Originally created 01/25/00

Derrick Thomas of Chiefs paralyzed in legs



LIBERTY, Mo. -- Derrick Thomas, one of the most feared pass rushers in NFL history, has a broken neck and back and might never walk again.

The star linebacker of the Kansas City Chiefs has paralyzed legs following a car crash on an icy road in which his friend was killed.

Thomas has use of his arms and upper chest, and doctors held out hope he might fully recover. Doctors said the 33-year-old player faces extensive rehabilitation and probably will have surgery.

"I don't think you can say anything right now," Dr. Jon Browne, the Chiefs' team physician, said Monday. "These type of injuries have a mind of their own and a treatment pattern of their own. They're all uniquely and individually different."

Thomas was being transferred from the Liberty Memorial Hospital to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Thomas was born in Miami and his mother lives there.

Friends and teammates came to the hospital Monday. Also visiting was Steve Palermo, a former American League umpire who was shot in 1991 and left partially paralyzed.

"Do not rule anything in," said Palermo, a Kansas City resident and friend of Thomas. "And do not rule anything out. He understands the gravity of it. But he's also very optimistic."

Thomas has fractures in vertebrae in his neck and back.

"Derrick's injuries are primarily to the spinal column," Browne said. "He does have some neurological impairment which is continuing to evolve."

With an infections smile and fun-loving attitude, Thomas is one of the most popular athletes in Kansas City history, almost on a par with baseball great George Brett. Friends dubbed him "social director of the NFL."

"We drafted this young man 11 years ago and you hope for a lot of things from a No. 1 draft choice," Chiefs president Carl Peterson said. "But he's given of himself far beyond anything I could hope for. He's touched so many lives."

Thomas was driving with two friends to Kansas City International Airport on Sunday headed for the NFC Championship Game in St. Louis.

He lost control of his car on a snowy highway, and it flipped several times. Thomas and Mike Tellis, 49, of Kansas City, Kan., were not wearing seat belts and were thrown from the car, police said. Tellis was killed instantly.

A third man in the car who was wearing his seat belt was treated and released.

The crash happened about 10 miles from another highway pileup in which 10 people died.

Thomas, a nine-time Pro Bowl player, holds the NFL one-game record of seven sacks and ranks ninth all-time with 126.5 career sacks.

The seven-sack game came against Seattle in 1990 near Veterans Day. He dedicated his effort to his father, an Air Force pilot who was killed in Vietnam in Operation Linebacker II.

With one of the quickest first moves of any defender in the league, Thomas became known for his "sack and strip" move in which he would close fast on a quarterback's blind side and hack at his arm to knock the ball out of his hand.

The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder holds Chiefs' records for career safeties (3), forced fumbles (45) and fumble recoveries (19). He starred at Alabama and was named to the Pro Bowl his first nine seasons.

Thomas made headlines in 1998 when he lost his temper in a Monday night game against Denver and committed three personal fouls during the Broncos' final touchdown drive. He was fined and suspended for one game and apologized to the Broncos and "to the youth of America."

He has been active in the Kansas City area with his "Third and Long" literacy program.

"God willing, all the initial reports will be off and he'll be OK," Chiefs center Tim Grunhard said. "Right now, I'm not concerned with Derrick Thomas the football player. I'm worried about Derrick Thomas the person."

Concern for Thomas also was on the minds of some Super Bowl-bound players.

"It's something that made me think how lucky I am to be here," said St. Louis Rams linebacker London Fletcher. "Nothing in life is guaranteed."