RIVER FALLS, Wis. (AP) -- On the first morning of training camp, Kansas City quarterback Elvis Grbac experienced "a strange, eerie feeling."
"We were loosening up, everybody was stretching out, and it was just complete silence," Grbac said. "There wasn't one guy even saying a word." He recognized the problem right away. Derrick Thomas wasn't there.
"At times like that, Derrick would always have something lively to say, something to break the tension," Grbac said. "He would be joking with guys, giving guys a hard time. Just being Derrick."
Grbac's gaze that Friday morning fell upon cornerback James Hasty, one of Thomas' closest friends.
"He had a look of loss on his face," Grbac said. "We hadn't even had one practice yet and already we missed him."
Missing their nine-time Pro Bowl linebacker will be something the Chiefs do constantly this season, the first since Thomas' fatal car crash last February.
"It just doesn't feel the same around here," running back Tony Richardson said. "You can tell there's something missing."
After Thomas' car flipped on an icy highway and he died of complications last Feb. 8, the Chiefs held memorial services, attended his funeral, hugged one other and pondered the fragility of life.
But now comes the task of preparing and playing a season without the player who personified the turnaround of the Kansas City franchise.
"This is going to be our first training camp we go through without Derrick," Grbac said. "Then we'll have that first home game, that first road game. That first Christmas and Thanksgiving. It's going to be tough."
To the Chiefs, Thomas was more than just a football player whose pass-rushing talent enabled him to dominate games and crack the career top 10 list with 126 1/2 sacks.
He was a jokester, a presence, a free spirit who called the team president "father" and would telephone the coach at midnight to tease him about working too hard.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.