Memories of childhood tragedy still haunt Dolphins' Marcus Thigpen
Early in the third quarter, Miami's Marcus Thigpen runs back a punt for a Miami touchdown. (Robert Duyos, Sun Sentinel / September 9, 2012)
A well-earned tribute to perseverance and a long, hard climb to his sport’s highest level.
Instead, it was mixed with sadness and regret, tainted by the breathtaking guilt that still accompanies the worst mistake of Marcus Thigpen’s young life.
The one that cost LaCrecia Daniels’ hers.
Playing his first NFL game last Sunday in Houston, Thigpen, a rookie speedster, returned a third-quarter punt 72 yards for the only touchdown of the Dolphins’ season opener.
No Dolphin had done that in five years, not since Ted Ginn Jr., his old college track rival.
Upon reaching the end zone Thigpen did not exult or pound his chest.
Instead, he dropped to one knee, pointed to the sky and bowed his head in silent prayer.
Softly, he spoke the same four words he’s been saying after every touchdown since he was at Indiana.
“This is for you.”
On a rainy night
It rained on and off that late May night in Detroit 11 years ago.
Seven young friends, bored and looking for fun, piled into one of their parents’ vehicles, a van, and embarked on what was supposed to be a joyride.
None of them were of legal driving age.
Three of the passengers were teen boys, including Thigpen, who had recently turned 15 and was finishing his freshman year at Henry Ford High School.
Kiyette Thigpen, Marcus’ younger sister, was among the four girls in the van. So was LaCrecia Daniels (pictured left/courtesy Facebook), Marcus’ neighbor and ex-girlfriend from elementary school.
The other two boys took turns speeding down the interstate toward downtown Detroit, over the MacArthur Bridge and into Belle Isle Park, a 982-acre, tree-lined refuge in the middle of the Detroit River.
“Egging each other on to do crazy things,” says Joy Thigpen, Marcus’ wife.
Laughter filled the van. No police cars were in sight.
Finally, the first two drivers turned to Marcus and told him it was his turn.
His driving experience was extremely limited. He was understandably nervous.
“I do think it was peer pressure that made Marcus drive that night,” his wife says. “Those guys in the van, one of them I know well, and they were a pretty bad influence. Those were the same guys who tried to encourage him to sell drugs.”
The first thing Marcus did upon settling into the driver’s seat was mistakenly put the van in reverse and back into a light pole.
The teens got out of the van, briefly inspected the damage and opted to keep going.
Slowly, the van picked up speed again, Marcus pushing down on the gas pedal and gaining confidence as the shadowy trees flew past along the narrow, winding park roads.
He pushed the needle past 40 mph. Then 50. Then 60, at least twice the speed limit on Belle Isle.
“We were driving through a maze in the park,” Marcus said last year. “Everyone was telling me to go faster, so I went faster.”
Suddenly, there was a sharp turn, causing Thigpen to lose control. He slammed on the brakes, but it was too late.
The van went sliding off the rain-slicked road and slammed, passenger-side first, into a tree.
Thigpen (pictured left at the Indiana) emerged from the van with nothing more than a few scratches from the broken glass. He began frantically opening doors and reaching through broken windows to free the rest of his friends, but when he walked around to the passenger side he could hardly process what he saw.
Daniels, who had been wearing a seatbelt, was somehow trapped between the airbag and the dashboard. Motionless and bleeding, her limp body twisted, she was the only member of the group to be seriously injured.
And then Marcus saw her skull. It had been split open by the impact, her brain exposed.
It’s an image that haunts him to this day.
He forced himself back to the roadside to flag down help. Eventually a fire truck had to administer the Jaws of Life to open the door and pull LaCrecia, 14, from the totaled van.
She was already gone.
The threats begin
The death threats started coming immediately.
Sometimes Thigpen would pick up the phone at his home on Fenmore Street and hear a menacing voice on the other end. Sometimes the threat would go through his relatives.
Other times the message would be delivered in person, with a hard stare to drive home the point.
The silence he felt pressing down on him as he walked the halls at Henry Ford High School was palpable.
His horrible mistake had caused a sweet young light to be extinguished, so that made him a killer.
Soon, it would be his turn to die.
