My Derrick Thomas moment came at a drag race years ago in Kansas.
A hot summer day, the farthest thing from my buddies minds at that time was KC football. This was big time for drag racing, as big as drag racing gets, and we were all excited to see the top fuel dragsters roar down the ¼ mile strip at unimaginable speeds.
The heat was oppressive as we worked our way toward our bleacher seats at the end of the strip, someone signaled a possible shortcut. We ducked through two vendors booths and emerged in a sort of asphalt courtyard. As we made our way across, we heard the playful beep beep of a golf cart horn. I turned around and saw a small procession making its way toward us.
Three people in two carts.
One was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen to that date. In the rear cart was a figure dressed in black. A chiseled, stone-faced six-and-a-half footer that I guessed was a bodyguard. A figure that made you instantly wonder if he had killed before, and develop the opinion that he most certainly would kill without hesitation should his employer face any kind of danger.
And the third was the unmistakable, smiling 6-fooot-3 250-pound sack machine himself, Derrick Thomas.
As we stood in awe, Mr. Thomas smiled even more broadly and waved us over. Though everyone knew it wasn’t necessary he introduced himself as Derrick Thomas. We were absolutely paralyzed. As he began to introduce the beautiful creature to his right, I interrupted by blurting “are you a model?”. Everyone laughed again, except for the robo-guard. But closer inspection revealed that the eyes in his stone face betrayed him with a slight amused wrinkling in both corners, and he quickly began searching the perimeter for threats again.
What’s hard to explain but must be addressed at this point was that this wasn’t polite laughter, the kind you would expect from a celebrity. And it wasn’t the kind of laughter that was making fun. This was a laughter that warmed your heart. This was a laughter of pure joy. This was a laughter that made you thank God above for being alive. This was a laughter of friends.
It put us all immediately at ease and for that short moment in my life deceptively made us all feel like equals, which I know in my heart is exactly how he wanted us to feel.
The beautiful creature in the golf cart smiled again — AND THEN SHE ASKED ME MY NAME.
She asked with a smooth, Southern drawl that made you instantly hear birds singing, instantly smell flowers, and instantly experience the taste of cool, fresh orange juice splashing in your mouth on a warm sunny Summer afternoon.
The exact type of angel that I would have expected my hero Derrick Thomas to be with.
Derrick asked us about top fuel racers, and told us how excited he was to see them for the first time. He talked about the heat and the possibility that a world speed record could be broken that day due to the optimum track and weather conditions.
During our chat he casually pointed at my nacho tray and I held them out. He searched for one that had a jalapeno on it and put it in his mouth and ate it. A gesture that wouldn’t seem important but to most but one that was one of the most important moments in my life. Derrick Thomas ate one of my nachos.
Its hard to explain but at that simple moment Derrick changed our relationships from casual meeting to the trust of friendship.
Derrick Thomas was my friend.
I’ve thought about it over years if Mr. Thomas knew the importance of that simple act, I absolutely know in my heart that he did.
But you know what has always seemed so important to me is what we didn’t talk about. We didn’t mention football. It’s hard to explain but I’ve always felt that was our gift to Derrick in return. Drag racing was an escape for the four of us from the daily grind and it was an escape for Derrick from football. I think its why it didn’t enter into our heads to ask for an autograph, and to this date I’ve never wished we did.
Eventually, Derrick started up the golf cart and we knew our brief encounter was coming to an end. We stood and stared as the carts left, and just as I knew in my heart she would,, the beautiful creature turned and smiled a smile that proved a thousand ships could indeed be launched over beauty and waved.
And then they were gone..
Years later I was at work in my cubicle when a close friend stopped by and told me Derrick had died. I clumsily left my cubicle, found an empty room, closed the door and cried. My friend Derrick Thomas had died that day.
I cried because of that warm sunny day at the Kansas speedway when Derrick had made such a small gesture that would change four lives forever. I cried because of the pain that angel in his cart must be feeling too.
I cried harder because I knew I was not crying for an image portrayed in the news media, or some unauthorized biography. I was crying because of a man I knew and a character I experienced, and a goodness I felt firsthand. However brief my encounter was, the man had changed my life and outlook on Arrowhead football.
And to this date no trip to Arrowhead is completely filled with joy because sooner or later my eyes fall on the ring of fame and I say a little prayer for my friend who isn’t with us any more — Derrick Thomas.
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