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Derrick Thomas is a devil to QBs but an angel when touching most others

Derrick Thomas is a dvil to QBs but an angel when touching most others

Being bad, that was easy. Thirty days in juvenile hall wasn't tough because most of the kids in there were already his friends, and jail didn't scare him later because he was bigger and badder than the adult inmates and, besides, if anyone got in his face, he'd just make them bleed like all those other wannabe badasses who had felt the fury in his fists on Miami's scarred streets. His mother and grandmother were home, praying together in the darkness, praying so much because, as the mother says now, "My deepest fear was that Derrick was going to get killed. I had so many sleepless nights. I knew he was out there doing wrong. I'd hear sirens and gunshots, and I always thought my child was on the other end." Yeah, Derrick Thomas was a bad man, even when he was just a bad child-because being bad, man, that was just about the easiest thing he has ever done.

Now, being good, that took more work. Because sometimes, when you are good, you walk into a hospital cradling teddy bears in both arms, and you get attached to the sickly 6-year-old boy in Room 2103, and then you find out later he died five minutes after you left, clutching your football card to his chest. Sometimes, when you are good, you go around your locker room before Thanksgiving, demanding at least $100 from each teammate, raising $14,000 just like that, to feed 750 families. But then you get to one of the rotting houses that has no electricity and too little furniture and too many wailing children and, after you've handed over that damn turkey and heard the door click shut behind you, you have to sit on the steps and cry.

Yeah, Derrick Thomas grew up wanting to be hard, so now he has become one kind of hard when he's menacing quarterbacks and another kind of hard when he's visiting those hospitals-because being good, man, that can be very, very hard.

How hard? This hard:

He was a complete stranger. Philip Tepe. Two words in a newspaper article about AIDS. There are a million stories about kids like this, but there's only one Derrick Thomas, so next thing you know, just because, Thomas is on the phone with this teenager, sending him tickets and a limousine and having breakfast with him the day of a game. Then he is golfing with him, buying him clubs and bags and shoes. Then he is sending him a football signed by Joe Montana and mailing him a Sega for Christmas, and, well, that doesn't even count the best gift of all. Teams in Lone Wolf, Okla., were canceling basketball games against Philip's team because he had AIDS, entire boys-and-girls tournaments being wiped out because of this cute, little pariah. But then Philip got to play in a charity basketball game with Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas and a bunch of other All-Pros, and that was Kansas City linebacker

Derrick Thomas in the middle of the snapshot, playfully rubbing Philip's head, showing all the jealous kids reading the newspaper back in Lone Wolf that it was cool to get close.

But now Philip's mother is on the phone, telling Thomas her son is weaker than ever, that it hurts him just to sit still in the wheelchair, and Thomas is immediately borrowing an airplane from one of his rich business friends so he can be at Philip's side that very day. And Philip is crying a lot now, because of all that pain attacking his body, cringing and convulsing and crying, but he smiles when Derrick walks into his house, smiles in a way his mother had never seen before and would never see again. Derrick gives Philip one of his All-Pro jerseys-the only time he has ever given one of those away, to anybody-and he ends up staying so long that, when he gets back, the rich business friend, the one who does millions in deals, is standing on the tarmac, joking that no one had ever once made him wait for his own plane before.

"Thank you, Derrick Thomas," Dorecia Tepe, the boy's mother, says today. "Thank you for being such a special person. Philip really loved you ..." Dorecia Tepe's voice starts quivering here.

"You know, I have no doubt Philip was waiting for Derrick," she says. "He kept saying, 'Momma, when is Derrick coming? Momma, when? I need to see him.' Philip was waiting to see Derrick before he died."

Thomas visited Philip on a Tuesday. Philip died on Thursday.

Friends thought the boy should be buried wearing a suit.

His parents chose a Chiefs jersey.

There is so much Derrick Thomas brings into that backfield with him. There's speed and anger and want, and there's a past and a dead father and a need to stay relevant to kids who worship athletes, too. And you can imagine a backpedaling offensive lineman's frustration, trying to stop all of that using his bulk and his hands and every trick he knows.

