TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Former University of Alabama and Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas was a polarizing figure.
Thomas is regarded as one of the best pass rushers in NFL history. During his career, the 9-time Pro Bowler amassed 126.5 sacks and forced 41 fumbles. Thomas was inducted in the NFL's Hall of Fame in 2009.
On February 8, 2000, Thomas died from a pulmonary embolism (massive blood clot) that developed in his paralyzed lower extremities and traveled to his lungs. His paralysis was the result of severe injuries sustained in a car accident just two weeks earlier. Thomas was 33.
Though Thomas is already in the NFL's Hall of Fame, it should be noted that Thomas is not a member of college football's hall of fame despite having 27 sacks his senior year at Alabama.
"His numbers were superhuman," said Bill Curry, who was Thomas' coach at Alabama. "He had leverage, speed and power to give him almost an unfair advantage over any mortal who tried to block him."
Derrick Thomas: A Football Life will air at 8 p.m. CT on the NFL Network. Neil Smith, a 6-time Pro Bowler and good friend of Thomas' will be live in-studio to talk about the documentary at 9 p.m. CT.
Rob Gill is a producer for NFL Films. He co-produced the documentary with Digger O'Brien. In a telephone interview with the Anniston Star, Gill spoke about what made Thomas an interesting subject and how they were able to balance the good and bad of Thomas' life while making the documentary.
Q: Why Derrick Thomas and why now?
A: With these football life documentaries we've been doing, we've tried to focus obviously on guys who've had great careers, whether playing or coaching. We also want guys who in many cases have things away from their football lives and the football field that are interesting. There are so many layers to Derrick Thomas' life, which is what I learned as I went through the process. From his dedication to the military, which of course goes back to the fact that he lost his dad in Vietnam (Derrick was 5); to his dedication to his "Third and Long" Foundation and his determination to help teach inner city kids how to read. When you talk about his football career, he's maybe the best pass rusher of all time, pure pass rusher. And of course, his life came to such a tragic, premature end. There are so many layers to Derrick Thomas' story that it was a pretty easy choice to make to have him be one of our subjects.
Q: When you're dealing with someone like Thomas or any other athlete who had such an outstanding career and did a lot of philanthropic work, how do you approach showing some of the negative aspects of an athlete's life so you have a balance in the film?
A: I think that people will find that we covered all of the bases with Derrick's life. He was not a saint. His friends will be the first ones to tell you that the guy had flaws. I think some people certainly have an opinion about the fact that he had multiple children by multiple women none of whom he married. There was no way we were going to avoid that subject or dance around it. In a way, it kind of give you get the look of a person in full because there were warts there. Despite all his good work and his dominance on the field, we're not deifying this guy. We're saying, 'Here it is. We're laying his life out there.' We're not passing judgements either. We could not possibly avoid that. I think a lot of people if you ask him about Derrick Thomas, one of the memories of him after you talked about how great he was on the field, would be 'Wasn't he that guy who had all those kids?' We certainly had no intention of avoiding that subject, but we also didn't want to dwell on it because this is a guy who did great things on and off the football field.
Q: How important is it to have old footage and interviews when you don't have the main subject around?
A: There's a different dynamic involved when doing a documentary on a guy who not only passed away, but passed away at a young age and quite awhile ago. So some time has passed. We filled in the blanks two ways. One, with older interviews with Derrick where we could and where it made sense because it was great to have him in his own words doing that. The other is, we did over 41 hours of interviews for this. We tried to leave no stone unturned. We wanted to make sure we didn't miss anything since we didn't have Derrick available.
Q: What do you people to get from this film?
A: Our first goal would be for people to watch this and not think we omitted anything. We don't want people to think we went out of our way to ignore anything or whitewash anything. Even though this was a guy who was an all time great pass rusher who devoted his life away from football to helping children, we knew there were aspects of his life that weren't as great. He got in trouble as a kid. He had tendencies away from the field as an adult. Basically that we present this man's life, his football life as we call it, in full and that it's a fair representation of his story and that it's a good story. I don't mean a good story in terms of the way it ends or that it's a happy story, but that it's a well told story about the man's life and his life as a football player and that we didn't leave any stone unturned.