Derrick Thomas stripped the football away from his opponents 41 times during his career as an NFL linebacker. When Thomas died unexpectedly at age 33, Kansas City was left to mourn its fallen hero.
The NFL Films documentary “A Football Life: Derrick Thomas,” chronicling Thomas’ contributions to the Chiefs and the region they call home, debuts Tuesday night on NFL Network at 8 p.m.
But some of Thomas’ biggest fans have been commemorating his life ever since his death on Feb. 8, 2000, less than a month after he was paralyzed in a traffic accident on an icy Interstate 435.
Ginger Hart hasn’t worn her favorite Chiefs jacket in 17 years.
Hart and her husband, Bruce, live Blue Springs and were Chiefs season-ticket holders from 1989-2011. Hart wore her jacket week after week to Chiefs games until Thomas signed it at his Third and Long Foundation event in 1996.
The moment ink touched the pristine white fabric, Hart vowed to never wear the jacket again.
Ginger and Bruce took their kids, who were young at the time, to Crown Center for Thomas’ Third and Long Foundation events around Christmas for a few years. Thomas would read Christmas books as the children circled around, and decorate ornaments and sign them.
Thomas co-founded the Third and Long Foundation with teammate Neil Smith. The foundation bills its mission as helping to “sack illiteracy” among inner-city youth in Kansas City.
“Derrick Thomas is the first NFL player to ever do it,” Hart said. “He started it.”
Hart was at Arrowhead to see Thomas sack a few opponents, too.
On Nov. 11, 1990, she watched Thomas set the league’s single-game sack record against the Seattle Seahawks. Thomas sacked Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg seven times that afternoon; Krieg barely evaded an eighth to toss the winning touchdown.
“Every time, he was through there and sacking Krieg,” Hart said. “He was unbelievable. Unbelievable.”
Bill Hansen bought a Derrick Thomas jersey during a Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium in 1990.
Hansen buys a new Chiefs jersey of a different player at the beginning of every season. But for years, the only jersey he wore was his Thomas jersey.
“I wore it religiously until the day he died,” Hansen said.
Hansen’s stomach hurt upon hearing the news of Thomas’ death.
“It was just bone-chilling,” Hansen said. “I still relive it. My second thought was, ‘Oh, my God. His kids.’ They’ll never be around a Hall of Fame football player — let alone their dad.”
Since Thomas’ death, Hansen has refused to wear his favorite jersey. Instead, it hangs on a basement wall at his home in Blue Springs. Next to it is a retro Chiefs jersey, which Thomas and former teammate Neil Smith signed on opposing shoulders.
Last month, Hansen’s son, Reid, asked if he could take his father’s Thomas jersey with him when he left for his freshman year at Missouri State University. Bill gave Reid his Glenn Dorsey jersey instead.
Nobody touches the Thomas jersey.
“Derrick Thomas is my favorite Kansas City Chief of all time,” Hansen said. “Period.”
Rick Moore’s love for the Chiefs is best quantified in miles.
Moore grew up in Kansas City and has been faithful to the Chiefs since his father took him to his first game in 1974. He was 8 years old at the time.
Moore has been a Chiefs season-ticket holder for 11 years. Nearly every Sunday, he travels approximately 200 miles with his wife, Carol, to Arrowhead from their home just north of Branson, Mo.
He attended a number of games before becoming a season-ticket holder, many of which included Thomas stealing the show. But one game — one moment not related to football — stands out.
It was 1998. The Seahawks were in town and brought the rain with them from Seattle. A torrential downpour accompanied frightening lightning and delayed the game for an hour.
But the scariest player on the field wasn’t scared.
“I’ll just never forget (Thomas) sitting in the middle of the field in a puddle of water,” Moore said. “It was just crazy — water was running down the stairs like a waterfall.”
Moore remembers being at work when he heard the news that Thomas had died.
“I definitely had to take a few minutes and try to process it,” Rick Moore said. “It was still a surprise even after he was hurt in the car accident. I certainly didn’t think he was in danger of dying.”
At a Chiefs game the following season, Rick had tears in his eyes watching the team’s tribute to Thomas.
In 2009, Rick and Carol traveled 800 miles to Canton, Ohio. They wanted to witness Thomas’ NFL Hall of Fame induction in person. It was their way to honor one of their favorite Chiefs.
“I didn’t know him personally, but you kind of felt like you did,” Moore said.
In life, Thomas was omnipresent in Kansas City. The nine-time Pro Bowler’s charitable work was recognized by the NFL in 1993, when he won the league’s Man of the Year award.
Thomas’ impact was so far-reaching that Lucy Franklin Elementary School, in Blue Springs, announced his death over the loudspeakers that morning.
“Something about him was just special,” said Hansen, the fan with the No. 58 jersey framed on his basement wall.
In coat closets, basements and memories across the Midwest, Thomas legacy lingers on ... and probably always will.