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Hall of Fame to induct late LB Derrick Thomas

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Marty Schottenheimer was walking up the 16th fairway near his Florida home when he noticed a golf cart hurrying toward him. It was someone from the golf shop.

""He told me, "Coach, you need to call your wife,' Schottenheimer said.

Pat Schottenheimer's voice was urgent.

""She said, "Marty, they called from Kansas City to say that Derrick has been in a serious accident,' he said.

She was talking about Derrick Thomas - a great young linebacker with a light-up-the-room smile, an All-Pro who turned the Chiefs back into winners. Thomas was unstoppable. Thomas was indestructible.

How could he be lying on a highway somewhere, broken, helpless, scared?

""I broke down in tears,' Schottenheimer said. ""I couldn't believe it. It was just horrible.'

Typically running late, Thomas was headed for the airport to catch a flight to St. Louis and watch the NFC championship game on Jan. 23, 2000. Police reports said he was speeding and weaving in and out of traffic when the SUV he was driving flipped and rolled on the snowy highway,

One passenger who was wearing his seat belt walked away. One who was not died instantly. Thomas, his seat belt unfastened, was hurled violently to the pavement.

At first there was hope he might live. But in a Miami hospital 16 days later, paralyzed from the chest down, he said, ""Mom, I don't feel good,' and died of a pulmonary embolism.

He was dead at 33. On Saturday, Thomas, one of greatest pass rushers in NFL history, will enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

Thomas was the first player drafted when general manager Carl Peterson and Schottenheimer took over the Chiefs in 1989. He provided the foundation for one of the league's great rebuilding jobs. The Chiefs had become NFL weaklings and there was even talk of the franchise leaving town before he arrived from Alabama as the overall No. 4 draft choice.

After an impressive performance during a preseason game his rookie year, a reporter remarked that Kansas City hadn't had an outside pass rush in about 15 years.

""Well, they've got one now,' he said, flashing what would become his trademark grin.

And how.

Quick and powerful and blessed with a rare ability to maintain his balance while keeping his hips low to the ground and pivoting around blockers, Thomas - No. 58 - was the most productive passer-smasher of the 1990s.

His 1161â "2 sacks from 1990-99 led the NFL. His 1261â "2 career sacks are a Chiefs record. One day in 1990 in a loss to Seattle, he sacked Dave Krieg seven times. Nineteen years later, it still stands as a one-game record.

""Derrick weighed 250-255 and we designed what we did to try to put him in a position to do what he did best,' Schottenheimer said. ""That was to go after the quarterback. You don't see many quarterbacks throwing effectively when they're looking over their back shoulder and wondering, "Who's that guy coming at me?'

Anchored by a tremendous defense, the Chiefs became the dominant team of the AFC West and trailed only the Bills and 49ers in total wins for the entire decade.

""Any time you can get a player, on offense or defense, who must become the focal point of the opponent, those kind of players are rare,' Schottenheimer said. ""He had to be accounted for on every play or he would beat you.'

The son of an Air Force pilot who died in Vietnam during Operation Linebacker II, Thomas was usually at his best when military jets made pregame flyovers. It was Veterans Day that he had the seven sacks against Seattle.

""I always think of my dad when I see the military planes,' he once said. ""It makes me feel sad that I had to grow up without him. But I guess it also gets my adrenaline going. I dedicate the game to him and I want to do my best for him.'

While his sack totals are a part of the record, the number of lives he helped save can never be known.

After the accident, a Missouri highway patrolman said he noticed that more drivers were wearing seat belts. His mother established MomstoMoms58, which sought to educate the public about seat belt safety. The lesson was not lost on Schottenheimer.

""I never wore a seat belt,' he said. ""I always said cynically that I didn't want to be trapped in the wreckage. But from that day on, I have used a seat belt without fail.'