Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas died Tuesday as he was on his way to rehabilitation, just days after he was released from intensive care and given passes to leave the Miami hospital because he was progressing so well.
Thomas, 33, died at 9:10 a.m. Central time at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami after going into cardiorespiratory arrest. Thomas was being transferred from his hospital bed to a wheelchair when he told his mother that he wasn't feeling well and his eyes rolled back, neurosurgeon Frank Eismont said. Extensive efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Doctors had not determined the exact cause of death, but one of Thomas' doctors,
Barth Green, said a massive blood clot called a pulmonary embolism was the most likely cause of Thomas' death.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday, but an hourlong candlelight vigil is scheduled for 6 tonight on Lot D at Arrowhead Stadium.
"He has done so much for this team and our city during the time that he had with us," said Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson. "He had so much love for the game, for his teammates and for our town....A light has gone out."
Thomas, who sustained paralyzing spinal cord injuries in an automobile accident Jan. 23 in Kansas City, had been upgraded to good condition and had begun his rehabilitation last week, making his death all the more shocking. He had received visits from teammates and from former Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer.
Thomas's injuries left him without movement from the chest down.
"It is a dark day, a very dark day," Chiefs owner and founder Lamar Hunt said from his office in Dallas. "But I don't want to put it in terms of the franchise because it's a whole lot more than that. It's a loss for the Thomas family and for the community."
The Missouri General Assembly paused for a moment of silence after his death was announced by state Sen. Bill Kenney, a former Chiefs quarterback.
The U.S., Missouri and Chiefs flags outside the club's Arrowhead Stadium offices were lowered to half-staff immediately after word was received of Thomas' death.
A steady flow of fans came by the stadium, some wearing No. 58 Chiefs jerseys in honor of Thomas, to leave flowers, balloons, signs and other symbols of affection.
There were other signs of people struggling to cope with the Thomas death. A normally composed Peterson paused at times to gather himself while speaking with the media. His remarks were followed by those from somber coach Gunther Cunningham.
Perhaps the mood of the day was best expressed by Leigh Steinberg, Thomas' agent and friend.
"There's a surrealistic quality to all of this," Steinberg said by phone from his office in California. "Yes, I understand what the doctors said. I understand intellectually what has happened here. But emotionally, I sure don't get it yet. It's going to take some time. It just hasn't sunk in."
Peterson and Thomas had an unusual relationship for a general manager and player. They were extremely close, and they often -- partly in jest but with a good measure of seriousness -- referred to themselves as father and son.
Peterson, who wore a No. 58 button on the lapel of his suit coat, returned to Kansas City on Monday night from Miami after a visit with Thomas. He was returning to Miami immediately after his news conference.
"He was upbeat, he was positive, he was Derrick," Peterson said of his most recent visit. "I know he had the best medical assistance possible. I know these things do happen unfortunately with people who have had an accident like Derrick."
Peterson said Thomas' mood was in contrast to a previous visit to Miami.
"He was flat, he was immobile, he wasn't in a good way," Peterson said. "(Monday), when we got there, he was in (physical) therapy. I stepped out into the hall. Coming down the hall is Derrick Thomas, in a wheelchair but upbeat. I said, `Son, you're mobile.' He said, `Father, I am. I've got wheels.' "
Peterson said Thomas had been planning to make a public statement soon, thanking fans for their support.
Cunningham said he called Thomas from Atlanta recently when he was there for the Super Bowl.
"I wasn't doing real well at the time," Cunningham said. "Derrick said, `Coach, be strong.' He never told me how strong I needed to be."
Thomas, the Chiefs' No. 1 draft pick in 1989, played 11 NFL seasons, all in Kansas City. He was one of the top players at his position for much of that time. He made the Pro Bowl in his first nine seasons and is ninth in the NFL in all-time sacks, with 1261/2. Thomas also was well-known for his work in the community. He founded the Third and Long Foundation, which promotes literacy among Kansas City's youth. He also was involved over the years in a number of businesses, a roofing company being his latest venture.
"He tried to be three things in life," Peterson said. "He wanted to be the greatest linebacker that ever played. I think he came pretty darn close to that. He tried to be the best businessman he could be. I know how hard he worked at that. He also wanted to be the biggest philanthropist, the biggest charity-giving guy there was. He did this." "I think all of Kansas City, all of the National Football League and all of America should be extremely proud of this young man. Thirty-three years is not long enough, but he did accomplish so much."
Steinberg, who has several of the NFL's highest-profile players as his clients, also said he was impressed with Thomas' off-field commitment.
"I have never met an athlete who has as strong a vision in terms of how he could make an impact on the world," Steinberg said. "It's the Derrick Thomas standing next to President Clinton on Memorial Day, speaking for all children of deceased veterans, that we'll remember. It's the Derrick Thomas whose commitment to children's literacy was so profound that we'll miss."
Elnora Tellis-Jefferson, the sister of fellow crash victim Michael Tellis, said Thomas' friends and family were overwhelmed with sadness at the loss of the athlete.
"We're all sitting here thinking and praying for both of these mothers who lost children, our mother and Derrick's," she said. "Our entire family -- having lost our loved one -- has hearts filled with great sympathy for Derrick's mother and his family upon his passing. Our mother prayed for Derrick every day."
Tellis-Jefferson said her brother and Thomas were the best of friends. The third passenger in the car crash, John Hagebusch of Raymore, could not be reached for comment.
Thomas' survivors include his mother, Edith Morgan; his grandmother, Annie Adams; three sisters; and four brothers.