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Haunting memory motivates Bills’ Thigpen

To this day, one person has not forgiven Marcus Thigpen. She probably never will.

Thigpen doesn’t blame LaTonya Parker, really. When a mother loses her daughter there’s a pain, a need to hold someone accountable. And Thigpen was the driver that fateful night in Detroit. Sitting inside his Buffalo Bills locker, he takes a deep breath. Yeah, it bothers him.

Fourteen years later, he still doesn’t have closure.

“But at the end of the day,” Thigpen says, “there’s really nothing that I can do.”

That’s because he is responsible for the daughter’s death. When Thigpen was 14 years old, he was at the wheel of a van that careened into the woods and smashed into a tree. The girl in the passenger’s seat, his first girlfriend in elementary school, Lacrecia Daniels, was killed. That traumatizing night still replays through Thigpen’s mind daily. Through eight teams and two leagues over six years, Thigpen has played for Lacrecia because he knows when one life was lost, another was saved: his own.

On the eve of playing one of his former teams, the Miami Dolphins, the receiver/return man imagines where he’d be. Dead? Maybe. Jail? Possibly. Certainly not in the NFL.

So as Thigpen crossed the goal line on the 75-yard punt return for a touchdown that keyed Buffalo’s 21-13 win over Green Bay last year, as he somersaulted and was mauled by teammates, he stunted his celebration. Thigpen dropped to a knee, prayed to Lacrecia and pointed to the sky.

“Everything I do in my life, I dedicate to her,” Thigpen said. “She’ll never know what it’s like to be married or have kids. And I’m experiencing that for her.”

The rustic “D” tattoo on Thigpen’s right arm hints at his former life. As early as 12, 13 years old, he was selling drugs in inner-city Detroit. Up close, Thigpen has witnessed innocent people shot, killed. He’s seen a man beat someone to death with bricks. He was hit by a car at 7 years old and nearly died. This was normal. No, Thigpen didn’t carry a gun himself. But his Nickelodeon-aged friends did and they all felt invincible roaming the streets as their own gang.

Thigpen was going nowhere – fast – at a scary young age.

“Even though you feel like you have all your boys with you, your crew, it’s still scary because you never know,” Thigpen said. “Those bullets could hit anybody. A lot of innocent people get killed. They’re not even in the situation and they get shot. It’s definitely not a lifestyle that I’d recommend for anybody.”

One night, Thigpen and seven of his friends piled into a parent’s van to head to a party. None of them had been drinking, yet none of them could legally drive. And at 14, Thigpen was not a good driver. Through a hard rain, they took turns speeding over the MacArthur Bridge and into Belle Isle Park – a 982-acre island in the middle of the Detroit River.

He remembers a hump on the road. The first time they hit it was fun, but they wanted to hit it with even more velocity the second time to go airborne. So to a laughing chorus of “Go faster! Go faster!” Thigpen stepped on the gas, hit it like a ramp and flew in the air. Now speeding up to 40, 50 miles per hour, his adrenaline was pumping.

Thigpen weaved through this “maze” of a road at top speed, took one sharp turn, slid off the road and fun turned to horror.

Hitting the brakes, Thigpen dodged as many trees as he could. One tree … two trees … three trees. Friends screamed. The vehicle slid uncontrollably. And the right side of the van smashed into a tree. Thigpen’s head hit the airbag and he looked to his right. Lacrecia had a seatbelt on, but her body was twisted between the dashboard and the airbag.

With her skull broken open, her brain was exposed. This vivid, gory sight – literally seeing Lacrecia take her final breaths – still haunts Thigpen.

“I could see her head split open,” Thigpen said. “She was still alive at that point.”

He jolted out of the vehicle, freed the others from a window and then sprinted back to the street to flag cars down for help. The van was wrecked so bad, it needed to be cut open.

Thigpen escaped with only a few scratches. One friend suffered amnesia. Another friend broke his wrist.

Lacrecia died within 10 minutes of impact.

“Once that happened,” Thigpen said, “that was a wake-up call for me to change my life.”

He attended various counseling sessions to heal. And for weeks, months, Thigpen received countless death threats by phone and in person. He was forced to transfer from Henry Ford High School to Mumford High School on Detroit’s northwest side about 15 minutes away. Many actually believed Thigpen crashed on purpose.

“I could’ve easily killed myself. Why would I do that on purpose?” Thigpen said. “They said that if I went back to that school, they’d shoot me, kill me. … So I transferred to a new school and had a fresh start, a new beginning.”

So as much as he wanted to be there for Lacrecia, he couldn’t attend the funeral.

Thigpen was charged with negligent homicide, placed on intensive probation and couldn’t get a license until he turned 21. As he says today, the trauma of this all was punishment enough.

He learned to truly value “every moment” in life and started attending church regularly. At his new school, Thigpen even met his future wife. Above all, he made a conscious decision to leave the street life. If he didn’t, he knows where he’d be – locked away like this brother is now. Just this year, Thigpen says his 19-year-old brother was jailed 14 years for attempted murder and armed robbery.

“That could’ve been me,” Thigpen said. “I don’t know what’s going on out there. It’s just a whole different mindset. I was in that same world. Fighting all the time.”

Removed completely, Thigpen turned to football. He starred in high school and became the first Indiana University player to ever record 1,000-plus yards rushing, receiving and returning. Such blazing, raw speed earned him a ticket to the NFL, where Thigpen spent time with Philadelphia, Denver, headed to the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats and then bounced from Miami to New England back to Miami to Tampa Bay to finally, last season, Buffalo.

Getting cut by Miami stung most. He was the primary returner the 2012 and 2013 seasons and viewed South Florida as home.

Said Thigpen, “Going back to play them, I definitely have a big chip on my shoulder for them.”

The team drafted LSU receiver Jarvis Landry in the second round, Thigpen muffed a punt in the preseason and, poof, he was finished.

That fumble did ring in his head a while. On an ultra-humid night in Miami, his forearms were sweaty and the ball slipped away. He kicked it. Picked it up. The damage was done.

But then again, it’s a much, much different night that Thigpen thinks about most. Enduring such a graphic tragedy has effectively made Thigpen immune to any NFL pain, any “bring your playbook” from The Turk or turnover on special teams. 

“I’ve seen a lot, done a lot,” Thigpen said. “So going through this stuff right now is nothing for me. I’ve been through some serious stuff.”

Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman sees the final product every day. He knows how such a tragedy molds someone.

“The Marcus I know,” Crossman said, “is who does everything you ask him to do. He comes in early, stays late, enjoys the grind that this deal is – and doesn’t look at it as a grind. He looks as this is what it takes to get the job done. We love being around him.”

Over time, many of those angry classmates from Henry Ford High School began to forgive Thigpen. Even today, people who once despised him will text or call out of the blue ... except for Lacrecia’s mother.

Thigpen last tried to reach Parker three years ago and then gave up. Through friends that do speak to her, Thigpen hears that she still wants nothing to do with him and is not happy with his NFL success.

“Like I just moved on with my life,” says Thigpen, in obvious pain, “and forgot all about her daughter. She doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t know. All she knows is that she lost her daughter.”

What Thigpen hopes she knows is that he lives for her.

What he hopes she knows is that her death was not in vain.

“Everything I do on the field,” he said, “I do for her.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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