The anger, though, that's what makes Thomas transcendental on the field, as transcendental as the kindness makes him off it. Thomas admits he was a hard-core thug once, and he knows you need a helping of hard-core thuggery on your side to win something as violent as a football game. So he summons that side of himself on game day because he very badly wants your quarterback for his collection, and he very badly wants his place in history, and he very badly wants to be what Lawrence Taylor saw when he watched Thomas wreck a game plan and announced, "He's the next me."

This is what landed Thomas in jail once and this is what makes him great now: Derrick Thomas wants something, Derrick Thomas takes it.

He plays better when hostile. All his coaches have said so. Thomas has the most impossible-to-exhaust cardiovascular system his former coach at Alabama, Bill Curry, had ever known, and a speed uncommon for someone of his strength and size. But it is the rage that helps make him one of the best pass rushers ever, a rage that began bubbling lava-like at the age of 5, when that missile hit the plane Daddy was flying over Vietnam, a rage it took South Florida judges and teachers and coaches and parents to finally get under control.

But it still comes out with a hiss sometimes, within the confines of that rectangular field, and Alabama assistant coach John Guy found that it could grow large enough to ruin offenses. So he would approach Thomas on the sideline and keep slapping him on the triceps, stinging and stinging him, trying to bring more and more rage to the surface. And there were times Guy made Thomas so angry, pushing him, challenging him, that the kid would start sobbing- shoulder-shaking, snot-filled sobbing. And those were the weeks Thomas was most likely to locate the epicenter of the offense and tear its heart out.

Kansas City has configured its defense around this glowing nuclear orb. It's no coincidence at all that the Chiefs didn't start mattering again until they drafted Thomas nine years ago, nor that his every season since has ended in Hawaii, at the Pro Bowl. Thomas' job isn't really to stop the run or cover the running back, mind you. It's to hunt. So he isn't the prototypical linebacker, with all those responsibilities and discipline. His assignment is to bring it-bring the heat and bring the noise and bring the anger. The Chiefs have called his position "rushbacker" in the past, but now it is known, superhero-like, as The Falcon. And you ought to know that, as far as falcons go, Thomas most resembles the peregrine, a hunter that reaches 180 miles per hour in a dive and preys on birds, reptiles and small mammals (like quarterbacks). After three games this season, Thomas has 114 1/2 sacks in his career. More than a quarter of those have been applied with enough anger to result in fumbles.

So now the loud man on the microphone in this Kansas City Hooters is asking sports-trivia questions on the other side of the room-"Who is the only player in NFL history to make seven sacks in a single game?" he bellows-and the answer is sitting right in front of you, Heineken in one hand, Cohiba in the other. Thomas is taking you through his journey from then to now-his childhood spent as a punk, his adulthood spent as a hero-and, after three hours of details, after three hours talking about war and jail and charity, he says, "It's a Cinderella tale. Storybook, huh?"

Thomas, 31, is wearing a $45,000 diamond-encrusted watch on his wrist, even though he checks his cell phone's digital display when someone asks for the time, and in the parking lot, you'll find his black Mercedes convertible, the one with the license plate that reads, IMAYD IT. But that's not the vehicle that got Thomas where he is today, not by a long shot, and Thomas makes sure you know this when he lets you look in his life's rearview mirror. He talks about the high school English teacher who remains one of his best friends even though she suspended him the day she met him and spent several of the subsequent years pinching his arm until it bruised. He talks about the high school football coach who used to knock on his door, storm through his house, drag him out of bed and drive him to school. He talks about teachers and judges and parole supervisors who lined his path with caring, letting him feel a hard hand on his lower back, guiding him each time he strayed toward that rush of stealing cars and breaking into homes and bloody street fights.

"People cared for me, so now I care back," Thomas says. "It's not important what I do in this game. What matters is, 20 years from now, if I'm walking down the street and a doctor or lawyer or teacher says I made a difference in their life. Having the most sacks in NFL history? That'll be great. Winning a Super Bowl? That'll be great. Breaking the single-season sack record? That'll be great. But I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference."

