Tony Dungy first crossed paths with deceased Kansas City LB Derrick Thomas in 1989
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, 33, died Tuesday morning in Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital after a resuscitation team attempted to revive him following a cardiac arrest. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, just back from a week in Hawaii to coach the 2000 Pro Bowl, had been back at team headquarters for just a short time on Tuesday morning before learning of this sad news.
For Dungy, and for many other current and former NFL coaches and players, Thomas' death means the loss of a close friend. As the Chiefs' defensive backs coach from 1989 to 1991, Dungy worked alongside Thomas during some of the defender's most dominant seasons. Though the exact details of Thomas' death on Tuesday are not available, he was in Jackson Memorial due to a January car accident that had left him paralyzed from the chest down. Thomas was involved in the accident in Kansas City as he was driving to the airport to fly to Tampa Bay's NFC Championship Game in St. Louis on January 23.
Dungy was stunned and saddened by the news of Thomas' death. "Yes, it was really kind of shocking," said Dungy. "I was with (former Chiefs defensive end) Neil Smith at the Super Bowl and Neil had just been down (to Miami) to see him and it seemed like he was improving. I had made plans in my mind to go down there and see him after I got back from the Pro Bowl, so to have it happen like this with no warning is really kind of tough."
Thomas, a nine-time Pro Bowler with 126.5 career sacks, was Kansas City's first-round draft pick in 1989, Dungy's first year on the Chiefs' staff. He had an immediate impact on the field, with 10 sacks as a rookie and 20 in his second campaign. "My first year in Kansas City was his first year," recalled Dungy, "and I got to watch him come in and really blossom. He was a guy that you liked to be around, a guy that had fun and enjoyed playing football, enjoyed being around people. It's tough. It shows you how frail life is and how nothing is really promised."
Thomas' impact off the field in Kansas City was just as significant, as headlined by his "Third and Long Foundation", which founded a widely-recognized inner-city literacy program. Among the community service awards won by Thomas include the Edge NFL Man of the Year award in 1993 and the Byron 'Whizzer' White Humanitarian Award in 1995. He was designated one of the '1,000 Points of Light' by former President George Bush for his reading program.
"There will be a lot of people that remember him not only for moments on the field but for what he did in the community."