By Randy Covitz
The day Derrick Thomas died, Tony and Dawn Harper made a promise.
Whenever Thomas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, they vowed to make the 14-hour drive from their home in Lincoln, Neb., and attend the ceremony.
Their wait -- as well as the wait of Thomas’ family and all of Chiefs Nation -- ended on a mild Saturday night when Thomas, the Chiefs’ playmaking linebacker and sack artist of the 1990s, was enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The induction came nine years after Thomas’ death in 2000 at 33 years old of complications from injuries sustained in an automobile accident.
“We always thought he belonged here,” Dawn Harper said. “We wanted to honor his memory. It’s been validated.”
The Harpers were among about 1,500 red-clad fans at Fawcett Stadium on hand to witness the enshrinement of Thomas as well as the rest of the Class of 2009 -- Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith, Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr., Pittsburgh cornerback Rod Woodson, Minnesota offensive guard Randall McDaniel and Dallas wide receiver Bob Hayes.
“When Derrick Thomas passed from us in February 2000, I commented the light had gone out in Kansas City,” said former Chiefs president Carl Peterson, who presented Thomas.
“Today, Derrick Thomas joins the company of the finest who have ever played the game of professional football. It’s appropriate he takes his place besides the two great Kansas City linebackers, who are here, Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier. I know the other Chiefs Hall of Famers here, and some have passed, welcome Derrick also.”
Peterson, who drafted Thomas with the fourth overall pick in the 1989 draft, called Thomas “the cornerstone of the success of the Chiefs franchise” of the 1990s.
“Derrick Thomas’ career was meteoric,” Peterson said. “He became a symbol of our team’s success. We had other outstanding players at that time ... but Derrick was there the entire decade. The definition of a Pro Football Hall of Famer is he must be a game changer, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. In my opinion, there are only a handful of such defensive players in the modern era ... Lawrence Taylor, the late Reggie White, Bruce Smith, who is being honored tonight, and yes, the late, great Derrick Thomas.”
Before Peterson presented Thomas, the crowd was treated to a video of highlights from Thomas’ career, punctuated by the enthusiastic calls of Chiefs’ radio play-by-men Kevin Harlan and Mitch Holthus.
The video included what served as an acceptance by Thomas’ mother, Edith Morgan, and son, Derrion Thomas.
“Derrick as a football player was always the type of person who was always like a trendsetter,” Morgan said of her son, who recorded 126 career sacks. “He always was going to be the one who really, really got things going. The characteristics that set Derrick apart on the field were his endurance, his perseverance, his sportsmanship.”
Derrion Thomas said what he remembered most about his father were “the practices I went to with him, and all the time he put in.
“My father’s signature move was the Kansas City strip. He always talked about how it wasn’t important to kill quarterbacks, he mostly wanted to get the ball loose.”
Both Morgan and Derrion Thomas reflected on how Thomas’ heroics on the field turned Arrowhead Stadium into a noisy sea of red.
“His relationship with the fans of Kansas City was just tremendous,” Morgan said as the video showed zany Chiefs fans and signage reflecting passion for the Chiefs.
“Just about everybody had a 58 jersey. ... It was an atmosphere there you can’t see at any other field. Derrick made that kind of an impact.”
Derrion added, “Arrowhead Stadium was crazy when the Chiefs were on defense. You feel your chest rumbling as soon as they stepped on the field. It gave you goose bumps.”
Thomas’ impact went beyond the playing field, and his involvement in the community, including his visits with military personnel and his Third and Long Foundation were recognized on the video and by his family.
“One of his greatest contributions would be the relationship between the community and the sport of football and how players can help out and give back to their communities,” Derrion Thomas said.
“Going into the NFL,” said his mother, “he went with his goal of setting up a program, a foundation that he could help and give back. He started this reading program, the Third and Long Foundation. He would take the children on Saturdays and they would get a book and were responsible for being able to read that book and come back and read to one another.
“Derrick has impacted so many lives not only on the field, but off the field. I know Derrick is smiling down now, and the fact he is going into the Hall of Fame with some of the greatest players who ever played the game and is so happy this moment has come.”
The video concluded with Derrion saying: “Representing the Thomas family, I’m proud to accept on behalf of my father, Derrick Thomas, his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”