When Derrick Thomas stepped onto the campus of the University of Alabama in 1985, he was a quiet, polite, kid out of Miami, Fla., who was always quick with a smile.
When he hit the field, there was nothing polite about the way he hit you and nothing quiet about the intensity in which he played the game.
Nothing made him quicker to smile than laying a thunderous lick on an opposing quarterback. Something he would do quite often during his time at Alabama and his later NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Coach Ray Perkins had seldom ever seen a player who hit the practice field with the energy level of Thomas. "Over my coaching career, he was one of the few guys I saw who gave it every single thing he had on every single play, from snap to whistle," said Perkins adding "That's pretty rare."
Perkins knew something about great linebackers that played the game with intensity. He had coached Cornelius Bennett during his time at the Capstone, as well as All-Pro Lawrence Taylor with the New York Giants. They didn't come much better than Bennett and Lawrence.
No player in NCAA history ever racked up the sack totals Thomas did at Alabama. Thomas totaled 52 sacks during his Alabama career with 74 tackles for loss. In 1988, Thomas racked up an astonishing 27 sacks.
Bill Curry, who coached Thomas during his last two years at Alabama, said that Thomas was the best football player he ever coached.
Penn State Coach Joe Paterno saw what Thomas was capable of when he came up with nine quarterback hurries in a game versus the Nittany Lions in 1988. The Texas A&M Aggies also felt his wrath that same year. Thomas totaled seven tackles for loss, including five sacks, in a 30-10 Alabama victory.
Headed into the 1989 NFL draft after his senior year Thomas was expected to be drafted by Tampa Bay. The Kansas City Chiefs however surprised many by grabbing Thomas with the fourth pick of the draft despite concerns Thomas was too small.
The Chiefs gamble paid off. Thomas was an instant success, earning NFL defensive rookie of the year honors. He totaled 10 sacks and 75 tackles that year. He was named to the Pro-Bowl following his rookie year, the first of nine times in his 11-year career.
In 1990, just his second year in the league, Thomas recorded 20 sacks on the season. He also set an NFL single game record for sacks that season when he racked up seven sacks against the Seattle Seahawks.
Thomas would go on to total 126.5 sacks in his career. He also forced 45 fumbles while recovering 19.
Sgt. D, as he was known in Kansas City, was known for more than just his defensive prowess while with the Chiefs.
He was also active working within the community founding his Third and Long Foundation. It was designed to benefit children living in disadvantaged situations.
Students at four middle schools in the Kansas City area benefited from the Foundation which was designed to improve their reading and writing.
Thomas's desire to help kids sprung from his own childhood. He was raised in the tough neighborhoods of south Miami. His Father, an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam war, had been shot down in his B-52 a week before Christmas in 1972 ironically enough on a mission called "Linebacker 2" when Derrick was just 5.
That had left Thomas and his younger sister Yolanda to be raised by their mother, Edith. Thomas faced discipline issues when he was in his early teens. The problems seemed to start right after his father was declared killed in combat. Thomas was 13 at the time. His disciplinary issues finally resulted in him being sent to Juvenile Hall when he was 14.
Luckily for him he was sentenced to a Boot Camp that was designed to help youthful offenders. Thomas served six hard months at the camp. The time turned his life around, though.
When Thomas returned home he placed all his energies into playing football, determined not to have to go back. The rest as they can say, is history.
In January 2000 Thomas had his career cut short when he was hurrying to catch a airline flight. He was traveling on a rain slicked road when he lost control and slid. His car left the road and crashed leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Mike Tellis, a close personal friend of Thomas, was killed instantly.
Thomas held on for 16 days in a Miami hospital before succumbing to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 33. Thomas's death left a void in the Chiefs franchise that some say hasn't been filled to this day.
That it took nine years after his death for Thomas to be inducted into the Hall of Fame seems long overdue. Finally though, Thomas was inducted posthumously, today Aug. 8, 2009.
So whether you knew him as 55 or 58, give the Sarge a salute in his honor today.
Sources used for this article include NFL.com, Yahoo Sports and the Birmingham News.