MAXWELL:  Thomas was “someone who made a difference’

2/13/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Nearly each week, front pages of newspapers and nightly television reports are filled with so many tales of amateur and professional athletes who have committed crimes or engaged in such anti-social behavior that many of us believe most athletes are thugs.

Of course, most athletes are not thugs. And many who run afoul of the law in their younger, testosterone-soaked years go on to redeem themselves _ if given a second chance _ and become model citizens.

Let me illustrate.

In 1994, I began the process of establishing a charitable foundation that would promote literacy and would give college scholarships to students, mainly minorities, who want become journalists.

To avoid reinventing the wheel, as it were, I decided to speak with selected African-Americans, especially professional athletes, who had established similar organizations. The first person I spoke with was Derrick Thomas, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Pro Bowl linebacker who wore that scary number 58. I spoke with Derrick first because I knew him in South Florida, where I watched his high school team annually beat up on my old school.

Somehow, I knew he would level with me about his Third and Long Foundation. As we spoke, I saw his vision of serving others, especially children. Derrick was much more than the one-man wrecking crew who terrorized quarterbacks and the linemen trying to block him. He was more than the kid who was arrested twice for stealing a car and burglarizing a home.

He also was the Derrick whose Third and Long Foundation was honored as the 832nd of President Bush’s 1,000 points of light. The foundation was established to fight illiteracy among inner-city youth. Last year alone, it raised $43,000 for 30 scholarships.

Before college, his life was spiraling out of control. He was saved by teachers, judges, parents and, of course, coaches who grabbed him by the collar and put him on the right path.

The wonderful result was that Derrick dedicated his life to helping kids.

This is what he told Miami Herald sports columnist Dan Le Batard in 1998: “People cared for me, so now I care back. It’s not important what I do in this game. What matters is 20 years from now, if I’m walking down the street and a doctor or lawyer or teacher says I made a difference in their life. Having the most sacks in NFL history? That’ll be great. Winning the Super Bowl? That’ll be great. But I want to be remembered as someone who made a difference.”

One Saturday morning during the summer of 1993, I was in Miami and heard that Derrick would be at a branch of the public library in Liberty City. There, I witnessed a moving experience, as this big, fierce linebacker sat with a group of black children and read to them for more than an hour. After the session, he asked the children to promise to obey their parents and teachers and to make good grades in school.

One football season, as Le Batard reports, Derrick went from locker to locker in the Chiefs dressing room and demanded at least $100 from his teammates because he needed $14,000. Why? He wanted to feed 750 families.

Then, Le Batard writes, there was the time Derrick wrote a single check for $61,500 to the Kansas City public library to wipe out library fines inner-city children owed. And he thought nothing of giving 18 strangers a full ride to their college or university of choice.

As sports fans know, Derrick, 33, died on Tuesday afternoon in Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was being treated for injuries suffered in a car accident on Jan. 23. The good news out of Kansas City is that Derrick’s teammates and others will keep the Third and Long Foundation operating.

Derrick’s story contains an object lesson: Society should not be so quick to wash its hands of troubled inner-city children, especially athletes who someday may have the desire, the vision, the money and the name recognition to perform exemplary work for others.

Here, I think of Florida State University football standout Peter Warrick. If you recall, the 22-year-old wide receiver, along with teammate Laveranues Coles, was arrested last season for talking a Dillard’s department store worker into selling them $412.38 worth of designer clothes for $21.40. As a repeat offender, Coles was kicked out of school. As a first-time offender, Warrick has to serve one year of probation with no jail time, pay $579 in restitution and $295 in court costs, stay out of Dillard’s, spend 30 days in a work program and donate the discounted clothes to the Children’s Home Society.

At the time, I said that Warrick’s punishment was appropriate, and he should have been given a second chance. I say it again.

Here is a young man (I have spoken with him by telephone) who says he has learned from the incident. He says he has matured. I believe him. And I believe that he has the potential to become another Derrick Thomas _ “someone who made a difference.”