Florida integral in Derrick Thomas' tale of triumph, tragedy
MAY 24, 2014 12:00p ET
This Memorial Day, let's put a face on what is meant to be more than a holiday, offering a significance greater than a cheerful three-day weekend.
Try Robert Thomas.
First Lieutenant, United States Air Force, a native of Miami, and a B-52 co-pilot when shot out of the sky over the rail yards of Hanoi, Vietnam, one day shy of his 24th birthday. In December 1972, his bomber was the tip of the spear for Operation Linebacker II.
Lt. Thomas left behind in South Florida his widow Edith and a 5-year-old son named Derrick.
That young man matured into one of the finest linebackers in football history. And his life -- like his father's -- would be both filled with achievement and regrettably brief.
This week, the College Football Hall of Fame announced the long overdue selection of this University of Alabama All-American, and I immediately thought of another linebacker raised in Derrick's hometown: Marc Buoniconti, who was paralyzed in 1985 while playing for The Citadel.
The inspiring courage he has displayed through the ensuing years and the more than $500 million he and his father Nick, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, have raised for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis -- which was founded at the University of Miami school of medicine -- have made possible incredible spinal cord research and offered boundless hope to many.
It was at Jackson Memorial that Derrick Thomas took his last breath on Feb. 8, 2000, mere weeks following a horrific traffic crash that rendered the invincible Thomas a paraplegic. The complications of blood clots, as is the case for many suffering acute paralysis, killed him.
"It was a huge loss," lamented Marc Buoniconti. "He was an incredible guy. Imagine what we could have done together in this fight. Two head strong Miami guys. I could have used his help."
Growing up, Marc and Derrick lived vastly different lives, sharing in common only a love of football.
In 1972, Nick Buoniconti was the defensive captain for a Dolphins team that eventually would complete the lone unbeaten season in NFL history. He was a Pro Bowl veteran on the most heralded of teams.
Robert Thomas, succeeding in his own right, was concluding a year's tour in a hellish war, having been approved for promotion to the rank of captain. He was flying that fateful December morning because his unit's replacements were delayed arriving from the U.S., postponing a Miami homecoming.
One dad was destined for the Super Bowl. By circumstance, the other for the wall of our Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Just 48 hours after the Dolphins conquered the Colts to finish 14-0 prior to the 1972 playoffs, two surface-to-air missiles halfway around the world impacted their target -- a soaring green jet bomber with Thomas in the cockpit -- changing Derrick's life forever.
Growing up without a father, the young Thomas found trouble and trouble found him. Headstrong and incorrigible, he bounced from school to school. But Derrick's capacity to channel his aggression on the gridiron at Dade Marine Institute and later South Miami High School, responding to the discipline and structure of coaches and the classroom, unveiled a newfound self-esteem and opened doors.
And in walked Alabama head coach Ray Perkins and assistant George Henshaw recruiting a now Parade All-American to Tuscaloosa.
"He was one of the rare guys that you could immediately see his love of the game," the retired Perkins said over the phone from his home in Mississippi.
"He was very much like two other linebackers I coached: Lawrence Taylor and Cornelius Bennett. Every snap, every play, he went all out to the whistle. He was so fast, and with Derrick at outside linebacker on one side and Cornelius on the other, they were devastating."
Perkins' suggestion as to the best way to stop that fierce a pass rush left the man who drafted Taylor and brought Bill Parcells to the NFL as his defensive coordinator when Perkins served as the New York Giants' head coach chuckling.
"Get down on your knees and pray."
Thomas would capture the Butkus Award his senior year. His four-year stats for the Crimson Tide offer 57 career sacks, 27 of which came in a single season. Those numbers remain unequaled in the rich history of Alabama football, as are his 68 tackles for a loss.
And when the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Thomas with the fourth overall selection in 1989, coach Marty Schottenheimer and coordinator Bill Cowher installed the 3-4 scheme, shifted All-Pro nose guard Bill Maas wide to tackle, and teamed him with the reigning Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
"The 3-4 scheme actually was like having three nose tackles up front," Maas recalled. "We were taking on a lot of bodies -- both guards and tackles, and teams would send tight ends and running backs at us. 'DT' would be left one-on-one, and he would just explode."
Which is exactly what Thomas did during a record-setting performance against Seattle. His military aviator father would surely have been proud. Fittingly, it came on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1990, in Arrowhead Stadium.
"Bill Cowher watching tape saw the offensive tackle usually blocked down inside," Maas said. "So I lined up on his outside shoulder and came across his face to the guard gap. He blocked down on me and that left Derrick head-to-head against a little running back. Good luck with that."
Thomas hammered Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg to the turf seven times. An NFL record that remains unmatched.
"And he missed an eighth when we watched the film," Maas said.
The football world misses Derrick Thomas. Imagine had Thomas survived the initial ravages of his accident, the manner with which would have attacked his physical challenges, the good he could have done for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and for his original hometown of Miami.
Dr. Barth Green, the gifted medical visionary, termed Derrick's passing "a tragedy" a decade and a half ago. And so it was, on so many levels. For Jackson Memorial, for the mission to find a cure, for his family, for south Florida, for the game he dominated.
"We still have helped thousands with brain and spinal cord research," Marc Buoniconti said. "Our rehabilitation programs and quality of life programs. We continue to fight and there is still much to be done."
Derrick's children are growing into young adults, each in some measure deprived of what Derrick meant in the best of days to so many, on and off the playing field.
On this Memorial Day, remember Lt. Robert Thomas and his commitment to Duty, Honor, Country. Treasure the sacrifice of those men and women from our armed forces now gone as well as the future legacy of young kids they leave behind. Even those not enshrined in Canton and now -- finally -- the College Football Hall of Fame.