“They didn’t have time to grieve,” says Kenny Fenton (pictured left with Thigpen), who has remained close to Thigpen since coaching him in high school. “All they had was time to think about what happened, and that caused a reaction.”
One that, sadly, is far too common in such an economically depressed area.
“In Detroit, most definitely,” says Fenton, now an assistant principal at an all-girls high school. “An eye for an eye, that’s how they felt. You die for being a good football player if the wrong person doesn’t like you. That [accident] was much more major than what happens on a daily basis that people get killed for here.”
LaCrecia’s funeral was a huge event in the community, but Thigpen heeded the warnings and did not attend.
“That was from all the threats he was getting,” says Floyd Banks, a boyhood friend who remains close with LaCrecia’s family. “Everybody felt like they wanted to do something. There was definitely a lot of grieving going on.”
Even after Thigpen transferred to Mumford High, six miles away, the threats continued.
He mentioned them to Joy Oliver, a cheerleader and softball player one year ahead of him in school. Even after they began dating, she did not share that information with her parents for fear of alarming them.
Thigpen, an ambivalent athlete before the tragedy, threw himself into sports in its aftermath. He became a star running back in the offense Fenton coordinated, and his talent as a sprinter earned him an important place for legendary track coach Robert Lynch.
Staying at Mumford from dawn until dusk every day didn’t just focus Thigpen for the first time in his troubled young life. It didn’t just draw him and Joy close enough to become inseparable high school sweethearts or pave the way for him to earn a football scholarship to Indiana University.
All that time at Mumford took him out of the crosshairs of those threats in his neighborhood until LaCrecia’s friends had a chance to cool down.
“Sports,” Fenton says, “saved his life.”
The pain lingers
LaTonya Parker has never talked to Marcus Thigpen since the accident that took her teen daughter’s life.
The pain is still just too great.
Even now, 11 years after LaCrecia’s death.
“I knew she was angry,” Thigpen says softly, standing by his wood-paneled station in the Dolphins locker room. “I’ve heard she still has a grudge against me because she thinks I’m living my life and I’m not even worried about it or thinking about it. I just want to clear the air pretty much.”
Oh, Mama Parker, as the kids called her, was there in the courtroom when Thigpen was convicted of negligent homicide and placed on intensive probation.
She was there when he learned his mistake would keep him from obtaining a driver’s license until midway through his college career.
Later, she walked up to the front door at the home on Fenmore Street with a fistful of pictures showing LaCrecia’s broken body at the accident scene. Mama Parker pushed those pictures at Karen Thigpen, Marcus’ mother, and let her know a civil suit was coming.
Parker was in the courtroom again when the judge found in her family’s favor, ordering Thigpen to pay $75,000, supposedly to help offset what his youthful mistake had taken away.
None of that money has ever been collected, not a dime of it, but that doesn’t mean Thigpen isn’t still hoping to make things right.
He only made $60,000 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season in the Canadian Football League, but more than half of that was eaten by taxes. The rest went to support Joy and the four children they are raising in Dallas.
If he sticks all season with the Dolphins, Thigpen could finally have enough financial stability to make good on his legal obligation.
He already has found enough emotional stability to talk openly about the tragedy, something he couldn’t bring himself to do until last year at Hamilton.
Banks, his boyhood friend, stays in touch with Parker. He was the one who let her know about Thigpen’s first NFL touchdown last week, and there are tentative discussions about a meeting back in Detroit after the season ends.
Thigpen, who has spoken amicably a couple of times with Jasmine Cross, LaCrecia’s half-sister, hopes the meeting with Mama Parker can happen.
“I think the best thing for me is just to have some closure with her mother,” Thigpen says. “I know it’s got to be tough to lose a child. Just being able to sit down and have some closure with her, let her know I am remorseful for everything that happened, that I do pay my respects to LaCrecia and I’m living my life for her, that’s what I hope for.”
And if the meeting can be arranged, Thigpen has already thought about what sort of peace offering he might extend to the still-grieving mother.
He looks down at the football he carried into the end zone for his first NFL touchdown, the one that sits in his locker awaiting a proper home.
“If that’s something she would accept from me,” he says, “I definitely would give her the first one.”