Sept. 12, 2014
By Steve Irvine
Kermit Kendrick laughed while recalling the time he gave up a long touchdown pass on an October afternoon when the University of Alabama was playing host to Penn State at Legion Field. It helps soften the memory that the touchdown was called back because of holding but it’s what happened afterwards that is what makes the memory fond.
On his way back to the defensive huddle, teammate Derrick Thomas stopped by for some encouragement.
“I remember Derrick comes over to me saying, `don’t worry, he won’t have time to throw the ball deep anymore’,” Kendrick said.
It was more than talk. By the end of that memorable afternoon, Thomas’s stunning stat line included three sacks, nine quarterback hurries and a safety. Penn State had just 21 second half yards and Alabama walked away with an 8-3 victory.
Earlier that month, Alabama was struggling at Kentucky, trailing midway through the second half. At one point, Kentucky’s offense broke the huddle and received a stern message from Alabama’s best defensive player.
“We are Alabama and we don’t lose to Kentucky,” Thomas said that day.
Once again, it wasn’t merely talk. His teammates responded to Thomas’s words and the Crimson Tide escaped with a 31-27 victory over the Wildcats. Thomas’s stat line that afternoon: 14 tackles, four sacks, blocked punt and blocked field goal.
Thomas showed early on that he was prepared to make an impact at the college level. Early in his first fall camp at Alabama, then-assistant coach Sylvester Croom, who was coaching the inside linebackers, stopped practice to deliver a message to the defense.
“I just want to remind y’all that’s a freshman, that’s not a bad job right there,” Croom told the defense as he referred to Thomas on that August afternoon.
Finding stories about Thomas’s heroics on the football field is not difficult, whether you’re talking about his time at South Miami Senior High School in Miami, with the Crimson Tide, or during a NFL Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs. His production at Alabama is mind boggling. He had a NCAA-record 27 sacks in 1988, his final college football season, and finished his career with 52 sacks. Thomas joined a line of successful defensive end/outside linebackers for the Crimson Tide, following such Alabama legends as E.J. Junior and Cornelius Bennett, but he may have simply been the best pass rusher from that position in college football history.
Former Alabama head coach Bill Curry, who inherited Thomas after taking when Ray Perkins left for the NFL, has said on various occasions that Thomas was the best football player he ever coached.
Thomas, who died in February of 2000, was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame in May of this year. It was an honor that was long overdue. But, as Kendrick said when asked of his thoughts on the delay, “The focus should be on the honor rather than why it took so long.”
On Saturday, during the Crimson Tide’s non-conference game against Southern Miss at Bryant Denny Stadium, Thomas will be presented to the Tide nation as a Hall of Fame inductee. The ceremony, which is put on by The University of Alabama and the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame, is part of the `NFF Hall of Fame On-Campus Salute’ for the new inductees. Edith Morgan, Derrick’s mother, will represent her son during the ceremony.
It will be easy for most in attendance to remember stories of Thomas’s exploits on the field, whether at Alabama or in the NFL. What also can’t be forgotten, to people that knew Thomas, was what type of person he was off the field.
“The first thing that jumps out to me, if Derrick could help you in any way he would do it, whether it was for a charitable cause or unloading the trunk of your car,” Kendrick said. “If he could help you, if you needed him, you didn’t have to ask, he would be there and do it.”
Thomas participated in many charitable causes. He founded the Derrick Thomas Third and Long foundation while playing in the NFL. One of the foundation’s objectives was to “sack illiteracy” as it focused on helping children in urban Kansas City.
Kendrick said that Thomas “always saw the glass full” and proclaimed that he was “married to football.” But Kendrick added that Thomas was always good at finding ways to have fun. One example came after the two had played in the Japan Bowl, a postseason All-Star game, after their senior season. They were slated to go directly to the game to participate in the Senior Bowl. But the journey was slowed by flight problems in Los Angeles.
“We missed our connecting flight and they weren’t going to get us out until midnight,” Kendrick said. “Derrick, being typical Derrick, took up the leadership and said we know a few folks from playing in the game, we should call them up and try to have some fun until it’s time we get on the flight to go to Mobile. That was Derrick. I’m all worried about how much time I’m missing in front of the NFL scout and he’s just trying to have fun because there is nothing we can do to make our flight come in early.”
On and off the field, Thomas was adept at making things happen.