KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Before Derrick Thomas arrived, the Kansas City Chiefs were one of the NFL's most consistent losers.
Once he showed up, they became one of the most dominant, one of just three teams to win 100 games in the '90s.
"We would never have been able to do what we've done these past 10 years without No. 58," coach Gunther Cunningham said last fall, less than two months before the Jan. 23 car accident that led to the death today of the 33-year-old linebacker.
In his prime, Thomas was one of the greatest pass-rushers the game ever saw. Coaches designed their defensive schemes around him. He set the single-game sacks record by taking down Seattle's Dave Krieg seven times in 1990 and led the NFL in sacks for the decade.
Taking the Alabama All-American in the opening round of the 1989 draft was the first important personnel move by the management team of CEO Carl Peterson and coach Marty Schottenheimer, who had just been installed by owner Lamar Hunt.
One consistent problem plaguing the Chiefs, who had made only one playoff appearance in the previous 17 years, had been the lack of an outside pass rush. But on a hot August night in 1989 in one of his first exhibition games, Thomas served notice that a new era had dawned with two sacks and about a half-dozen quarterback pressures.
"You don't lack a pass rush any more," he said with a big smile.
At 6-foot-3 and 255 pounds, Thomas did not overpower opposing blockers, who were almost always bigger than him. He beat them with one of the quickest first steps anyone ever saw.
His one-game sack record came in just his 25th regular-season game, and he led the league with 20 sacks -- two short of the record.
On opening day in 1998, he sacked Oakland's Jeff George six times.
His greatest day was probably on Veterans Day in 1990 when, against an emotional personal backdrop, he set the single-game sack record.
In pregame ceremonies that day, fighter jets flew over Arrowhead Stadium and reminded the young linebacker of his father, Air Force Capt. Robert Thomas who had died in Vietnam during Operation Linebacker II.
After the game, with tears in his eyes, Thomas dedicated his performance to his father.
"It really got me charged up seeing those Air Force planes," he said. Later he would make several trips to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. to trace his father's name. He even got to ride once in an Air Force fighter jet.
An immediate star, Thomas went to the Pro Bowl nine straight times, more than any other Chiefs player. He wound up ninth on the all-time sack list with 126.5.
Cunningham, the Chiefs' defensive coordinator from 1995-98, said Thomas was primarily responsible for the Chiefs leading the league with a plus-130 turnover ratio in the 1990s.
"I take my hat off to No. 58. He is the most underrated football player right now on our football team," Cunningham said in December. `For one reason or another, everybody looks at Derrick Thomas and says, `Well, he didn't show up in the playoff game.'
"If Derrick is not out there at right end, the Chiefs would not have been as successful as they've been for the last 11 years. Derrick was the starting point to getting there."
He was voted the NFL's man of the year in 1993 for his work in the community.
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