Too good to be true

Derrick Thomas was inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. His was the first athletic jersey I ever owned, and he was the only reason I woke up one Sunday morning and went to Arrowhead Stadium, not for a football game, but to run in his 5K charity run because they told us we’d get to meet him. His death on a highway ice patch, at 33, was enough for my 7th grade teachers to take us to the cafeteria where we watched the funeral, together, all of us. I revered him, more than any athlete I ever had, and probably more than any I ever will. He was impossible to stop in the field, his smile was impossible to miss on television, and to me, a tiny 10-year old, he was impossibly god-like.

The problem was, unbeknownst to me, Derrick Thomas also had seven kids with five different women.

Joe Posnanski is leaving the Kansas City Star. His level-headed take on sports will be missed, as he blesses the nation with it as a staff writer at Sports Illustrated. Posnanski eulogizes Thomas twice upon his induction, here and here. I prefer the former, where he makes this point:

Derrick Thomas did not get to live that full life. And so … the feelings about him are amplified and they stand at harsh extremes. Whenever any of us write or say something good about Thomas — such as this weekend when we celebrate his remarkable football career — we are inundated with angry e-mails and phone calls and rebukes from those who want to yell about the irresponsible way he fathered seven children with five different women. Whenever we talk about all the good he did — and he did a lot of good; he was always generous with his time and he was chosen the NFL Man of the Year in 1993 — we are furiously reminded of his bad habits and wild nights and marathon parties.

Whenever we try to honor the memory of a man who brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people, we are told by many that he was deeply flawed and his memory does not deserve to be honored.

Some will see him only as a symbol of a famous athlete who did not have any self-discipline. Some will see him only as a great football player who cared deeply about people. The truth is, Derrick Thomas was neither of those things. And both. He was complicated, just like everyone else. And he died before we really got to know him.

When writing about sports – or music, or movie stars, or even politicians – must journalists and writers emphasize each and every blemish? Do the blemishes, really, matter? Devotion to the truth sometimes skews devotion to the truth that matters. Sports are a deathly unserious endeavor, and to force them and the athletes who compete in them to become things they are not, to live up to expectations beyond touchdowns and goals – well, what’s the point?

Derrick Thomas made me happier as a child. He made a lot of adults happy too. He did some stupid, shitty, unforgivable stuff – stuff that, once I knew about it, I knew was bad. Am I better for knowing? Nope. I just hope I can watch this video without someone saying, “Yes, but…”

One response to “Too good to be true

  1. I think Michael Jackson is a case in point here. There was a whole lot of adoration, and not so much questioning of MJ’s legacy. For the most part, all of his weirdness and possible (probable? actual?) criminality took a backseat in the discourse to his talent and his work.

    It’s got to be human nature. (And maybe laziness is just part of human nature.) We want to remember the people who were mostly good as good, and the people who were mostly bad as bad. Maira Kalman did a bit on her illustrated blog at that made the same point about Thomas Jefferson as Joe Posnanski made about Derrick Thomas.

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