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Derrick Thomas a Hall Of Famer Off the Field, Too

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Derrick Thomas a Hall Of Famer Off the Field, Too

Let me level with you: I don't know how to start this article. I don't. I've thought about it all week, and you know, I just could not figure it out. Maybe I'm just not good enough at what I do, or maybe I'm just not good enough yet, either way, I couldn't figure it out.

How do you capsule in 1,000 words a life that has reached out beyond words and touched lives totaling 1,000 times that many words?

How do you do that without risking understating his impact or, even worse, offending? It's not something we as journalists want to do, but have to do. But enough about me. On to you.

You're probably going to overlook this Hall of Fame class, unless you rooted for one of these players, and to be honest, I don't blame you.

Among the six inductees, there's only two Super Bowl rings and under 100 all-purpose touchdowns. Most years, we have one player who accomplished both.

This rings out as a boring class, a defense-laden potpourri with only one skill position player, and he's been retired since the Miami Dolphins were only a year removed from a second consecutive Super Bowl triumph.

We want offense. We want flash.

But it's a strong class, as strong as any other, and with Derrick Thomas, much more fierce.

To anyone who thinks Thomas is not a Hall of Famer, I'm calling you out. That's just bogus. To anyone who voted against him the past three years while his name has sat on the Hall of Fame fence, I'm calling you out to.

He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, totaling 126.5 sacks, including an NFL-record seven against the Seattle Seahawks in 1990 on the way to 20 during the season.

He forced 45 fumbles, making it look almost routine with that patented chop, John Elway as often a victim as anyone else.

Yet the reason Thomas is a Hall of Famer, beyond anything on the field, is his contributions in the classrooms of Kansas City.

The son of a fighter pilot shot down and killed in Vietnam, Thomas overcame dyslexia to learn how to read, brushes with the law off the field and off the wrestling mat to become one of the greatest humanitarians the NFL has ever known.

He struggled with reading until he met Miriam Williams at Palmetto Junior High, an English teacher who saw past his tough-but-inviting exterior and forced him to bring out his inner intelligence.

He was gifted in every aspect, he just needed someone to bring it out.

She found the student inside of Thomas and he repaid her, graduating from high school and college, as well as continuing reading and learning more about his obsession, the Kennedy murder conspiracy.

Through her, Thomas got his academics and his life together, making him a highly recruited prospect out of talent-rich Dade County, committing to Alabama to play football for the Crimson Tide.

“He had a big heart, and he always remembered where he came from and the people who helped him on the way,” said Wilbert Johnson, his high school wrestling coach at South Miami High School, who stayed friends with Thomas for the rest of his life, even visiting Thomas almost daily while he was in the University of Miami hospital after his car accident.

In 1990, during his second season in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, Derrick Thomas formed the Third and Long Foundation, which has aimed to attack illiteracy in inner-city schools. He thought if he could learn to read, anyone could.

“Out of his dyslexia, he reached out to kids of all ages to make sure they had access to books,” said Leigh Steinberg, Thomas's agent during his NFL career. “He was the Student-Body President of the NFL.”

The Third and Long Foundation has grown over the years and now, as it approaches its 20th year, has reached unprecedented heights.

Through the help of other current and former Chiefs players, including Neil Smith, who took over as the active sponsor of the foundation after Thomas's death in 2000, the program continues to help elementary and middle school students of Kansas City learn to read.

“Derrick wanted Third and Long in every NFL city,” said Betty Brown, president of the foundation, “and through the help of the Neil Smith and so many others, we're keeping his dream alive.”

His contributions continued all throughout the Kansas City community.

Thomas became an active member in the Greater Pentecostal Temple of Kansas City, regularly attending services when the Chiefs weren't out of town, talking to the other children who came out to services and even being baptized.

“When he was baptized, when the ceremony was over, he dashed across the podium, our stage, and got out his checkbook and wrote us a check for $50,000,” said Bishop Donaldson, the pastor of the Greater Pentecostal Temple. “I thought, if only we could have 20 more people like Derrick!”

But there was no one like Derrick. Sure, there were people who have done and accomplished comparable things, but there was only one Derrick.

After his death following complications after an automobile crash shortly after his 33rd birthday in 2000, the family of Derrick Thomas lent his name to the Derrick Thomas Academy, a charter school in Kansas City that works with EdisonLearning, an education company based out of New York City.

The school, which offers free education to 950 underprivileged youths from Kindergarten to 8th grade in urban Kansas City, helps keep these kids off the streets and in class and other extra-curricular activities.

Recently, attendance reached over 90 percent for the first time, more than 20 percent above the national average.

It's certainly achieving its goals, and thus, so has Derrick Thomas.

“Derrick could never really die,” Steinberg said. “That irrepressible spirit, that love, that humanity could never really leave us.

Sure, there were better players in the NFL: a few, but not many. But there was no one off the field who matched Thomas's will to make sure everyone, even those who came from an even tougher situation with more physical, social, and mental difficulties, can overcome and learn to read.

And for that reason, more even than his sacks or Pro Bowls or forced fumbles or safeties, Derrick Thomas deserves to become the 251st person inducted into the Hall of Fame tonight.

“Derrick Thomas was always my favorite player,” said Jeff Wahl, Executive Director of EdisonLearning, as he, like so many else whose life has been touched by Thomas, choked back tears. Edith Morgan, Thomas's mother, had to pat Wahl's back to keep him going.

“His journey is now over; he is now home in Canton.”

Exactly where he's always meant to end up.

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