Saturday, August 8, 2009

Rites Of Summer

My Heart is ravisht with delight,
when thee I think upon;
All Grief and Sorrow takes the flight,
and speedily is gone;
The bright resemblance of thy Face,
so fills this, Heart of mine;
That Force nor Fate can me displease,
for Old long syne.

James Watson

Today marks the beginning of the new NFL year. I could see how some might argue for its beginning after the Pro Bowl, or at the beginning of training camp but I don't see it that way. Tomorrow at 8pm the Buffalo Bills will play in Nashville against the Titans and this will be the first live NFL football of the 2009 year. The months after the Pro Bowl is the long autumn after harvest, and if draft day is Christmas then certainly we can see how the return to the playing field is New Years Day. But first comes the day of Auld Lang Syne, the night of remembrance.

It doesn’t matter how many years it takes. Once you get in there, that’s all that matters.”
- Tim Grunhard

James discussed how the NFL pays respect to its greatest players as it kicks off each season with the Hall of Fame ceremony. This year's class is distinguished, but no more distinguished than most, less than some. Ralph Wilson is a giant, every bit as important to the growth of the NFL as Lamar Hunt or Wellington Mara and it is good to see him enshrined while he is still living. With the possible exception of Wilson though, I think the most interesting induction is that of Derrick Thomas.

When I first heard about Thomas' election to the Hall, I immediately began to consider if he really had a Hall of Fame-worthy career, or if his election had more to do with his sudden death and his charitable work. There were calls in the Chief community for Thomas' election by acclamation after his death, following the precedent after Roberto Clemente's death. While there are parallels between Clemente and Thomas, ultimately they fail, right down to the way each died; Clemente delivering aid to earthquake victims, Thomas driving recklessly and flipping his SUV. The latter isn't a judgment of Thomas, it's just what is.

Even so, Thomas was a remarkable humanitarian in his own right. In his third NFL season he founded (along with Neil Smith) the Third and Long Foundation, devoted to tackling illiteracy in the inner city. Since its inception 60 NFL players have devoted time and resources to its success. Thomas was the NFL Man of the Year in 1993. He won the Byron "Whizzer" White Humanitarian Award in 1995. George Bush designated him one of the country's 1000 Points of Light.

I think we all occasionally wonder what the Hall of Fame is. There are obvious Hall of Famers like Walter Payon and Jerry Rice and Johnny Unitas. There are other players who - while maybe not all-time greats - defined the game for their generation. Finally there are guys like Bob Hayes who redefined the way we think of a position, even if no one really thinks that player is a member of the all-time elite.

In a way, Thomas was none of those things, and in another he embodied all of those things. He wasn't the best defensive player of his generation. Most would probably say 'Reggie White', if asked. His Hall of Fame classmates Bruce Smith and Rod Woodson were probably better. Deion Sanders was too. Darrell Green remained an elite defender for much of Thomas' career. Mike Singletary and then Junior Seau and finally Ray Lewis were all better linebackers. Even guys like John Randle trumped Thomas who was only names All Pro twice (Randle six times). At best you could argue that Thomas was the best rush linebacker in the NFL, but even then, as good as he was at attacking the quarterback, he was still a poor run defender for his entire career.

Thomas also couldn't have been said to redefine his position. Lawrence Taylor did it first, and did it better, being named first team All Pro eight times. In a sense Thomas was nothing but the best defensive player on the best defensive team; a guy limited to rushing the quarterback. But oh, what a rusher. Marty Schottenheimer said of Thomas "Derrick weighed 250-255 and we designed what we did to try to put him in a position to do what he did best, that was to go after the quarterback. You don't see many quarterbacks throwing effectively when they're looking over their back shoulder and wondering, 'Who's that guy coming at me? Any time you can get a player, on offense or defense, who must become the focal point of the opponent, those kind of players are rare, he had to be accounted for on every play or he would beat you."

Thomas had 126 quarterback sacks and 448 pressures in an 11 year career covering 169 games. In other words Thomas made series or game changing plays about three and a half times per game. Neil Smith was drafted a year before Thomas and was already being labeled a bust until Thomas began to pull the attention of the offenses to him, in part giving Smith the freedom to dominate the defensive line, leading to several pro bowls and an All Pro season in 1993. Due to their lack of post-season success, the record of the Chiefs in the 1990s is often overlooked. They finished the decade with the third most wins of any franchise, behind only the 49ers and Bills while ahead of perennial winners Dallas, Denver, and Green Bay.

But even with his on-field success and off-field charity, Thomas led a volatile life, right up to the accident that caused his death. Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star wrote "
Whenever any of us write or say something good about Thomas — such as this weekend when we celebrate his remarkable football career — we are inundated with angry e-mails and phone calls and rebukes from those who want to yell about the irresponsible way he fathered seven children with five different women. Whenever we talk about all the good he did — and he did a lot of good; he was always generous with his time and he was chosen the NFL Man of the Year in 1993 — we are furiously reminded of his bad habits and wild nights and marathon parties." Even following his death, a protracted and public lawsuit by his survivors against General Motors served little but to keep the circumstances of his death in the public eye.

So what was Thomas? He was an enigma and a great talent, and limited. He had a huge heart and bad judgment and a fierce desire to be bigger than anyone ever could be. He was about as one-dimensional as a three-down player could be, but he was so great at that dimension that dragging him off the field was out of the question. He wasn't the greatest. He wasn't among the greatest in football history, he wasn't among the greatest at his position. But when I think of the qualities that the very greatest have, I see those same qualities in Derrick Thomas. Hall of Famer? Yeah ... yeah.

Derrick worked out with about three other linebackers, we put them through a bunch of drills, and Derrick just kept going and going. I looked back, and I said, ‘That’s about enough,’ and Carl says, ‘No, I want to see more.’ So we kept doing more. And all of a sudden another linebacker dropped out and was about dead, and I looked back at Carl, and he said, ‘More.’

“Then another linebacker dropped out, and I said, ‘Carl, I’ve been through the linebacker drills, I’ve put them through defensive-back drills,’ and he says, ‘No, I want more.’ Finally, the other linebackers couldn’t take anymore. It was a hot day. I said, ‘Carl, I don’t have any more drills.’ He said, ‘OK.’

“And Derrick looked at me and grinned, and said, ‘Coach, are you done? Don’t you have any more?’

“I kind of chuckled, because I know it was making Carl very mad because he was trying to make him get so tired. Everyone else around him was sick, they couldn’t breathe, and Derrick kept on going, and he wanted more.”


My wife and I both have said he's probably the son we've never had. He's a guy who lived his life with a passion, everything he did. I really think that with all the things that have taken place today [in the NFL] and all the publicity of the arrests and everything else that took place, this is a good person.

-Bill Cowher

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