So that's why, on home Saturday mornings during the season, you'll find Thomas in a local library, reading to children. That's why he has sent 18 kids to college and why, with a single check, he erased the $127,035 in library fines accrued by 4,000 Kansas City kids. That's why he won the NFL Man of the Year in 1993 and the Genuine Heroes Award in 1994 and the Byron White Humanitarian Award in 1995. Thomas knows so many people in the do-good business that one day on his car phone, en route to practice, he decided to make a call to a McDonald's here and a Hyatt there and, next thing you knew, 700 inner city Miami kids were at summer camp instead of on the street. That's what scouts have always said about Thomas: He has uncommon power.

That is why he destroys offenses. And that is why he keeps visiting those hospitals, bearing gifts, bearing his gift, even though these visits leave him "more emotionally drained than if I had been in my toughest game." Nothing has touched him more, for instance, than his visit to a big Chiefs fan who was in a coma. The man had been in a car accident on his way home from a game and the grieving family was keeping vigil, and now Thomas was walking into the hospital room, and the man's wife was leaning over the bed and saying, "Derrick Thomas is here! Derrick Thomas is visiting you!" And, well, then she started crying because, for the first time since the accident, her husband responded, fingers twitching, arm lifting. He made a recovery.

"The power of sports," a smiling Thomas says now.

The power to move people. The power to crush quarterbacks.

Daddy was dead. That's when and how the anger started, when that surface-to-air missile hit the B-52 Stratofortress that Derrick's father, Captain Robert Thomas, was flying over Vietnam in 1972. Derrick talked so infrequently about his trauma, about how it changed him-his father declared missing in action for six years, the remains shipped home-that his mother never knew the depth of her boy's angst until hearing him talk about it on television, from the White House of all places, the day his foundation, Third and Long, was honored as the 832nd of President Bush's 1,000 Points of Light.

Thomas, arrested twice as a youth-for burglarizing a home and helping steal a car-dabbled in a whole lot of darkness before becoming that light. He has always been something of a kid, so without a father's discipline, he floated toward whatever trouble his older friends could find. It wasn't until football was taken away in the 10th grade-because he had to go to juvenile hall and then attend a marine institute that didn't play football-that Derrick began to think Daddy's death had a purpose.

"I realized there was no reason to feel sad," Thomas says now. "My father was a hero. If my father hadn't died, I wouldn't have been able to go through all the experiences that have shaped the way I am. No doubt in my mind, my father's death happened for a reason."

Rage gave way to curiosity and, through football, Derrick got to know the father he had lost two decades earlier. In Arkansas for a college game, he spent a riveting day with two of the surviving members of that B-52 flight, who told him all about his father and his bravery, all about how they had parachuted out of the smoking plane, but how Derrick's father had kept flying it, staying with a gunner and co-pilot who were already dead. In Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, Thomas visited a forensics lab to view photos of his father's remains, photos Thomas says he needed to see for closure.

The Kennedy assassination fascinates Thomas, and football has helped build the bridge to that, too. The bullet that killed JFK, Thomas figures, also killed his father because maybe Kennedy would have pulled out of Vietnam if he hadn't been shot. So Thomas has visited Dealey Plaza three times, walking all over the landscape, from the grassy knoll to the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where he looked down from Lee Harvey Oswald's vantage point. After one football luncheon, he spoke at length with Oswald's widow, Marina. After a football banquet, Thomas met Jean Hill, the woman who claims to have seen smoke from a rifle shot behind the grassy knoll, and he has since become her friend.

It's quite a confluence of coincidences, meeting the B-52 survivors and Oswald and Hill, all of them through football, but Thomas doesn't think any of this is coincidence. He figures this is the way it was ordained-Robert Thomas dying so his son could live. See, the father had to go down so the son could know anger and apply it to football. The father had to stay in that plane so his boy's anger would have time to turn into trouble and so the trouble would turn into an appreciation for people who care-an appreciation so large that the boy would dedicate his life to caring, too. Yeah, Derrick Thomas, who is very hard, still gets teary when Blue Angel jets roar over the stadium, but he is resolute in the belief that Captain Robert Thomas went down for a reason.

Because you know what the name of his father's Vietnam mission was?

Operation Linebacker.