The Buffalo Bills already have a strong tie with the Kansas City Chiefs built into their history. Both were original member clubs of the American Football League and owners Ralph Wilson and the late Lamar Hunt were close friends. But on Hall of Fame weekend there will be another personal connection between Kansas City’s late Hall of Fame inductee Derrick Thomas and a member of Buffalo’s front office.
The year was 1987. The place, Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The Crimson Tide had just come off a Hall of Fame Bowl game loss to Michigan. The coaching staff had been replaced by new head coach Bill Curry and his staff, which included linebackers coach, John Guy, now Vice President of Pro Personnel for the Buffalo Bills.
“Cornelius (Bennett) was just leaving and Derrick had just played in the bowl game as a sophomore,” Guy recalled. “When I got there it was obvious he was talented. I watched the tape and thought this guy could be really special. We went through spring practice and I felt even better about it. I thought he could be really good.”
Having coached earlier in his career at North Carolina, Guy had visions of a certain Tar Heel linebacker that was on the Carolina roster when he coached the defensive line.
“I introduced Derrick to Lawrence Taylor,” said Guy. “I gave him Lawrence’s number, and told him to call Lawrence and talk to him. At the time Lawrence was tearing up the NFL.”
Taylor had just come off a season in which he had 20.5 sacks and the New York Giants had won the Super Bowl. Thomas took to Taylor quickly.
“He admired L.T.,” said Guy. “L.T. was his mark. From his college career and all the way through the pros L.T. was his guy. Whatever L.T. was doing he wanted to do it. He wanted to catch him. He wanted to be remembered in the same light. He wanted to be as good as L.T.”
So Guy took Thomas’ inspiration and put it to paper. He had Thomas put together a list of goals for his junior season.
“We road mapped his junior year and we accomplished a lot of what he had on that paper,” said Guy. “He was even up for the Butkus award, but lost to Paul McGowan of Florida State.”
Thomas was crushed that his impressive junior season, which included 18 sacks and seven forced fumbles was not good enough in the eyes of the voters.
“When the banquet was over he came to my room and he cried because he really wanted that Butkus award,” said Guy. “I told him, ‘Derrick, you will get to measure how good you are at the next level. You think you should have got it over McGowan, well let’s see who has the best pro career.’”
But before that pro career could begin, Thomas and Guy mapped out the linebacker’s senior season at Alabama.
“We sat down again senior year and went through his goals and he wanted to be team captain at Alabama and that’s important,” Guy said. “And he wanted to be a number one pick and all this and all that.”
But the Alabama coaching staff had to straighten Thomas out first. As his junior season went on, Thomas had been freelancing too much as a roaming linebacker and it compromised the responsibility of the other linebackers on the field with him. Head coach Bill Curry called out Thomas in a team meeting and Guy did not come to his defense. Thomas was livid.
“He wanted to fight me in that meeting,” said Guy. “I ignored him. So next day at practice he wanted to be the first in line and I’d throw him in the back. He wanted to be the first at everything and I’d throw him in the back. For three practices I did this, so then he said, ‘Something ain’t right, we’ve got to work this out.’
“So I called the linebackers up and asked them what he did wrong. And they said he exceeded his limits. He freelanced too much. That was the turning point and his future came to a head. You either play within the scheme or you don’t. And he was awesome his senior year.”
To the tune of an incomprehensible 27 sacks, 44 quarterback hurries and 12 tackles for loss. Thomas dominated in every sense of the word and in 1988 won the Butkus Award as the nation’s best college linebacker.
“He was competitive, but he was never an angry player,” said Guy. “I used to have to pinch his arm, slap his bicep or his tricep just to get him to go one more notch up. He was always ready, but he never knew where that next notch was. He wasn’t aware of what his full potential was, but he loved to play. He loved game day. He was a consummate teammate.”
Thomas’ monster senior year allowed him to check off another item on that list of goals as he became a first-round pick of the Chiefs selected fourth overall.
Guy remained close with Thomas, and eventually joined him in the pro ranks when he was hired to run Pittsburgh’s special teams unit in 1992 under Bill Cowher. They even faced each other one season when the Chiefs played the Steelers. Thomas had been struggling with his game at the time and actually went to visit Guy in his hotel room the day before the game.
“He asked me what he should do and I said, ‘I ain’t coaching you for this one,’” Guy recalled. “You want to talk to me after this game I’ll tell you, but right now I ain’t telling you.’”
Thomas confided in Guy and that level of trust became even more evident when he made his former position coach the godfather of his son Derrius.
“When he had Derrius he said, ‘That’s yours. You’re responsible for him,’” said Guy. “And ever since he’s been mine. I toilet trained that kid and I taught that kid how to swim. I talk to him three times a week. I monitor his grades. He’s goal oriented and bright and smart. He plays football and likes basketball. He’s in Atlanta. That’s my guy.”
In preparation for his father’s posthumous induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Guy made sure Derrius was properly outfitted.
“He’ll be ready,” said Guy.
Derrius was just four-years old when his father was in a severe car accident that left Thomas with a broken neck and spine and paralyzed. Two weeks later Thomas was gone due to a massive blood clot between his lungs and heart. He was 33.
“It was a bad day,” said Guy. “I don’t know where he was in his life at that time. I sometimes think he gave too much.”
Thomas was always generous with his time, his friendship and his money. Evidence of that is seen in his Third and Long Foundation, which earned him the 1993 Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Two years later he also won the Byron “Whizzer” White Humanitarian of the Year award.
“He was a likable guy, called everybody by a nickname,” said Guy. “The guy was a giver. He loved to play, but he cared about people. He took time to give back.”
That’s why Guy believes the contingent of fans in Canton for Thomas’ induction will be strong. The nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker was loved by anyone who came in contact with him, even his inspiration in football, Lawrence Taylor.
“L.T. had a lot of influence on him inspirationally,” said Guy. “They had a good friendship. L.T. would come out to his golf tournament every year. “
And with Taylor as his mark, Thomas achieved everything he wanted to in his career on that list he made with his linebackers coach 21 years ago.
“He accomplished that last goal on that sheet of paper,” said Guy. “His last goal was to be in the Hall of Fame. He wanted to make the same mark that L.T. made. He wanted to be one of the greatest. He accomplished his last goal, which was at the bottom. You make the Hall of Fame at the end of your career. Not alive and not even at the completion of his career, but he made it.”