'Derrick Thomas.....My Dad'
Feb. 6, 2005
On Saturday, Derrick Thomas missed out in his first try at the Hall of Fame. Someday, it seems sure, his football legacy will be honored there. Today, nearly five years after his death, meet his living legacy and see him as few could.
Before everything, he was a child alone.
At bedtime, young Derrick Thomas would dream his daddy was coming home, any minute now. He wasn't, ever.
Robert Thomas was killed in an Air Force bomber over Vietnam in 1972 when Derrick was 5. Thomas grew up pining for a father.
All Derrick Thomas wanted was a family. He never quite knew what one looked like, so he took bits and pieces. He reached out for love. Always searching for father figures, he called at least five men Dad, everyone from Chiefs general manager Carl Peterson to an Alabama booster.
Kansas City remembers the swaggering, big-hearted linebacker who died tragically five years ago Tuesday, the one who handed out money and closed down bars. They didn't see him that day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, making a rubbing of his father's name on the wall and thinking, “I'm OK, Daddy. I made it.”
He'd made it to stardom, to the biggest events and the grandest stages. Then, in an instant, as his Chevy Suburban flipped repeatedly on an icy stretch of Interstate 435, he lost it, dying 16 days later of injuries suffered in the wreck. He lost everything, and everyone. He left behind those five dads, a mom, countless friends and, most tragically, seven kids of his own.
It has been five years now, five hard years. The children are living in four states, and with the anniversary of Thomas' death approaching, all five of their mothers reflected on a life lost and the ones left behind. It was the first time they had spoken publicly about Thomas since the immediate aftermath of his death.
“He did a lot for a lot of people,” says Terrye Jenkins, mother of two, “but he did for his kids.”
The mothers understand their situations well. It's hard for even them to say out loud sometimes: five mothers, seven kids. After Thomas' death, his three daughters and four sons seemed to become the symbols of a life lived out of control. A state senator from Cape Girardeau said Thomas was not an acceptable role model.
The family bristled at that. Derrick Thomas was a lot of things, they agree, but he was not the terrible father many think he was. Flawed? Yes. Irresponsible? Sometimes. Deadbeat? Not at all.
Beyond paying more than $10,000 a month in child support, they say, Thomas doled out gifts and cash and tuition and time. He was an almost daily fixture at Chuck E. Cheese's. When they were old enough, the kids made annual trips to Hawaii and to Disney World. There were two vacation rules. No mommies, and you can buy whatever you like, provided you carry it.
There were, of course, the other days, when Thomas wasn't around but tried to compensate with grand gestures. He wasn't there to drive his daughter to school, but he chartered a jet to Miami so he could see her kindergarten graduation. He'd come home from partying on Christmas Eve and assemble toys. He struggled to be all things to all people.
“Derrick was at all the games,” says friend and attorney Kevin Regan, who coached Derrion Thomas in soccer. “Like a regular car-pool dad. Derrick took a lot more interest in Derrion's development than most of the other parents I dealt with. Derrick didn't have enough time on the planet to come full circle with the dad he wanted to be and the dad he was becoming.”
Thomas' heart would break if he knew his children one day would kneel before his grave and tell him, softly, that they had made it, too. All seven wake up and go to sleep carrying his last name, his smile and the same loss he tried hard to smother with a glittery life.
“It's so ironic that what happened to him happened to his kids,” says Kelly Harmon, mother of his daughter Alexa. “He wanted a dad so bad, and that's what these kids want. There's no replacing him. I can't tell enough stories. I can't show enough pictures.”
Derrion, 14, and Robert Thomas, 6
Mother: Terrye Jenkins
Derrion Thomas looks like his father. He walks like him. Talks like him. Has the same long, slender fingers.
When he walks through the mall in a No. 58 throwback jersey, stunned Chiefs fans do double takes. He has the athletic body. Like almost all his siblings, he's the tallest student in his grade. Derrion is an elite-level swimmer with dreams of the Olympic Games. He's the leader of the seven Thomas children. People say he has Derrick's spirit.
“Out of all the kids, Derrion is going to be the one who brings everybody together,” Harmon says.
Derrion has had it worse than most of the kids. He was in school when his father died, and the other children were so cruel. They told him his daddy didn't really know him. They called his parents hateful names, the ones they had heard their own parents say at home.
