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A Community Mourns: Remembering the Tragic Passing of Derrick Thomas

Thomas passed away in February of 2000

It has become the course that professional football goes into a deep sleep after the conclusion of each Super Bowl. The hibernation is disturbed only in the opening days of unrestricted free agency and the plodding preparation that accompanies the annual draft.

But in the opening month of 2000, however, the grizzly did not even lie down, let alone lapse into dreamless sleep.

On roads made slippery by a sudden snow storm and accompanying white-out, nine-time pro bowler and team icon Derrick Thomas was involved in an automobile accident that left one man dead and Thomas partially paralyzed. Thomas' unexpected death two weeks later from a blood clot shook the Chiefs organization and town like nothing had in the history of the franchise.

For nearly ten days, an outpouring of sympathy and support few could have imagined swept down on the Chiefs and the Thomas family. Indeed, the team was quick to develop a separate website to address his recovery and then the funeral arrangements leading up and including his final burial two weeks later in Miami.

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas (58) runs to make a tackle during a 1996 NFL game.

As thousands streamed by the casket in the east end-zone of Arrowhead Stadium it became abundantly clear that what the people of Kansas City were feeling for Derrick Thomas and really the Chiefs franchise was all-consuming and could not be ignored. The line of mourners did not stop from early morning to evening.

"This is the saddest day in Kansas City sports history," said Steve Warczarkoski of Kansas City, Kansas, according to the Associated Press. "My favorite football player of all time."

One woman carried her nine-month old daughter down the steps of the stadium. "Someday she'll be able to say she was here," the woman said. "I've been a season-ticket holder since Arrowhead opened," said Connie McQuain of Independence, Missouri. "I saw Derrick his entire career and like everybody else in town, I feel like I knew him."

"What I think back to most of all is how this community comes together and all the beautiful people there are in this town," said Fred Patek, the Kansas City Royals' star shortstop during the glory years of the 1970s.

Comparing a candlelight vigil for Thomas as a "smaller version of the scene outside the Dakota apartment building after the death of John Lennon or the home of John F. Kennedy, Jr. two decades later," the Topeka Capital-Journal noted that the tribute was "Buckingham Palace after the death of Princess Diana, the lawn of Columbine High School."

"Friends called friends. Family called family," wrote The Kansas City Star. "[The news] went through like a wave. People told each other as they passed in the halls, coming out of meetings...on the radio...heard grown men and women getting very emotional."

"When I moved here from Detroit, I fell in love with two things: barbecue and the Chiefs," said Virgil Villarreal.

And finally, these words by Stephanie Rahm of Kansas City, Missouri: "Kansas City's going to mourn. Everybody loves the Chiefs. It doesn't matter if they win or lose."