Walter “Ray” Perkins and William “Bill” Curry are among a list of highly-profiled coaches that have come through Alabama. Both men were tabbed to be successful, after Paul Bryant retired. Perkins played for coach Bryant from 1964-66 at wide receiver. He had success as a player, winning a national championship in 1964, yet was inconsistent as a coach. Curry took over in 1987, and despite three bowl appearance and a 26-10 record, he was winless (0-3) against Auburn. Curry was replaced by Eugene “Gene” Stallings in 1990, after three seasons.
DeMeco Ryans, Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley all had success at Alabama as linebackers, but it all started with a legend, Derrick Thomas.
Thomas was one of few good things that came from Perkins and Curry. In three seasons (1986-89), he became the best linebacker in college football. With Cornelius Bennett and Keith McCants flanking him, Thomas spearheaded one of the best defenses in the league in 1988. Opposing quarterbacks feared Thomas during the 1988 season, as he accounted for 27 sacks (an NCAA record). The mark currently stands as a Football Bowl Subdivision record.
Thomas’s pass rushing abilities made him a nightmare for offensive linemen. He ended his career with 52 sacks, and was voted a unanimous All-American in 1988. Thomas was the recipient of the Dick Butkus Award (nation’s best linebacker) and finished 10th in the Heisman voting, during the same season. He was recognized as the Singleton Soaring Spirit Award winner in 1988. The award was named in honor of Alabama’s football legend Fred Singleton.
Thomas saw action in three bowl games at Alabama, and compiled a record of 26-11. The Crimson Tide finished the 1988 season at 9-3. It defeated Army 29-28 in the Sun Bowl, and Thomas was named a Sun Bowl legend. Opposing teams averaged less than 20 points per game, during Thomas’s tenure. Yours truly of Touchdown Alabama Magazine has created a table listing Alabama defensive statistics from 1986-88 with Derrick Thomas.
|Alabama’s defensive stats with Derrick Thomas (1986-88)|
|1986||12.5 points per game|
|1987||17.8 points per game|
|1988||15.7 points per game|
The National Football League came calling in 1989. Thomas was selected in the first round (fourth overall pick) of the 1989 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent 11 seasons in the league (1989-99), and was a 9x Pro Bowl selection (1989-97). Thomas was voted first-team All-Pro three times from 1990-92, and made first-team All-AFC seven times (1989-94, 1996).
Thomas finished the 1989 season, as the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year. He totaled 75 tackles and 10 sacks. Thomas made the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team, and was the recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1993. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, and his No. 58 jersey was retired inside Arrowhead Stadium at Kansas City.
Thomas set five records in 11 seasons at Kansas City. He accounted for 41 career forced fumbles, eight forced fumbles in a single season (1992), 19 fumble recoveries, 126.5 career sacks and three career safeties. Thomas tallied 642 tackles in his pro career.
He was about to enter the prime of his career, but on Feb. 8, 2000, Alabama fans and Kansas City followers witnessed a legend leave too soon. On Jan. 23, 2008, Thomas was traveling to the Kansas City International Airport to catch a flight to St. Louis. He was going to watch an NFC Championship Game, and was going approximately 100 miles per hour in the snow.
He and another passenger were weaving through traffic without seatbelts on. The cars collided and both Thomas and the passenger were thrown out. A third passenger that day was also in the mix, but he was secured in a safety belt and left the scene unharmed.
One passenger was killed, and Thomas was left paralyzed from the chest down. Thomas told his mother that he wasn’t feeling well on the morning of Feb. 8, 2000. He was getting treatment for his body at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Fla. Thomas’s eyes rolled to the back of his eyes and he went into cardio-respiratory arrest. The attack was brought on by a pulmonary embolism, a massive blood clot that developed in his lower extremities (paralyzed) and traveled to his lungs. Thomas was 33 years old at the time of death.
Thomas was a legend both on and off the field. In 1990, he founded the Derrick Thomas Third and Long Foundation. Its mission was to help the lives of children ages 9-13 succeed in school and stop illiteracy. In honor of her son, Edith Morgan established Moms to Moms 58 Foundation. It was an organization that worked with professional football players, non-profit organizations, community leaders, political figures and others to educate the public on car seat and seatbelt safety, promote children’s health and teaching sports safety to inner-city youth.
He was already in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, but the Thomas family wanted to see its loved one among college football’s best. The dream became a reality in 2014, as Derrick Thomas was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. His mother was there to see it all.
He didn’t win a national championship or a Super Bowl title, but Derrick Thomas epitomized toughness, fight, leadership and the competitive spirit. He opened the door for other players to have success at Alabama as a linebacker or defensive end. Thomas played with passion both in college and the NFL. He earned the respect of peers and sports writers who watched him. Many players have come through Alabama, but very few made a connection, Thomas had a connection.
Stephen M. Smith is a staff writer and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine, Pick Six Previews and SB Nation. You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.