“Just to get the contradictory information, especially at that age, it was a big problem,” says Jenkins, his mother.
Derrion took it hard. His mom kept him home from school at times. She took him to a counselor. Friends saw a change in him as he hardened, much as his father had years before. Time has eased his grief. A little.
“Sometimes I don't feel like talking about it,” Derrion says. “But most days I do.”
On this day, he feels OK. The counseling is behind him, and he's just proud of his father, glad that he has stories to tell.
“We'd sit down and grab a gallon of milk,” Derrion says. “He'd take the jug, and I'd get a little glass and eat Oreos and sit there and watch cartoons.”
His brother Robert isn't as lucky. Robert was just 18 months old when his father died. Robert is inquisitive. You never know what he'll ask next. He is starting to understand. When he sees someone with a No. 58 jersey, he'll say, “That's my daddy's number.”
“He says he's gonna be a football player when he grows up,” Jenkins says.
One memory remains for Robert. He conveniently claims to recall his dad telling his mom not to spank him.
Derrion, though, has plenty of memories. The time he and several siblings covered the bathroom at Thomas' plush house with Power Rangers stamps. The thousands of dollars of fireworks from the same store every Fourth of July, a tradition his mother still observes on a smaller scale, because things like that are important. He rode with his father to every Chiefs home game and saw him almost every day.
Not all the memories are pleasant. As Thomas lay paralyzed in a Miami hospital room, the person he wanted to talk to was Derrion. He told him how to be a man. He told him to always be a good big brother. They talked for hours.
“A lot of the stuff he talked to Derrion about nobody knows,” says Edith Morgan, Thomas' mother and Derrion's grandmother.
When it was time to go back to Kansas City, just days before Thomas died, Derrion cried.
“I don't want to leave my daddy here,” he said, sobbing.
Maybe he knew something, that their lives would never be the same. They haven't been, of course. The wealthy lifestyle has been replaced by budget concerns, by a single mom's struggle to support her kids. Like the other mothers, Jenkins has gotten more than $100,000 from the still-open estate. But the limousines are gone, and so are the millions Thomas made. The all-terrain vehicles the kids once rode have been auctioned. The house where Derrion used to run amok gets mail for Derrick Thomas but has new owners, even though 58 still adorns the tiles in the basement shower.
The family went back for the first time this past Halloween, trick-or-treating. Robert dressed as a ninja. He didn't remember the house. They rang the doorbell, got candy from the unsuspecting owners and went on their way. Before leaving, Derrion peeked into the windows, into the life he once lived.
“They made a lot of changes,” he told his mom.
Burgandie Thomas, 15,
and Derrick Thomas, Jr., 13
Mother: Jennifer Bunyan
Thomas' memory is alive, even if the things he left behind are starting to decay. The giant fish tank he bought is mostly empty, next to the front door, a foot of stagnant water staining the glass.
A giant poster-clock of Thomas holding oldest daughter Burgandie is the first thing you see inside this Miami home, but the clock has stopped.
Time stands still in the stories of Burgandie and Derrick Jr., called D.J. except when he is being scolded. Derrick loved it when the kids' mother, Jennifer Bunyan, would yell D.J.'s entire name: “A Derrick Thomas is in trouble, and it's not me!” he would joke.
There won't be any new stories, so the old ones have become practiced. Like the Pro Bowl swimming story.
“I was in the middle of the pool,” Burgandie says. “Didn't have floaties. Didn't know how to swim. I was doing like this.” She makes a frantic, dog-paddling motion. “And my daddy jumped in the water with his beeper and his phone.”
Or the story about the cookies.
Classmates wondered how Burgandie always outsold them in the Girl Scout cookie drive.
“He used to always buy my peanut butter cookies,” she says. “He'd buy cases of them.”
One story leads to another. But, as with most memories, sadness always finds a way back.
They miss a lot of things. Bunyan says that when D.J. heard his father had died, he balled up in the room where his dad used to stay and cried uncontrollably. It broke his mother's heart.
