EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last story in a series counting down the top five players in University of Alabama football history. Companion series are planned for Georgia (May 11-15) and Tennessee (May 18-22).
Folks, it's really not that close.
Amid Alabama's multitude of outstanding players through the years who have helped the Crimson Tide compile 27 Southeastern Conference football championships and 17 recognized national titles, linebacker Derrick Thomas stands out as the greatest of them all. While a handful of elite talents have established program records in Tuscaloosa, Thomas set standards that were never meant to be broken.
For starters, the 52 career sacks racked up by Thomas from 1985-88 nearly doubles the next-highest Tide total of 28.5 by Jonathan Allen from 2013-16. Remember, when Thomas was wreaking havoc, most of Alabama's regular seasons consisted of 11 contests, and bowl-game totals were not allowed in NCAA statistical categories until 2002.
"He was the best football player I ever coached," Bill Curry said. "He could just dominate a game."
The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from Miami played his first two seasons at Alabama for Ray Perkins and his final two for Curry. The Tide's single-season sacks record stood at 11 entering the 1987 season, but Thomas shattered that by collecting 18.
Alabama opened the Curry era with a 38-6 win over Southern Mississippi but then traveled to Penn State to face the reigning national champion. The Nittany Lions drove to Alabama's 28-yard line early in the contest, but Thomas tallied consecutive sacks to thwart Penn State's possession and set the tone for the Tide's 24-13 upset.
"He did all the things he wanted," Penn State coach Joe Paterno said afterward. "He was on top of us all game."
As a senior, Thomas was even more sensational with 27 sacks, which easily would serve as the NCAA's single-season record had sacks been recognized as a statistical category by the governing body before 2000. His career total would be a record as well, but the NCAA instead recognizes Arizona State's Terrell Suggs as the all-time leader with 44.
Alabama's best chance at an SEC championship and a national title with Thomas was in 1986, when the Tide started 7-0 and climbed to No. 2 in the country. Losses to Penn State, LSU and Auburn during the second half of that season, however, forced Alabama to settle on a Sun Bowl date with Washington.
The Tide fell quickly from the nation's elite the following two seasons with upset losses to Memphis State (1987) and Ole Miss (1988).
Thomas saved his most dominating performance for the 1988 regular-season finale at Texas A&M, which had to be rescheduled when Curry refused to fly the team to College Station in September due to concerns over Hurricane Gilbert. The skies wound up being clear on the original date of the clash, which resulted in Aggies fans mocking Curry, but the Tide shredded A&M 30-10 in the rescheduled game behind Thomas, who had seven tackles for loss, including five sacks.
"The only hurricane that blew in tonight was Alabama," said Thomas, whose tackles for loss and sacks at Texas A&M remain Tide single-game records.
Other Alabama records held by Thomas include career tackles for loss (68), career blocked kicks (five) and forced fumbles in a single season (seven in 1987). Former LSU quarterback Tommy Hodson once said after facing Thomas, "We always had two people blocking him, and he still had three sacks."
Thomas was the No. 4 selection in the 1989 NFL draft, which was topped by UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, Michigan State offensive tackle Tony Mandarich and Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders. Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders was picked fifth.
Complications from a car accident in 2000 claimed the life of Thomas at the age of 33. He played all 11 of his NFL seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, ringing up 126.5 sacks and 41 forced fumbles, with 26 of his career sacks coming at the expense of John Elway.
The first SEC player to ever win the Butkus Award was inducted posthumously by both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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