Things were not going well. That happens sometimes when you are interviewing someone, and the first thing he tells you is, “I’m really not in the mood to talk about myself” and the second thing he tells you is, “I have about five minutes for you.”
This was July of 1997. I had just started work as a take-out writer for the Kansas City Star. “Take-out” is a fancy newspaper term for long feature stories, and I was assigned to do a long feature on Derrick Thomas, who had decided to resume his Hall of Fame-track linebacking career with the Chiefs after pondering free agency.
I needed Thomas to talk about himself.
And I needed more than five minutes.
In such times, you try anything, and in my research I’d discovered something. Derrick Thomas was born Jan. 1, 1967. That also happens to be the same day I was born. I assumed that factoid would be a lot more interesting to me than it was to him, but as they say: desperate times, desperate measures.
“Prove it,” he said. I showed him my driver’s license. He laughed a laugh that filled every locker room he ever worked in the same way, rattling off the walls and the ceilings. Forty minutes later I had a full notebook, I had my take-out, and I had earned a new nickname. The rest of that 1997 football season, whenever we saw each other, we called each other “Twin.”
Six months later, I walked into the saddest locker room I’ve ever seen, any sport, any level. This made the Red Sox clubhouse after the Aaron Boone home run look like a party bus. It made the locker room at St. Dominic’s after my last high-school basketball game seem positively joyous. The Broncos had walked into Arrowhead Stadium that afternoon and beaten the Chiefs, 14-10, ending a joyride of a season for Kansas City.
Players were openly weeping. Andre Rison, maybe the most cocksure athlete that’s ever been born, was curled up in the fetal position in front of his locker, imploring “Why, God? Why?” Dave Szott, offensive lineman, held his head in his hands, rocking back and forth in front of his locker. Marcus Allen ripped tape and muttered to himself.
In a corner, locked in a tearful embrace, were Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs head coach, and Derrick Thomas, whom he often called “the best football player I ever coached.”
“Forget the score,” Schottenheimer told Thomas. “You’re a champion.”
Thomas thanked him, turned, saw me.
“Twin,” he said. “Be grateful you were never good enough to play pro football.”
Then he smiled. It was important to remember that smile. I never talked to Derrick Thomas again after that. Less than two years later – 20 years ago Thursday – Thomas was driving through icy roads to try and catch a flight at the Kansas City Airport, bound for St. Louis, where he was to watch the Rams and Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.
He was running late. He was speeding. The wreck killed one of his passengers; another walked away without a scratch. It left Thomas paralyzed from the chest down. He’d played 11 seasons, all with Kansas City, and he’d accumulated 126.5 sacks. He once sacked Seattle’s Dave Krieg seven times in the same game. If he wasn’t quite Lawrence Taylor, he was as close as anyone else has ever come, No. 58 in red, in his prime, summoning the aura of No. 56 in blue.
By Feb. 8 he was back in his native Miami, recuperating at a hospital there, when he suffered a pulmonary embolism. He never woke up. He was 33 years and 39 days old. So was I. When that awful verdict became public, I called Schottenheimer.
“You know better than to ever think anyone is immortal,” the coach, between jobs at the time, and between sobs, said. “But when you saw Derrick Thomas play football that was the only word that came to mind. You thought he’d be able to chase down quarterbacks forever.”
In many ways, the Chiefs finally qualifying for the Super Bowl is the proper ending for an old football partnership hatched in Kansas City more than 30 years ago. The Chiefs had spent much of the ’70s and ’80s wandering through a deep, dreadful wilderness. That changed the day Schottenheimer was hired, Jan. 24, 1989. Thomas was drafted four months later, fourth overall out of Alabama. For 10 years, the Chiefs were good enough to tease their city, never quite good enough to make the final leap they finally made last Sunday.
The story belongs to Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes now. But also, in part, to the old coach now suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and his star pupil, 20 years gone, a Hall of Famer since 2009, forever 33 years and 39 days old.