KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -When Air Force jets roared over Arrowhead Stadium in patriotic pregame ceremonies, it used to mean big trouble for visiting quarterbacks.
Derrick Thomas, the son of a pilot lost in Vietnam during Operation Linebacker II, always seemed quicker, bolder and even more punishing on those days. That's when Kansas City's great pass-rushing linebacker would summon every ounce of his talent.
Those skills carried Thomas, who died in 2000, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
``I always think of my dad when I see the military planes,'' the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder 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.''
homas got his hands on Seattle's Dave Krieg nine times that afternoon and sacked him seven, an NFL record that still stands.
That game signaled to the league that long-woeful Kansas City was no longer a sad collection of flops and also-rans.
An Alabama All-American and the first player drafted by new general manager Carl Peterson in 1989, Thomas energized a franchise turnaround that catapulted Kansas City into perennial contender status. Before dying of injuries sustained in a one-car accident, Thomas would smash team records for sacks, safeties, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles.
``Derrick was one of those rare players - there aren't many - that an offense has to be aware of every time the ball is snapped,'' said Gunther Cunningham, who was either defensive coordinator or head coach for most of Thomas' 11 seasons in KC.
Thomas' Chiefs won 100 games in the 1990s and captured four AFC West titles. Suddenly, a lethargic fan base which had lost interest during 15 years of mediocrity became transformed. A perennially sold-out Arrowhead gained a reputation as one of the toughest, loudest stadiums in the league.
Thanks greatly to the fun-loving, charismatic linebacker with the phenomenal quickness and light-up-a-room smile.
kness to get around you and the strength to overpower you,'' Cunningham said. ``That combination is hard to find.''
His signature play, appropriately for a community that claims the world's greatest barbecue, took its name from a cut of meat.
Charging around a hapless blocker, he would close in from the quarterback's blind side. As the crowd caught its breath, he'd reach out and chop at the passer's hand, knocking the ball loose in what fans dubbed the Kansas City strip.
He seemed at his best when going against the best, sacking John Elway 14 times in Arrowhead. In one of the most memorable plays of his career, he victimized Denver's Hall of Famer for a Kansas City strip and recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown.
The one knock on Thomas was that he was one-dimensional, not very good against the run. He was benched in the final minutes of the Chiefs' loss to Buffalo in the 1994 AFC title game, a humiliation that haunted him the rest of his life.
But Peterson, who resigned last month, said there was no weakness to Derrick Thomas.
n extraordinary number, were the result of him coming up from behind the ball carrier and knocking the ball out.''
Thomas' license plate read, ``ISACQBS'' and was frequently parked at the city's most fashionable night spots. While going to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii nine straight times, he picked up the nickname, ``social director of the NFL.''
On Jan. 23, 2000, as he hurried to the airport to fly to St. Louis for the NFC championship game, the car Thomas was driving flipped over on a snowy highway.
He was not wearing his seat belt and was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining injuries that emergency personnel said would probably have killed most men. A passenger who was also not wearing his seat belt was hurled out of the SUV and died at the scene. A second passenger whose seat belt was fastened walked away.
Fifteen days later, Thomas was being prepared for therapy in a Miami hospital. He said to his mother, ``Mom, I don't feel good,'' and died instantly of a blood clot. He was 33.
Thousands of Kansas Citians who'd never met him grieved as though they'd lost a close friend. On a cold, gray February day, they lined up outside the stadium, silently trooped onto the field and past his open casket that sat in the corner of the same end zone where he sacked Elway and stripped him of the ball.
000 people, more than attended some games before Thomas helped turn the Chiefs into winners, paid their solemn respects to No. 58.
Cunningham's wife had to pull him away.
``I felt like I'd lost a son,'' he said.

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