ST. LOUIS -- Every time Derrion Thomas steps onto the field, thoughts of his father are close to his heart.
Not because he went to nine Pro Bowls, and not because Derrion longs for the football wisdom a man with 126 career sacks could have provided. But just because he was Dad. The same kind of dad every 18-year-old tries to spot in the stands at the start of each game.
"When you're in the locker room and you think about all the people that are out there -- all the people looking at you -- you think, 'I wish I had that extra person there,'" Derrion said.
But during Blue Springs South's run to the Missouri Class 6 state title game -- a 25-20 loss to Hazelwood Central -- the son of late Kansas City Chiefs great Derrick Thomas gave his father a new place near his heart. He put a piece of Dad's legacy right over it.
From far away, that piece looks like any other pair of shoulder pads. And that's why Blue Springs South coach Greg Oder didn't think much of it when Derrion knocked on his office door the day before the team's state-quarterfinal rematch against state No. 1-ranked Rockhurst.
Derrion walked into the office and told Oder and the rest of the staff he'd gotten some new pads. The news didn't impress a group of men formulating a game plan for a team that had beaten them 42-14 on national television 11 weeks earlier.
But then they saw the stickers -- a small "58" on the front and the back.
"We were all like, 'No way, you've got to be kidding me,'" Oder said.
Derrion had spoken at the Derrick Thomas Academy -- an elementary school established after his father's death following a car accident in 2000 -- on the Friday before the game. A Chiefs equipment manager asked Derrion if he wanted to wear the shoulder pads his father had worn during his last game. He didn't even hesitate.
"He was grinning from ear to ear," Oder said. "He was thoroughly excited about it."
The local media, however, were focused on Blue Springs South's struggles with the perennial state power in the past two meetings between the schools. South's 2007 campaign ended with a loss to Rockhurst in its final district game, and an inexperienced South defense that returned no starters from that 2007 team was exposed in the team's 28-point loss to open the 2008 season.
Derrion embodied that inexperience more than anyone.
The influence of a superstar father could have pushed his son toward football. But their relationship proved otherwise.
"We never really sat down and just talked about football," Derrion said. "It was never really a major thing."
Instead of football, Derrion pursued swimming. It wasn't until six years after his father's death, during his sophomore year of high school, that Derrion told his mother, Terrye Jenkins, that he wanted to try his hand at football. Jenkins was wary about her son's choice to play. She feared he was being influenced by the many people that had urged him to play in the past.
"I said, 'Derrion, are you sure that you're not playing football because everyone else wants to you play?' Jenkins said. "But he told me, 'Mom, I like it.'"
Derrion doesn't have a reason for why he chose not to play for so long.
"People always asked me my whole life why I didn't play," Derrion said. "And I was just doing my own thing. That's really all I needed to say."
It surely wasn't the fear of comparison that kept him away, because he's too used to that. For Derrion's entire life, Jenkins has been in awe of her son's likeness to his father. His fingers, the way he walks, his mannerisms and even the way he manages to tune her out are all too reminiscent of his father.
"There are times where I'll be talking to him and he'll give the same response that his dad would, and I'll be like, 'Who I am talking to?'" Jenkins said. "It can be scary sometimes."
Derrion wasn't shying away from the challenges of the game, either. They pale in comparison to the hardships of life without a father, and the task of being a role model for a 10-year-old brother who constantly inquires about what his father was like.
No, being Derrick Thomas' son and a football star would be nothing compared to what Derrion Thomas had already been through. Football was just fun. And that's why Derrion thought it was time to try it. As a junior, Derrion played defensive end on South's JV team, and occasionally played special teams for the varsity when he wasn't swimming. When his senior season began and he assumed a full-time varsity role, Derrion, like so many of his teammates, wasn't yet comfortable enough to be successful.
"We were coming into the game and everyone said that we didn't have much experience, but we felt like we were a good team -- we just didn't trust each other enough," Derrion said.
That lack of trust led to opponents scoring 96 total points against South in the team's first three games, two of which ended in losses. As their inexperience faded, however, their talent started to shine through. The exceptionally fast South defense found its stride as the season progressed, allowing only 15 points to then-No. 1-ranked Blue Springs in the team's seventh game.
After winning their district and defeating Lee's Summit North in the first round of the playoffs, it was time for another round with Rockhurst. This time, South was a different team, and they had a very different weapon.
It was hard for Derrion to distinguish what made that second game with Rockhurst different. The locker room had a different focus. The atmosphere had a different intensity.
But Thomas' teammates knew there was something more. Derrion's father played at 245 pounds, but when Derrion slid the shoulder pads onto his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame, they fit him perfectly.
"It was eerie," Derrion said. "When I was putting on the pads, they [my teammates] said to me, 'It's going to be a special night.' I thought that it was just another game, but eventually I thought 'Maybe they were right.'"
As Derrion walked onto the field, he could hear his father's voice: "If you don't want to be blocked, you can't get blocked."
He couldn't be. Derrion recorded three sacks in the first half, and finished the game with nine tackles. There was a feeling of invincibility, a feeling that was tested when Derrion broke his arm on the first series of the third quarter. It didn't matter. His fourth sack came a whole quarter later.
"We play as a team," Derrion said. "I felt the responsibility to my teammates to be out there."
It was just another one of many responsibilities that Derrion has upheld. So many had already passed -- the responsibility to be there for his family, the responsibility to himself to push on after losing his father. Now it was the responsibility to a team, and a responsibility to honor not only a legend, but a dad.
"I just tried to think, 'What would he do in these pads?'" Derrion said.
That night, Thomas honored his father by doing exactly what he would have done.
Robert Mays is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.