COMMENTARY : Thomas in Position to Wrest Linebacker Crown From Taylor


The Second Coming of Lawrence Taylor is an event that has been anticipated by NFL talent scouts since he took the league's quarterbacks by storm as a New York Giants rookie in 1981. Taylor's impact redefined the outside linebacker position. In subsequent drafts, one player after another has been fitted with the label of "The Next L. T." and found wanting--until now.

"The Next L. T." arrived last season in Kansas City where the Chiefs were simply hoping to end their 15-year search for the next Bobby Bell. The prodigy's initials are D. T., which stands for Derrick Thomas, and he has some experience with this heir-to-a-legend business since it was his job at the University of Alabama to become "The Next Cornelius Bennett." He did a heck of a job by obliterating all of Bennett's records for sacks, and he quickly established himself as L. T.'s likely successor with 10 sacks in his first 10 NFL games.

Although Thomas failed to record any more sacks and break the rookie record of 12.5 by the Chargers' Leslie O'Neal, he did surpass the rookie totals of Taylor (9.5), Bennett (8.5) and Green Bay's Tim Harris (7.5). His presence also helped transform the Chiefs from 4-11-1 doormats in 1988 into 8-7-1 winners last year and legitimate contenders for the AFC title this season.

During the second half of last season, Chiefs opponents were forced to devise ways to control Thomas, just as Giants foes first must try to stop L. T.

"We saw teams create situations where a back never has to block Derrick," Coach Marty Schottenheimer said recently. "He enabled us to do things where, even though he didn't get the sacks, he created situations for other people to get sacks.

"Derrick's No. 1 physical quality is his speed. He needs to improve his run defense and to work to understand blocking schemes, but there are no physical limits from greatness."

Towering self-confidence, enthusiasm for the game and a mean streak have been the trademarks of Taylor's play. Thomas shares those traits. And just as Taylor has wrestled with drug involvement in his past, Thomas had to overcome a period of juvenile delinquency in the poor south Miami neighborhood of Perrine before he could begin to properly channel his athletic talent.

"I was a little wild because of the crowd I chose to hang out with," Thomas recalled. "I never really got into serious trouble. We fought every day and stole bikes, things that could go unnoticed or could be emphasized."

Thomas doesn't deny his youthful mistakes, but he doesn't dwell on them either because he recognized a dead end when he saw it and made a conscious effort to turn his life around. His father's death in Vietnam two weeks before Thomas' sixth birthday made life rough from the start. Air Force Capt. Robert Thomas and his B-52 crew were shot down Dec. 17, 1972, the first day of a massive bombing assault ironically called Operation Linebacker II. The entire crew survived except for Capt. Thomas, who was the last to evacuate before the plane exploded.

The turning point in Thomas' life came when he was 15 and a counselor insisted, over his objections, on enrolling him in a program for youthful miscreants at Dade Marine Institute. Thomas said, "I knew I wanted to go to college, but I wasn't taking the necessary steps. It was hard to straddle both sides of the fence--being bad at night and a scholar in the day. . . .

"DMI is a school that gives you self-confidence. You learn how to cope in society. You meet with a counselor every morning and then go to class. The amount of people is limited, so you get more help. We did things inner-city kids never have an opportunity to do, like driving boats and scuba diving. For the first time, I really wanted to focus on doing good instead of bad."

Thomas' new direction took him to Alabama where his first two seasons were spent playing in Bennett's shadow. "The biggest thing I learned is the level to compete at," Thomas said, referring to Bennett, a two-time Pro Bowl player with the Buffalo Bills. "He does it every play."

Bennett recorded a school-record 10 sacks his senior year and won most every national honor possible. "After he graduated, people said there never would be another Cornelius Bennett," Thomas said. "I took that as a personal challenge. I said I would get 10 sacks by the midpoint of the year. I did that and finished the year with 18. My senior year, I set a goal to get 18 by the midpoint of the season."

Thomas finished his senior year with the mind-blowing total of 27 sacks, which pretty much made him the Babe Ruth of big-time college outside linebackers. "I worked hard to be the best, and the talk got smaller about Cornelius Bennett," said Thomas, who has grown close to Bennett and takes part in the same summer football camp.

Now that he has reached the highest level of the game, Thomas is focusing on Taylor's achievements, including 114 sacks in nine seasons. "I think Lawrence Taylor is the standard by which you measure all outside linebackers," Thomas said. "He's accomplished everything you can, and Lawrence Taylor has done it in remarkable fashion. He's missed what? One game in nine years?"

Thomas has watched and listened to the highlight films of Taylor at play, and he admits to mimicking L. T.'s competitive demeanor. "I have a real attitude," said Thomas, whose disposition off the field is notably sunny.

"I accomplished some things last year on pure athletic ability," Thomas said. "This year I'm becoming more familiar with the system and adding the element of knowledge. Put those factors together, and this year should be better."

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