Often when linebacker Derrick Thomas came off the edge, around the corner and into the backfield, eyes widened and knees buckled. That was on the football field.
But every time Thomas walked among children, eyes danced in delight and hearts were warmed. What a profound effect this man had on children he sought to help through his Third and Long Foundation and beyond. Many NFL players past and present can make a stumbling child stand erect. Few like Thomas did.
I had the chance to witness this throughout his career, in his seminars and lectures and benefits with children, in private moments with them in his home and in their homes over his 11-year NFL career. Thomas knew he was not a perfect role model. But when it came to seeking hope for troubled and disadvantaged youth, his will was near perfect. So was his effort.
Nothing he accomplished in his football career ever matched being named the 1993 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year honoree. He entered the league in 1989 with his eyes on that award. He thought it would be the ultimate measure of his football life. He thought it a way to leave a permanent mark. He cherished it.
Nine Pro Bowl berths would come and 126.5 sacks and a place on the NFL's 1990s all-decade team(Photos). His car accident that resulted soon after in his death on Feb. 8, 2000 did not end the dream or work of his Third and Long Foundation -- today it endures. So does the Derrick Thomas Academy in Kansas City, a charter elementary school.
Terri Kendall, who was the foundation's executive director from 1993 through 2001, remembers Thomas telling her he went to the University of Alabama with his "Miami-native attitude." And that soon in he called his mother, Edith, to come home to Miami. And she said: "You can leave, but you won't come here. I suggest you stay." He did. How might his life have turned had she allowed him to return, Kendall asks? Derrick always remembered that, she said, in understanding the importance of giving his advice to youth.
Kendall remembers the teenage girl whose neurological disease affected her muscle skills and how Thomas brought her a computer among other things and made sure she would get her education. Kendall remembers the Oklahoma youth who suffered from HIV when the disease was less familiar, how high school teams refused to play against his basketball prep team and how Thomas paved the way for the team to travel to Kansas City and play against a basketball team of his Chiefs teammates.
"His heart," Kendall said. "Derrick really cared about people's feelings."
Count his Kansas City Chiefs coach, Marty Schottenheimer, among them. Mixing tears and laughter, Schottenheimer offered this tender remembrance and celebration of Thomas and his induction on Saturday in Canton, Ohio:
"Boy, everyone in my family is really excited about it. We're really looking forward as a group and as a family to celebrating this young man there. It's been a lot of miles. A lot of tears. I think of him a lot. I see him a lot in my mind. And then each time I see Tiger Woods, I see Derrick Thomas. They have the same smile. They have that same big old wide grin.
"I used to call Derrick into my office to reprimand him for something. I couldn't get halfway through it. He'd throw that big grin on me. I'd say, 'Aw, just get out of here!' I knew he didn't need a lashing. He would always get things right for the team. A terrific young man. I think of him frequently.
"I was in Florida. On the golf course. I remember it just like it happened yesterday. I was on the 15th fairway. Par 5. All of a sudden this golf cart comes racing toward me. There were no clubs on it. That always makes me nervous when that happens. I take the phone. Derrick's been in an accident -- get to Kansas City. I flew right there and got the chance to visit with him in the hospital before he died. We talked and he was still his engaging self. The way he always was. It's one of those things you wonder why, but what a full life he lived, though abbreviated. He's up there now taking care of the rest of us.
"He was the kind of player you had to account for. If you didn't account for him, he would beat you. He made others on the defensive line and in the entire defense better. He is what I call a game-changer. People say he was not as great in run defense. He was good there, but we used him to get to the quarterback. He was our edge player. That is what we asked him to do and he did it exceptionally well.
"When you look at the NFL game, run defense is about everyone being where they are supposed to be. But the pass rush part of it, it's more individual, more instinct, more of a one-on-one battle. In my opinion, that's the thing you are looking for and that is the thing that is hardest to get. Because that player with a sack, a fumble caused, is going to beat you. He is going to win a lot of games.
"I look forward to being in Canton. Someone asked me if I could be the one to present him. Heck no! I couldn't do it. I could only do it by crying my way through it. Just like we just did."