Wilson remembers teammate Thomas

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 10, 2000

Features Editor

Feb. 9, 2000 10 PM

Learning of the death of a friend during a television sports update is a shocking and knee-weakening experience.

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Steven Wilson stood in front of his television in a state of shock at the news that Derrick Thomas, his friend and former football teammate at the University of Alabama, had died.

Thomas, a star linebacker for the Crimson Tide and one of the most feared defenders in the National Football League, died Tuesday at a Miami hospital less than a month after being paralyzed in a car accident. The exact cause of death has not been determined.

Wilson has only fond memories of Thomas. He also has a regret.

"Fred (Baxter, New York Jets tight end) saw Derrick in Cincinnati back during the summer and he told Fred to have me get in touch with him," Wilson said. "I just put it off too long."

Wilson signed a football scholarship with the University of Alabama in 1984 after a outstanding gridiron career at Pike County High School. Wilson was redshirted so, when Thomas joined the team in 1985, they were in the same football class.

"Derrick was a freshman but he never played like one," Wilson said. "He came up from Miami and he was somewhat different but he was a good guy – nice and quiet – until he got on the field."

The Tide opened the season that year with Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic. Derrick Thomas went to play.

"Derrick had about three interference calls made on him that game but he didn’t let anybody beat him and that made a difference in us winning the game," Wilson said.

After that game, there was no doubt among the Alabama faithful that Derrick Thomas would be an impact player. None of the players doubted it either.

"Derrick was a leader on the field and off," Wilson said. "He didn’t smoke. He didn’t drink and he didn’t curse. He liked to have a good time and he would party but he was always in control of himself."

Wilson said one of the first off-the-field impressions he had of Thomas was associated with his love of music.

"Derrick loved music and I can remember him driving around campus on an old ’72 Nova with his stereo blaring. The stereo system was probably worth a lot more than the car," Wilson said, with a smile.

Wilson and Thomas played football together for four years, two under Ray Perkins and two under Bill Curry.

Wilson said during that time he came to admire and respect Thomas as a football player and as a person.

"Derrick always wanted to give something back," he said. "He would come back to Tuscaloosa and host a barbecue and anyone who wanted to come could come. He had a big heart."

Wilson said he has seen Thomas several times over the years but not recently.

He decided against contacting him after the accident.

"I didn’t want it to be a sympathy call," he said. "I was going to wait a while. Now, it’s too late."

Wilson would like to attend the funeral if he can make the necessary arrangements. He wants to say a final goodbye to a friend.