. But I did play against him in the Pro Bowl, and I remember what he told me one time. He was on the field goal team, on the left end, and I was rushing him. And he looked over at me and said, “You can make this easy or make it hard on yourself.” I said, “OK,” and oh, I took the easy route.
Blitz: Will you ever win MVP?
DT: I’m at a disadvantage coming from a defensive position, and you only win something like that with the efforts of your team. Last year I was hurt so I really wasn’t able to have the type of year I’m capable of having. But since we won the most games in the NFL last year, I think there’s going to be a lot more hype focused on our squad and what we do this year. So I’ll have the opportunity [to be considered for MVP]. That’s my goal every year. I mean, I don’t think about making the Pro Bowl of whatever; my goal is to be the most valuable player in football, period.
Blitz: Last year y’all won 13 games [13-3 regular season record] but didn’t make it to the dance. Is there a sense of accomplishment here or disappointment?
DT: As disappointing as the ending was last year, I have to be honest and say there was a great sense of accomplishment. I mean, in Vegas the gave us 2:1 odds that we’d be 8-8 this time last year. So from that standpoint, to win 13 games is a helluva accomplishment.
Blitz: Tell me the truth, do you love football?
DT: [Quickly] I do. See, first there’s God and family, but I dont know if you can seperate football and family from being No. 2. And I say that because, at this level, we get to practice at 8 o’clock in the morning, and we don’t leave until 6 o’clock in the evening. So you’ve spent more time with football than with your family five days a week. So, to me, there cannot be a large separation between football and family. And it all goes back to having that passion for the game. So as a participant, I’d have to rank football right up there with family. And to anybody that questions me about that, I’ll put it this way: if you’ve ever been to the playoffs…When I have the opportunity to get to the Super Bowl, the family goes off to the side. You don’t even think about it. It’s all about love for the game.
People will say, “First there’s faith and then there’s family, and then there’s college or school and then the game.” Well, all of that is bull, because the bigger the game, the more you think about it and the less you think about everything else. But always you are going to [laughs] pray to God before you go out on that field.
Blitz: What’s the difference between a good season and a bad season for you?
DT: A bad season for me is a good season for anybody else [laughs]. I had eight sacks last season, but I really only played healthy eight games. You figure, that was a bad season for me, but most people would jump up and down to have eight [sacks]. Then I’ve had my glory years when 15 and 20 [sacks], and they’re coming two and three and four a game. That’s my goal now—I’m shooting for three a week. If I fall anything short of that, I’m disappointed.
Blitz: OK, lets play word association. I’m going to toss out five brothas and you give me the first thing that comes to your mind about them. First, Deion Sanders.
DT: A misunderstood genius.
Blitz: Reggie White.
DT: A man.
Blitz: Mike Singletary.
DT: Intensity. And, I have to add, class.
Blitz: Bryan Cox.
DT: My boy! I call him Youngsta. He expresses himself in a way that’s frowned upon, but for him it’s only conveying a message. I am a big fan of Youngsta. Big fan.
Blitz: Lawrence Taylor.
DT: My walking history book. He’s the person I watched the most. When I’m done with this game, I would like the same type of respect that he’s given by those of us who play the game.
DT: My grandmother told me [something] a long time ago when I was hanging out with my boys, you know hangin’. I was about 16 and it was about two or three in the morning, and she said something that I will never forget. She said, “Never let them ruin your personality.” I didn’t understand it then, and it didn’t dawn on my until about five years later as to what she was actually talking about. It meant, wherever you are, don’t let anybody alter who you are.
Be yourself. I’m just a brotha who never let his will and determination to be successful overshadow the fact that it’s more important, once you’ve established a position, to help somebody else make it to a better position. That’s it.
Scoop Jackson was Editor-at-Large for BLITZ Magazine and SLAM Magazine, and is currently a national columnist for ESPN.com.