Every Pro Football Hall of Fame class has good stories and eloquent speeches. One of the most compelling this weekend, as the Hall inducts six new members, is Derrion Thomas, son of the late Derrick Thomas. There's going to be a tear or two shed when Derrion comes up on the video board before his dad's bust is unveiled Saturday night at the Hall here.
As has been well-documented, Thomas was a superb pass rusher for the Kansas City Chiefs and a concerned citizen. His personal flaw, perhaps, was that he fathered seven children, with multiple women, and was not married. When Thomas died from injuries sustained in a January 2000 car crash, the oldest son, Derrion, now 19, became the man of the family.
Derrion used to sit at the 50-yard-line at Arrowhead Stadium for Chiefs home games, and he and his father would talk about school, life and most anything but football as he grew. Derrion was a swimmer in his formative years, then followed in his dad's footsteps by becoming a pass rusher at Blue Springs South High in the Kansas City area. In his senior season last fall, his team faced prohibitive favorite Rockhurst in the Class 6 state quarterfinals, and the day of the game, one of his dad's old friends from the Chiefs, equipment man Allen Wright, asked him to come by Arrowhead Stadium beforehand.
"When the accident happened and Derrick passed away, we took all his equipment and put it in a trunk and locked it away," Wright said this week. "We figured someday his mom or the Hall of Fame would want it. But with this game coming up for Derrion, I just got the idea in the back of my mind that maybe this was the special moment and we should open the trunk. Derrion came by, and I said, 'You got something a little extra for Rockhurst? This is a big game.' And I gave him his dad's shoulder pads. It was, well, it was very emotional for both me and him.''
Said Derrion: "It was surreal. I could not believe it. I didn't even know the pads still were around.''
Derrion is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. His dad played at 6-3, 243. Derrion didn't even know if the pads would fit. But they did -- like a glove. When he put them on for the first time, he thought the pads had been through a lot, and he couldn't wear them and not play great.
"When I put them on, I just knew I had to try to play at the level he played at,'' said Derrion. "I felt like he was with me. I don't want to say it was exactly like this, but I felt like I really had to live up to his legacy that night.''
Rockhurst, one of the favorites for the state title, got blitzkrieged by Derrion Thomas that night. His five sacks -- a career best -- led Blue Springs South to a 14-9 upset victory. "I never felt like that before in a game, that energized,'' he said.
This weekend, Derrion will bring the shoulder pads to Canton, to share them with the Hall of Fame. He thought of bringing the pads with him to the University of Missouri, where he'll be a walk-on freshman linebacker this fall, but he thought they belonged with his father's bust. For posterity.
When an enshrinee is deceased, a video tribute to him is played, then an acceptance speech is made by someone who was particularly meaningful to him. NFL Films recently interviewed Derrion for the video piece, and former Chiefs president Carl Peterson, who was close to Thomas, will speak for him.
The weekend kicks off Friday afternoon with an enshrinees' luncheon. Some 82 Hall of Famers will be there, and old war stories will be swapped. Friday night, 4,000 will gather at the Canton Civic Center for the annual enshrinees dinner, when the yellow coats will be formally presented to the Class of 2009 -- Rod Woodson, Bruce Smith, Ralph Wilson, Randall McDaniel and the families of the late Thomas and Bob Hayes. Saturday is the enshrinement, at 7 p.m., followed by Sunday night's game between Tennessee and Buffalo to kick off the NFL preseason.
1. I think we'll hear an inspiring speech from McDaniels, the long-time guard for Tampa Bay and Minnesota. He now teaches special-needs children, and he's become a devoted spokesman for service and taking care of all children. Look for him to use his national platform to advance what he feels is a vital national cause.
2. I think I expect the biggest hand Saturday night to go to the 90-year-old Bills owner, Wilson. The Hall expects up to 15,000 Bills fans to make the three-hour trek from western New York to thank him for not bailing on Buffalo for a lucrative sales price elsewhere as the economy in Buffalo collapsed.
3. I think the one man the Hall is thrilled to see come back is Lance Alworth, who hasn't returned since his enshrinement in 1978. It's big for the Hall, particularly this year. The American Football League was founded 50 years ago this month, and Alworth was one of the league's keystones.
4. I think one of the proudest Hall of Famers returning is John Madden. And yes, even in retirement, he arrived on his bus.
5. I think this would be my early gut feeling on the odds for induction for the first-time eligibles for the 2010 Hall of Fame class: Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice, shoo-ins; Aeneas Williams 3-1; Tim Brown 4-1 (because of competition from Cris Carter).
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