|Greg Trott/Associated Press|
|Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has taken off since Dec. 1, averaging 108.7 yards per game.|
He started on the backside of his wrist, working toward the inside of his elbow, one name inked next to the other: Katina and Minnie. For the next five hours, Thomas looked down at that arm often, a vivid reminder of relentless love and loyalty.
"It made me remember who I was doing this for," Thomas said Wednesday during a private interview in a back hallway at the Broncos' training facility.
It was the most important day of Thomas' young career, and he went on to score on an 80-yard, game-winning overtime touchdown that shocked the sports world. But his mother and grandmother weren't able to experience the moment from inside Mile High Stadium.
That's because Katina and Minnie Thomas instead watched from the same place they've spent each day since Thomas began playing football in the 10th grade: in prison.
Tied at 23, the Broncos broke the huddle for the first play of overtime. Thomas looked down at the names on his arm one last time before arranging his body on the 18-yard line, two yards behind the line of scrimmage. Tim Tebow took the shotgun snap, and Thomas darted forward.
Thomas still doesn't know exactly what the room looks like where Katina (his mother) and Minnie (grandmother) spend their days watching him play. Based on the stories they tell him, nearly 30 or 40 women sit around a television, all wearing handcrafted T-shirts with his jersey number, 88, written on the front.
"I talk to my mom on the phone every morning of every game," Thomas said. "But it's still strange to me: I've got fans in prison because of my mom and my granny."
|Denver's Demaryius Thomas slayed the Steelers with this touchdown. (Associated Press)|
He tries to picture the scene, but he's only been able to visit six times since they were incarcerated in 1997. Thomas' most vivid memories of the two women are instead relegated to other visuals, like the times when he'd see his grandmother cooking crack cocaine in their kitchen.
"They would try to keep me from seeing all of it, but I did," Thomas said. "I saw everything."
Then, one day while Thomas was in the sixth grade, police raided his home to arrest his grandmother and mother on federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base. His grandmother faced 40 years to life. His mother faced 20 years. To this day, both remain locked up in a low-security prison in Tallahassee, Fla.
"We didn't talk that much after she went to jail," Thomas said of his mother. "The only time I'd talk to them was when my step daddy would take me to go see them. Once I got to college, we talked about all of the things that happened.
"She apologized for all of it, explained everything, and we moved forward."
After darting eight yards -- once he reached the 26-yard line -- Thomas started to slant toward the center of the field. Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was in tight man-to-man coverage. Safety Ryan Mundy also tried to drop back to help, but he was already too late.
When Broncos general manager Brian Xanders arrived in Atlanta a few weeks before the 2010 NFL Draft, he discovered a mentally tough player with the physical assets that would cause Denver to draft him with the first of two first-round picks. The team spent the second selection on Tebow.
"Demaryius was excellent on the interview," Xanders said. "He overcame a lot of adversity in his life. And that's a testament to his character -- to overcome all of those odds and get on the right path."
But it wasn't just what Thomas saw before the arrests that would mold him into the person he became. It was what he endure afterward. From the sixth to 10th grade, he'd bounce between four houses, still surrounded by a life of drugs.
By the time he landed with his father's oldest sister and her husband -- James and Shirley Brown -- Thomas had somehow managed to avoid the life he came from. He still had never touched drugs; still never committed a single crime. The discipline of his new guardians, for his final three years of high school, would pay off huge.
"I used to get up every Saturday at 6 a.m. to pick peas and pull corn with my aunt and uncle," Thomas recalls. "We'd go from 6 to 11. Then, I'd have to cut grass and rake the lawn. I had no choice. I was an usher in the church, went to bible study every Wednesday."
In perfect stride, Thomas caught a perfectly thrown pass from Tebow at the 38-yard line. Then, as Taylor closed in on him to make a tackle at the 45, Thomas delivered a vicious stiff arm. He sprung free and began his sprint toward the sideline.
Even after he broke away from a childhood of adversity, Thomas still faced a long road to Sunday's success. He has suffered five injuries in two years, one after another, testing his will to the point that he considered quitting football altogether.
"I thought about quitting football after I had those injuries," Thomas said. "But I told [my mother and grandmother] I wouldn't quit something I started. That's part of the reason I wrote their names on my arm. I wanted to remember to never quit."
Thomas can't quit now. Not before he has a chance to play in front of his mother in person. That's their goal -- to make that happen. He also wants to be able to provide for everyone in his family. For his two sisters who were ripped out of his life after the arrest. For his guardians, Shirley and James. For his mother and his grandmother.
"I haven't done much for my mom and my granny yet," he said. "I got my grandmother a lawyer. I pay for her lawyer. Hopefully, we can get her time cut shorter. I was going to do something for my mother, but she told me to wait."
She told him to wait -- because they're all hoping she could soon get her freedom. Although her sentence is scheduled to end in 2017 (Thomas would be 29), there stands a chance it could come sooner.
Whenever it happens, sooner or later, Thomas looks forward to a day when his mother can watch him play in person for the first time of her life. If he keeps up his current pace, that won't' be a problem at all.
Since Dec. 1, Thomas is averaging 22.5 yards per catch. His 108.7 yards per game are second in the NFL behind only Lions star Calvin Johnson. Thomas' teammates say they couldn't be happier for him after all he has endured.
And neither could his family.
"I'm sure they were all going crazy in prison after that play," Thomas said. "I'm sure it was very emotional with everybody cheering on their feet."
With his path now free from obstacles, Thomas' career seems headed in a great direction. He is happy. Content. Reflective. Understanding. And while it might be difficult to know where it will head from here, the Broncos wide receiver is simply thrilled to be sprinting toward his goals after a life of struggles.
As Thomas approached the Steelers' 40-yard line, he kicked into full stride, beginning to outdistance himself from the two defenders in tow. After 30 more yards, he straightened his body directly toward the goal line. Then, with another smaller stiff-arm, he shed his final defender to finish this improbable 80-yard play.
Thomas reached the end zone. Touchdown, Broncos.
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington