Derrick Thomas is a devil to QBs but an angel when touching most others
Dan Le Batard
10 de July de 2012, 1:07 PM
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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...
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