Former Mississippi State quarterback Tony Shell can curl his tongue into the back left corner of his mouth and remember the time Derrick Thomas hit him 30 years ago. It was the last Saturday in October, overcast and damp inside Davis Wade Stadium, and Shell made the mistake of not wearing a mouthpiece when Thomas, Alabama’s once-in-a-generation pass-rusher, tracked him down in the backfield, lowered his head and delivered the crushing blow.
Thomas’ helmet met squarely with Shell’s face mask, cracked the quarterback’s tooth and added yet another memento to what would go down as an unforgettable season.
“When it happened,” Shell said, “the hit, I saw a spark.”
Jeff Francis knows the feeling. The former Tennessee quarterback’s injury came at the hands of Thomas two weeks earlier, inside Neyland Stadium, and he still feels it today. Francis tried to escape to his right — “That didn’t work well,” he said sarcastically — and Thomas was on him in the blink of an eye, pulling Francis down to the ground, landing on his shoulder and creating a separation in the area of the collarbone that never fully healed.
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“He was just quick as a cat,” Francis said.
Not every hit from Thomas required medical attention, of course. Former Texas A&M quarterback Lance Pavlas said he was happy to escape with nothing but a “hurt ego” when Thomas sacked him a season-high five times in the final game of the regular season. And even then Pavlas’ confidence was lifted when Thomas was later inducted into both the Pro Football and College Football Halls of Fame.
Thirty years ago this fall, Thomas first etched his name in the history books when he recorded 27 sacks, a mark that still stands to this day.
Derrick Thomas could be the greatest pure pass-rusher ever to play college football. Courtesy of Crimson Tide Photos/UA Athletics
His death in 2000, at age 33 after a car crash, would rock the sport, but his legacy would live on as perhaps the greatest pure pass-rusher ever to play college football. Picture Von Miller or Jadeveon Clowney or another other modern-day edge rusher. You can trace them all back to Thomas, who could line up anywhere — standing up, his hand in the dirt, it didn’t matter — and get to the quarterback.
In an effort to capture exactly what it was like to play against him, ESPN spoke to eight of the 10 quarterbacks he sacked in 1988. Each of them had a story to tell about the weakside linebacker from Miami, the son of an Air Force captain and the pioneer of a new breed of defenders.
Three of those sacks came against a once-undersized, dual-threat quarterback out of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana). Brian Mitchell would go on to become a three-time All-Pro selection and Super Bowl champion as a running back and return specialist, but first he had to get his bell rung by Thomas on a breezy day inside Legion Field in Birmingham.
“People always ask me the hardest I’ve ever been hit in my life and I tell everybody it was by him in that game,” Mitchell said. “We were constantly worried about Derrick. I remember dropping to the left and then I set up to throw the ball and I got hit and I was hyperventilating. I jumped up and started running to the sidelines. I started at the 35-yard line and ended up at the 50 because I was a little dazed.”
Mitchell remembers getting back to his apartment on campus after the game and asking his girlfriend, “Is there a little bruise on my back?”
“She said, ‘Little bruise?! It’s damn near half your back!'” Mitchell recalled. “I had never taken a hit like that.”
Thomas had what can only be described as a presence.
It wasn’t his size that impressed you. At 6-foot-4, he checked in at a relatively trim 230 pounds.
It wasn’t his voice, either. He might have been taken one pick ahead of Deion Sanders in the first round of the 1989 NFL draft, but Thomas wasn’t flashy like “Prime Time.”
Teams tried to devise a game plan against Thomas, but nothing seemed to slow him down. Allen Steele/Getty Images
“He was intimidating because he went about his business,” Mitchell said. “There are some people that do a lot of talking on the field. Some people, like Reggie White, they’re the nicest people in the world but still you have to respect what they can do. Derrick was kind of more on the Reggie White-type situation where he didn’t do all the talking, he just made play after play. That’s where his intimidation came from, the fact that you knew what he was capable of. And I think you fear and you give more respect to the guy that doesn’t say a lot. They do what they’re supposed to do and they go back to the huddle. That’s the guy you can’t figure out. The guy that’s doing a lot of talking, they give you a way of countering what they do. But he didn’t do any of that. He kept you guessing.”
What struck former Ole Miss quarterback Mark Young most, though, was Thomas’ intensity and just how “fierce” he was. It was like he was a man among boys, Young said. He had so much confidence, everything looked easy.
“Just the way he carried himself, the charisma he had,” Young said. “I’ll equate it to Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods, you know 10 years ago when he was dominating, when he walks onto a golf course, especially in his prime, it was like he walked out there and carried this aura about him, this charisma about him that, ‘I’m better than you. I’m the best on the field.’ That’s what it was. He’d line up and it was like, ‘You can’t block me.’ It was like he could call his shot. ‘I’m going to come at this angle right here, I’m going to use this move on you, and you won’t be able to stop me.’ And he was just that dominant.”
Teams tried to concoct a game plan for Thomas. They tried keeping a running back or a tight end in to chip him at the line of scrimmage. They would try sliding an extra offensive lineman over to help. Maybe they’d try both, and even those triple-teams didn’t work all the time.
Not everyone warrants that kind of attention, but former LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson said Thomas definitely did.
“I just remember we always had to account for him all the time and have two people blocking him,” he said. “But obviously we didn’t do a very good job because he had three sacks.”
Texas A&M, for its part, tried to get rid of the ball quickly. But, as Pavlas said, “If you held onto it just a little too long, he’d be there.”
