- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

RIVER FALLS, Wis. Six months after All-Pro linebacker Derrick Thomas' death, the Kansas City Chiefs are still struggling to accept his absence. On the cover of their media guide, a ghostly Thomas hovers in the clouds above a full house at his beloved Arrowhead Stadium.

However, the Chiefs aren't feeling sorry for themselves. Instead, they are embracing the memory of Thomas, whose 11 seasons in Kansas City made him the team's senior player and whose wide smile and outgoing nature made him beloved in the community.

Coach Gunther Cunningham, who was as close to Thomas as any player he has known, has encouraged his players to discuss their feelings of loss. There will be a moment of silence before Sunday's preseason game, the first at Arrowhead since Thomas' stunning death Feb. 8 in the wake of a Jan. 23 auto wreck. The Chiefs also will put on an elaborate farewell and retire Thomas' No. 58 before the Sept. 3 season opener.

"It has been really hard on a personal level," said Cunningham, who choked up a couple of times while talking about Thomas this week at the Chiefs' training camp at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. "After Derrick's death, I made a statement about his spirit hanging over Arrowhead forever. The morning we were leaving to come here, I looked at the press guide for the first time. When I saw that picture, I broke down."

Thomas, the only player to have seven sacks in a game he also had one of the two games with six sacks recorded a decade-most 116* sacks in the 1990s while being voted to nine Pro Bowls and leading the Chiefs to seven playoff berths. Off the field, Thomas was named the NFL's 1993 Man of the Year and was honored by the White House and numerous organizations for his community service. More than 20,000 mourners filed past the 33-year-old Thomas' casket on Valentine's Day at Arrowhead, and more than 6,000 attended a memorial service the next day.

"People don't understand what Derrick meant to me," Cunningham said. "It has nothing to do with football. He was such a giving person. And Derrick could always make you laugh. There were times I was ready to flip out and he would come up to me with that smile on his face and say, 'You're mad at me, aren't you?' Derrick had the best smile I've ever seen. You'd just have to start laughing."

Cornerback James Hasty, Thomas' closest friend on the Chiefs, doesn't know when he'll be able to smile about the memories. For now, Hasty's grief is a palpable force that he uses to smack ball carriers.

"I was devastated when I heard about the accident," Hasty said. "Derrick had always been there for me, and I felt like I owed it to Derrick to be there for him. So I started packing to go to Miami when I just lost it. My wife and I just sat there in our bedroom closet crying. When I got to the hospital, I told the doctor I had to see Derrick before he went into surgery because he was like a brother to me. The doctor said, 'Derrick said the same thing about you.' I'll never forget that. What more can you ask from a teammate?"

The Chiefs train further from home than any other NFL team, but being eight hours from Kansas City hasn't done much to lessen the hurt.

"The first day here was kind of quiet, kind of eerie," Hasty said. "It gets a little easier for us every day, but I don't know how long it's going to take me to get over Derrick's death. The best way I can deal with it is to go out and play in his honor, make those big plays and set an example. I know Derrick would do the same for me."

Quarterback Elvis Grbac said Thomas' death could be a motivator.

"It's going to be a year of firsts the first training camp without Derrick, the first preseason game, the first home game," Grbac said. "That's going to be a constant the entire year. Derrick's leadership, enthusiasm and love for the game are going to be missed. If we can just keep that in the back of our minds every day and cherish what we have, it's going to be good for us in the long run."

Linebacker Marvcus Patton knows about dealing with death, as did Thomas, whose father was shot down over Vietnam when he was 5. Patton's father, a Los Angeles policeman, was killed when he was 9.

"We're going to play this season in Derrick's memory," ex-Washington Redskin Patton said. "We can't make up for his loss. We just have to go out and play as hard as he did. Derrick was as pure a pass rusher as I've ever seen. But he wasn't just a great football player. He was a truly nice guy. When I first got here, Derrick invited me to his house and told me to ask if there was anything he could do for me. We'll never get Derrick out of our minds. It's like my father. It's always on my mind. You don't forget about it. But you have to go on."

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