From the first time Marty Schottenheimer saw Derrick Thomas at the University of Alabama, the Kansas City Chiefs head coach knew he was watching greatness.
Marty Schottenheimer remembers exactly what he was doing when he got the fateful news. The former NFL head coach of the Browns, Chiefs, Redskins and Chargers was on a golf course in Naples, Fla.
It was February 2000 and Schottenheimer was out of coaching, two years removed as Kansas City’s head coach and a year away from taking over the Redskins.
“It was a sight you don’t ever like to see when you’re golfing,” Schottenheimer said. “When you’re on a golf course, you don’t ever want to see someone in a cart coming toward you with no clubs in his cart. We were on the 16th hole, a par 5, and I hit my third shot onto the green.”
That’s when Schottenheimer saw the clubless cart coming his way. Something was wrong.
Schottenheimer knew his former Kansas City star, Derrick Thomas, was in a Miami hospital trying to recover from a car accident that left him paralyzed. Schottenheimer had driven to Miami a couple of times to visit Thomas in the hospital.
“The guy in the cart said, ‘Marty, you need to call your wife. It’s not an emergency with your family, but you need to call her,’ ” Schottenheimer said.
That’s when Schottenheimer learned that Thomas, who perfected the Kansas City Strip, had died at 33 years old.
Some memories of Thomas are framed portraits in Schottenheimer’s mind. He remembers the first time he and new Kansas City General Manager Carl Peterson went to the University of Alabama to look at Thomas. They were smitten with him then and decided on their way back that Thomas would be their first draft pick together.
“The thing about Derrick is your opponents had to address his presence on the field, and if you didn’t, he was going to wreck havoc with you,” Schottenheimer said. “He had, to this day, the fastest first step I ever saw on a player getting off the ball.”
In his rookie season, Thomas had 10 sacks and 75 tackles. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year. After Schottenheimer and then-Defensive Coordinator Bill Cowher came up with new schemes in Thomas’ second season in 1990, he changed the game.
Thomas had 20 sacks, including an NFL-record seven in a game against Seattle. No player had more sacks in the 1990s than Thomas’ 1161⁄2. He finished with 1261⁄2.
Thomas was a defensive version of a home-run hitter. During his 11-year career, Thomas only picked off one pass. That is about the only criticism there is with Thomas’ stats, and even that had a reason.
The Chiefs didn’t drop one of the NFL’s greatest pass rushers into coverage.
“His job was to get the quarterback,” Schottenheimer said. “People would talk about his run-stopping ability. Let me tell you something, stopping the run isn’t about one guy. A defense that can’t stop the run is never about one guy.”
Thomas and Schottenheimer got along well. There was one game, in Denver, when Schottenheimer had to discipline his best player.
“He was late for a meeting the night before,” Schottenheimer said. “I told him he wasn’t starting, and he was really upset. It was national TV, and NFL players love national TV. He stood on the sideline with us the whole first quarter. He was like a caged animal.”