A bright light goes dark too soon....
He would get up early on Saturday mornings, drive to the local library and read to children he didn't know.
He would walk into the hospital with teddy bears in both arms and cry when the parents would call later and tell him their boy had died clutching his football card to his chest. He would go from locker to locker, demanding at least $100 from each of his rich teammates because this was the week he had decided he wanted to raise $14,000 to feed 750 families. He would pay to send 18 strangers to college, just because, and he would write a single check to cover the $61,500 in library fines accrued by Kansas City kids. He would be on his way to practice, making a cell phone call to McDonald's here and another to Hyatt there, and next thing you know 700 inner-city Miami kids were at a camp instead of on the streets. Derrick Thomas would....
"He would do so much that nobody knew about,'' Dorecia Tepe said Tuesday afternoon, just after learning Thomas had died. "I can tell you he was like an angel God sent to protect our son.'' You want to know how valuable a man we lost Tuesday? Dorecia Tepe can tell you, between the sobs. Her boy had AIDS. Philip was dying a lonely, painful death in 1994. An entire basketball tournament being canceled in Lone Wolf, Okla., because nobody wanted to play with her son, this adorable little outcast. Derrick Thomas wasn't the type of man who would just read about this in the newspaper. Derrick Thomas was the type of man who would go out and fix it. So Thomas sent Philip tickets to one of his games, plus a limo to pick him up. He took Philip golfing, buying his clubs and bags and shoes. He sent him a Sega and a football signed by Joe Montana for Christmas. And all those kids in Lone Wolf, Okla., you should have seen how jealous they got when the picture appeared in the local newspaper, Derrick Thomas rubbing Philip's head at a charity game. Philip didn't need to play basketball with those kids anymore because, well, he was playing with Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas.
"He helped my son so much,'' Dorecia Tepe said Tuesday. "Derrick was like a bright light in our life when things felt very dark. How many people as important as Derrick would take time out of their busy schedules to make time for a young man they didn't even know? He held a very special place in our hearts, the way he cared, and he did that for a lot of people, not just us. I just wrote him a letter the other day reminding him how much we loved him.''
Cringing and convulsing and crying, the pain unbearable, Philip knew he didn't have much time left in March of 1994. His mother says today that she is convinced, no doubt, that Philip was waiting to see Thomas one more time before he died. So Thomas came in on a Tuesday, arriving on a plane he borrowed from a friend, and gave Philip one of his All-Pro jerseys -- the only time he had ever given one of those away. Philip smiled and wept. He died less than 48 hours later.
"Why does this have to happen to someone like Derrick?'' Dorecia said through the sobs Tuesday. "Why? Why? Why? Why do we have to lose his kind?'' We didn't merely lose a local success story or a football star Tuesday morning. What we lost was a hero.
Thomas grew up in Miami with a whole lot of anger, losing his father at the age of 5 when the surface-to-air missile hit the B-52 Stratofortress over Vietnam. Derrick was arrested twice, for burglarizing a home and stealing a car, and was so bad that his mother and grandmother would spend their nights praying in the darkness, hoping he wasn't at the other end of those gunshots and sirens. Thomas' mother knew her husband's death had scarred Derrick, but she didn't know how deeply until hearing Derrick talk about it on television...from the White House, where Derrick's Third and Long Foundation was being honored as the 832nd of President Bush's 1,000 points of light.
An interesting thing happened to Thomas on the path toward lifelong delinquency. So many South Florida judges and teachers and coaches and parents stepped in his way, guiding him in another direction, that he later dedicated his life to doing the same, which is why he was always in those libraries and hospitals. "People cared for me, so now I care back,'' Thomas told me back in 1998. "It's not important what I do in this game. What matters is 20 years from now, if I'm walking down the street and a doctor or lawyer or teacher says I made a difference in their life. Having the most sacks in NFL history? That'll be great. Winning a Super Bowl? That'll be great. Breaking the single-season sack record? That'll be great. But I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference.''
You'll forever be remembered that way by an awful lot of people, Derrick. Like Dorecia Tepe, for example. Because friends told her she should bury her son Philip in a suit. But she chose a Chiefs jersey.
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