Bunyan met Thomas at a skating rink when they were teenagers. She was his high school sweetheart, and she helped him fill out college applications and often tucked a few dollars into his pocket so he could buy lunch. When she came to Kansas City to visit, Thomas would have his friends change his home phone number, so no other women could call. One time, they forgot. Bunyan smiles now, telling of calmly taking a stack of messages and watching a frantic Thomas try to explain.
The kids are growing up nicely. Burgandie is in ninth grade. She's bubbly. She's into clothes, like her daddy was; and she loves her cell phone. D.J. is in sixth grade and has his dad's goofy side. He is verbal, always looking to con his way out of something.
They have lived in Miami their whole lives, seeing their father on long weekends and family vacations. When he could, Thomas would bring them up to Kansas City for months at a stretch, trying to play Mr. Mom. They would play with their brothers and sisters. D.J. and Derrion are still tight. They've been kidding each other a lot lately: D.J. loves the Atlanta Falcons, and Derrion loves the Philadelphia Eagles.
“Derrick would have Donavan McNabb and Michael Vick for dinner for those two kids,” Kevin Regan says, becoming emotional. “They would have been there. I guarantee it.”
Alexa Harmon-Thomas, 8
Mother: Kelly Harmon
The little girl sprints over, the soccer ball still in the back of the net. She wears a turquoise jersey and a familiar smile. Alexa Harmon-Thomas gushes to her mom, “I just made the perfect corner shot!”
Kelly Harmon sits on a stool in a Lawrence indoor sports center and grins. It's been a decade since she met Derrick. She was an intern for the Chiefs and a former model. Now, Harmon is a soccer mom.
She has always known her daughter would be an incredible athlete. Even as a toddler, Alexa's muscles were defined. She's a head taller than the next-tallest pupil in her class. She loves soccer, yes, but track and field is her thing. She runs the same events as her dad, and her mom is looking to find a financial sponsor so she can see just how great the little girl can be.
Alexa, who has Olympic dreams of her own, was featured recently in a Sports Illustrated segment that identifies sports' young up-and-comers.
“She told me this was her first appearance,” Harmon says.
Last year Alexa won the 200 meters and long jump at the AAU Junior Olympics. Harmon, working hard not to cry, says Derrick would be so proud.
“I think he would be beside himself,” she says. “She's so amazing and at such an elite level that he would just be all over it.”
Derrick couldn't be at the track meet that day. But his mother, Edith Morgan, made it. Burgandie and D.J. came from Miami to cheer on Alexa. They stood as she motored down the back stretch, setting a world record for her age group. Afterward, her grandmother told Alexa there had been wings pushing her home, and those wings belonged to her daddy. She wears wings under her uniform now every time she races.
Like many of her brothers and sisters, Alexa is starting to talk about her father more each day. She is old enough to have memories, but she wants to know more.
Recently she asked to see Arrowhead Stadium, and she went to her first game. She takes out pictures and watches videos of her dad singing with Hank Williams Jr. She watches them again and again. She sleeps in his No. 58 jersey, and whenever she sees one around town, she gets a big smile and elbows her mom.
“She's thinking about it 100 more times than I know about,” Harmon says. “It's hard. Sometimes I wonder: am I telling her enough? Am I reminding her enough? Am I doing enough for her? I don't want to cram it down her throat. Because when he first died, she didn't want to hear his name.”
It took awhile for Alexa to come around after the funeral. A few months later, the healing began. She made him a card. She liked making him cards.
“This is for my dad,” she said.
Harmon began to cry.
“Remember, we talked,” she explained. “Your dad went to heaven.”
“I know,” little Alexa said sweetly. “We'll just put it outside and let the wind blow it up.”
Derrius Thomas, 8
Mother: Terri Kendall
They stayed in Kansas City for a while, but Terri Kendall knew when it was time to go. It's a hard thing to be connected to Derrick Thomas in Kansas City. The women who were in his life still have trouble dating. Many men are unwilling to compete with the legend.
For Thomas' children, it can be worse. Everyone expects them to exude athletic greatness. So Kendall packed up, left her job as executive director of the Third and Long Foundation and moved to Atlanta.
“I didn't want Derrius to grow up in that shadow, because it would always be brought up,” Kendall says. “The tragedy. The whole thing.”
Lately, Derrius has been dipping his toe back into that immense shadow. On her lunch break at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where she works, Kendall proudly pulls out a football card: Derrius Thomas. He plays defense, of course.
