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Derrick Thomas Was Great; “A Football Life” Was Not


November 25, 2012; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs fans watch play in the second half of the game against the Denver Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium. The Broncos won 17-9. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There are two things that need to be known immediately:

1. Derrick Thomas is a unique and tragic character in sports history. His talent is only surpassed by his intrigue, and his story is good enough to be a Hollywood movie.

2. The NFL Network is not built to do the story of Derrick Thomas justice.

Maybe it is my own fault for perceiving the NFL Network’s “A Football Life: Derrick Thomas” as a rushed, directionless portrayal of Thomas’ life, because I watched ESPN’s “SEC Storied: The Book of Manning” earlier in the night.

Maybe it is my own fault for perceiving the NFL Network’s “A Football Life: Derrick Thomas” as a collection of old NFL Films bits re-edited into an hour-long highlight reel, because I have seen so many excellent “30 for 30” documentaries from ESPN.

Maybe it is my own fault for perceiving the NFL Network’s “A Football Life: Derrick Thomas” as lacking narrative and having the appearance of being produced by a high schooler, because I’ve watched captivating reports on HBO’s “Real Sports” and Showtime’s “60 Minutes: Sports.”

Or maybe the NFL Network doesn’t understand the new standard set by other networks for storytelling and reporting.

NFL Network dropped the ball on an opportunity to create a compelling piece about a captivating subject. The financial resources exist for the NFL to put together a team of people to research, investigate, and produce a documentary that would rival anything HBO or ESPN does. Either the NFL has misappropriated those funds or they have chosen not to invest into high quality storytelling of their sport.

The NFL Network simply cannot match the way other networks produce and create documentaries about football.

This was highlighted in the way Thomas’ private life was depicted. “A Football Life” breezes by Thomas’ childhood where he was sent to a state facility because of his continued run-ins with the law. There was more detail and substance that could have been added to that storyline that the viewer never receives.

We also didn’t get a clear picture of Thomas’ personal life that would lead him to father so many children with multiple women. It was never discussed openly what drove Thomas to behave so recklessly yet be so generous at the same time. There was clearly an internal battle within Thomas starting at a very young age that was never really fished out.

Yes, we know his father died in the Vietnam war. We know the death of a father can greatly affect a person. But we did not learn the details of the battle Thomas was fighting within himself or even what the battle was in the first place. Was he angry about what happened to his father? Was he trying to live up to something his father wanted him to be? Heck, who was his father?

“A Football Life” took more time explaining Thomas’ infatuation with the John F. Kennedy assassination than it did on the relationship between Thomas and his parents.

None of the questions many have had about Thomas and his life were answered in this documentary. There is little the viewer walks away with that makes them feel like they know Thomas the person. If anything views who tuned in wanting to know more walked away with more questions than answers.

In fairness to the NFL, making documentaries isn’t their primary product. Their focus is to improve the game itself the on the field and maximize the value of their sport off of it. The NFL Network is only a small tool in helping build the NFL brand, and hour-long documentaries are not high on the NFL’s list of priorities. However, this doesn’t mean the NFL couldn’t and shouldn’t do better at telling the story of their past.

If you are a Chiefs then the episode is going to be enjoyable no matter what. Thomas is a legend, and the memories of him only enhance the viewing of the episode. A Chiefs or Thomas fan will be satisfied enough just to see Thomas on the football field again.

From a non-fan perspective, the documentary was below average. It left the viewer wanting a more substantive story, and had the production value of a whole bunch of youtube video clips edited together into one large Derrick Thomas remix.

The NFL could and should do better.