Temple, meanwhile, tried to steer clear of him by having former quarterback Matt Baker run the triple option. The problem? Alabama caught on to the Owls’ motions, taking the pitch back away.
“So you imagine yourself: It’s you against him,” Baker said. “It was not a good feeling. I remember a couple of times, even when you tried to use some athletic ability to fake him or anything of that nature just to get him off balance — again I go back to the redirect he had, you just couldn’t. He would size you up and put you down. I remember one time he just smoked me right in the chest and just rung my bell a little bit. Todd McNair, who was my running back and played for the Chiefs for a while as well, I remember him coming to the sideline and saying, ‘Hey, he knows what we’re doing.’ They were taking him away. Then it was me against Derrick Thomas. Now who is going to win that battle? It was like getting hit by a truck, it really was.”
Texas A&M quarterback Lance Pavlas is sacked by Thomas in 1988, a familiar occurrence for QBs facing the Tide that season. AP Photo/David Breslauer
If there was a common refrain from opponents, it was just how impressed they were with Thomas’ quickness. To be that big and that fast and that strong was almost unfair.
As it turns out, he was so unique that he’s credited with creating the position of edge rusher.
“I think he was kind of the prototype,” Pavlas said. “He was kind of the cutting edge of what the outside linebacker was becoming. He was a tremendous athlete, great quickness. He had a unique agility that you saw only on offensive players.”
Said former Auburn quarterback Reggie Slack: “He was one of the players that made that position one of the new glamour positions. … For an offensive coordinator or an offensive tackle and quarterback to go into a game and know that the guy coming off the corner there like Derrick Thomas, with all the skill set he has, is definitely something you had to be concerned about.”
It’s silly, really. Twenty-seven sacks in a single season? That just doesn’t happen.
Central Michigan’s Joe Ostman and Arkansas State’s Ja’Von Rolland-Jones finished Nos. 1 and 2 in sacks per game last season, respectively, and they combined for 27 sacks. The closest anyone has come to Thomas’ mark in the past decade was in 2014, when Washington’s Hau’oli Kikaha and Utah’s Nate Orchard each had 19.
Ironically, some of the quarterbacks ESPN spoke to didn’t even know they were part of what’s viewed as one of the game’s most unattainable records.
“We don’t get caught up in stats, but that’s phenomenal,” Hodson said. “Twenty-seven sacks? I did not know that.”
But even the sacks don’t tell the full story.
“I just remember we always had to account for him all the time and have two people blocking him. But obviously we didn’t do a very good job because he had three sacks.”
Former LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson
To be clear, what you’re about to read isn’t a typo. This is Thomas’ actual stat line from the 1988 season: 88 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, 44 quarterback pressures and two blocked kicks.
“Forty-four pressures?” Baker said. “Oh my Lord. That is just astounding.”
“Um, well, that’s just astonishing,” Shell said. “I lived it, but to think about that, nobody does that kind of stuff.”
“I think that sums it up,” Baker said. “Derrick Thomas, the best.”
To a man, no one who played against Thomas was surprised when he was drafted fourth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in 1989, made the first of nine Pro Bowls as a rookie that season and led the league in sacks a year later.
Mitchell, who was drafted in the NFL a year after Thomas, said that to this day he’s never seen anyone quite like him. Asked if he reminded him of anyone in particular, Mitchell had to name a few of the game’s greats.
“Dwight Freeney with a Von Miller with a little Reggie White in him,” he said. “The thing about Derrick was he was as quick as those guys, he had that spin move like a Freeney, but he was powerful enough to go through you. I don’t think one person really lives up to what he was in my book.”
When Thomas was left paralyzed from the chest down following a car crash in late January 2000, it sent shock waves through the NFL and college football. Two weeks later, at 33, he died of a pulmonary embolism.
Slack got the call from a friend in tears. Like so many others, he couldn’t believe it. Baker, for his part, said he was “totally taken aback” when he got the news.
“It was one of those situations where when you hear it you can’t believe it,” Mitchell said. “I’ll be honest with you, I was a fan of Derrick Thomas. When you get to the pros, you’re at the peak of your career, but there were still guys I looked up to and loved watching play, a lot of guys I played in college. And he was definitely one of those guys I watched and wanted to see have success. And then when I heard he was no longer with us, it was a somber moment. For me, as much as I try to be Mr. Tough Guy, I can be emotional and I cried.”
According to the Associated Press, Thomas’ funeral lasted more than five hours and featured 11 speakers, including Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Among the floral arrangements at the service was a bouquet that read “Bama 55.”
All these years later, Mitchell said he remembers Thomas being a genuine person.
“Down-to-earth, fun-loving,” he said. “But when he got on the football field, he knew how to flip that switch.”
People can talk all they want about Clowney and Myles Garrett and whoever the next so-called star pass-rusher is. But to those who played against him, there has never been and nor will there ever be another Derrick Thomas.
Ask Hodson and he’ll tell you that if they put Thomas in today’s pass-happy SEC versus the run-heavy conference it was then, he would have had even more sacks — “no doubt,” he said.
“He could do whatever he wanted to do and we couldn’t block him,” Young said. “I hate to say that with my buddies on the front line, but he was just that dominant. I remember one time he drilled me in the back. … He just drilled me. He had such power, but he was just an incredible athlete. His speed, his quickness, and then power. And his ability to cover. Like I said, out of all the guys I played against — unbelievable, unbelievable defensive guys — and Derrick Thomas is No. 1 of all time for me.”
Said Pavlas: “I am proud I got the chance to play against him and probably added to his sack total quite a bit. But at least I got the chance to play against someone that special.”