“I waited until he asked,” she says. “Initially, he didn't understand why he couldn't play offense, because he was bigger than a lot of the other kids. He talked to Uncle Neil and he talked to Uncle 'Tez and they explained the importance of playing defense. And then we got some tapes of his dad.”
Uncle Neil is former Chiefs star Neil Smith, Thomas' best friend. Uncle 'Tez is Cortez Kennedy, another NFL star and friend.
“He watched the tapes, then he decided he was better than his dad because he got an interception,” Kendall says, laughing out loud. “He didn't know what to do with it.”
Thomas' friends still check on Derrius, making sure he's OK. Former Steelers Pro Bowler Greg Lloyd teaches him tae kwan do, often cracking: “You're just like your dad. You don't want to practice.”
John Guy, a former coach at Thomas' alma mater, the University of Alabama, and now director of pro personnel for the Buffalo Bills, calls to check in. He tries to fill some of the daddy roles. About a year ago, he was getting some tennis shoes from the Bills equipment staff to send to Derrius. Quarterback Alex Van Pelt, who briefly played with Thomas, asked who they were for.
“Derrick Thomas' kid.”
“Oh, man,” Van Pelt said. “Let me tell you a story.”
When Van Pelt was new to the league, Thomas had befriended him. Introduced him to Hank Williams Jr. Gotten him on stage with the singer. It was just what an NFL nobody needed.
And so, when he heard what Guy was doing, Van Pelt bought those shoes for Derrius. A small favor to quietly honor his friend.
Kennedy is more ostentatious. He sends PlayStations and gives $100 handshakes. In return, he gets to check report cards.
“He's doing great in school,” Kennedy says of Derrius. “It makes me feel good. I know how Derrick loved his kids.”
Micayla Pierce-Thomas, 6
Mother: Dee Dee Shannon
Brother and sister are wrestling. Micayla Pierce-Thomas is bigger than her younger sibling Dakota, so she's taking it easy on him. Until he gets a bit too rough.
“You're gonna pay for that,” she says, giggling as they roll around on the kitchen floor in their spacious Kearney home.
Dee Dee Shannon watches from the table. She is the only one of the mothers who is married. Some of the other moms have lost track with her. She's doing fine, running a home day care and living in this rural suburb. Her days as an exotic dancer are long past.
About four years ago, she met and married Mike Shannon. Micayla even introduced them, walking up to Shannon at their old apartment complex and saying, “Hi!”
“He's awesome,” Dee Dee says. “I cry on his shoulder about Derrick and talk to him about it, and it doesn't bother him.”
For Micayla, Derrick Thomas is a collection of things she's heard. She doesn't remember him; she was only 18 months old when he died. Derrick had a thing about spending more time with the kids as they grew out of diapers. He loved having the kids around to play with. He was a big kid himself.
It was Dee Dee Shannon who said after the funeral that her daughter had to share her daddy with all the kids in Kansas City.
The biggest thing Micayla knows about her dad is that he's gone. Like her younger brothers and sisters who didn't get to really know their father, she can't imagine his smile. He is an abstraction, a sound in the sky. Thunder used to frighten her until Dee Dee explained, “Daddy's up there and he just made a sack.”
Micayla liked that. Imagining bleachers of angels applauding. Still, she has been feeling the loss lately. She wonders why she's different from her brother, Mike and Dee Dee's son.
“She's started the whole, ‘Why isn't my last name the same as everybody else's?' ” Dee Dee Shannon says. “ ‘Why doesn't everybody in the family look exactly like me?' ”
Later, Micayla runs upstairs. Her mother opens a trunk and pulls out things left behind. Plaques. A mini No. 58 jersey Thomas bought for Micayla. The T-shirt all the kids wore at the funeral, the one that said: “Your eternal flame will burn in our hearts forever.” And there is a faded photograph of a familiar face kissing her on the cheek. For all Thomas did for his kids, he can't do something as simple as kiss his daughter goodnight.
“Who's that?” Micayla is asked.
“Derrick Thomas,” she says.
“Who's that?” she's asked again.
She grins, her teeth a bit crooked, her eyes innocent and wide.
“My dad,” she says.
from Kansas City.com