Derrick Thomas was born on January 1, 1967, in Miami, Florida. Chiefs fans know well the story of Thomas' childhood. When Derrick was 5, the North Vietnamese shot down his father, Robert James Thomas, an air force pilot, while he was piloting a B-52 Bomber. He was declared missing in action.
Edith Morgan, his mother, and Annie Adams, his grandmother, would raise Derrick. After his father was declared legally dead in 1980, Thomas rebelled. He was growing up in Miami's inner city, and he ended up getting into trouble. When he was fourteen, Thomas was arrested by the South Miami police and sent to the Dade Marine Institute, a program run much like a boot camp. It was the last stop for juvenile offenders before they were sent on to prison, and although Thomas hated it, he said later that it was the best thing to happen to him. He told Jeffrey Flanagan of the Kansas City Star that getting caught made him stop "running with the wrong people. Instead of sitting around and throwing rocks at cars and buses, and trying to figure out what place to rob, I put all my energy into football."
After leaving the detention center, Thomas went on to earn all-league honors at South Miami High School, which in turn earned him a scholarship to the University of Alabama, a powerhouse in college football. Thomas became a star, amassing sixty-seven tackles in his junior season and compiling a school-record eighteen sacks. When he was a senior, he was presented the Butkus Award, given to the country's top linebacker. He graduated from the Crimson Tide with fifty-two sacks and seventy-four tackles, a new school record.