Analysis

Demaryius Thomas was uniquely talented on the football field -- and truly special in life

On Nov. 4, 2018, the Texans defeated the Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in dramatic fashion. Postgame there in Denver, holding a mic in a room no bigger than a closet tucked away in the back corner of the visitor's locker room, I waited for Demaryius Thomas.

Thomas' nine-year career in Denver, for the team that selected him 22nd overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, had just come to an abrupt conclusion on the previous Tuesday, when the Broncos traded him to the Texans. As fate would have it, Houston was scheduled to play in Denver five days later. Thomas somehow played in the game and racked up 61 receiving yards, thriving in a playbook he didn't even know.

DT's instant homecoming was a whirlwind. We were hoping to get a postgame interview with him, but we were running out of time. Before boarding the bus to the airport, everyone from Peyton Manning to the on-field security staff wanted a moment or picture with Thomas.

Almost seconds after receiving a text saying our chances were pretty slim, Thomas emerged through the opposite door. With that signature smile from ear to ear, he grabbed my hand and pulled me in for a hug. Then we did our final interview together in Denver. He found time on a day when there was none. Not an easy feat for most of us, but DT somehow always found a way to make it happen.

When we finished, and as his close friend and former teammate Von Miller stood waiting for his moment in the visitor's locker room, Thomas gave me another hug and said, "You have always been my guy. You've always done me right."

Demaryius Thomas made a lot of us feel like we knew him differently than anyone else did. If you were lucky enough, he let you in that way. That's why, in the wake of Thomas' sudden and shocking passing at age 33, we're seeing such a flood of cherished memories and experiences pouring out across social media.

So, instead of calling former teammates and coaches to gather what would undoubtedly be incredible quotes about the man, I'm going to write about the Demaryius that I knew.

We first met in Atlanta in the summer of 2012. Thomas had just finished his second season in the NFL and was back in his home state volunteering at a youth football camp hosted by Chiefs safety Eric Berry and Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson. And there he was, chopping it up with a group of kids -- a sight that didn't have much meaning to me back then, but one that I would witness on countless occasions out in the community in the years that followed. I was a young reporter for Comcast Sports Southeast and was nervous about interviewing all these NFL stars. Demaryius erased that feeling. We actually threw the ball around before we did the interview because he said we were in no rush. I remember him joking that he was "curious" about playing with Manning, whom Denver had signed to a blockbuster deal just a few months prior.

"I've never really played with a real quarterback before," Thomas said in that Georgia cadence that was unique to him.

He wasn't lying. Thomas had played his college ball at Georgia Tech, a school known for running the triple option under head coach Paul Johnson. And his first two years in the NFL were spent primarily catching balls from Tim Tebow. Demaryius flashed that smile and said he had a feeling he'd have pretty "decent" year. I'd say so. Thomas earned the first of his four Pro Bowl nods in 2012, catching 94 passes for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. That was the start of a five-year run of dominance in which the wideout showcased his rare size and speed, averaging 98 catches, 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns per season. It was a stretch of time where I watched from afar, living in Atlanta and Houston. In 2015, I joined NFL Network and moved back to some old stomping grounds in Denver. My rookie season for the Network was spent almost entirely down the road at Dove Valley, covering the Broncos' magical Super Bowl run.

That first season as a national reporter, I felt like I was back on a beat, spending almost every day with the Broncos. Chronicling Manning's foot injury, contextualizing one of the best defenses in recent memory. It was back to the days of covering players' charity events -- or really, any public appearance -- in an attempt to build new relationships. And it was on those Tuesdays, the players' usual day off, when the DT I met back in 2012 showed up again. Playing and laughing with kids. Often times, with those who grew up in difficult circumstances, just like him. Those were the times you saw him light up the most. Typically, as a reporter in these instances, you pull out your phone, record the interaction and proceed to post it on Twitter. But with Thomas, I often forgot to reach into my pocket. I was too enthralled. Instead of capturing the moment, I was captivated by it.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Demaryius was a beast at receiver. But he had a child's love for the game -- and life in general. It was funny to watch such a beacon of joy physically impose his will on other grown men. And if you knew his background, it was impossible not to root for him. Thomas' mother and grandmother were incarcerated when he was just 11, causing him to instantly become a parental figure to his younger siblings. That helps explain why you always heard teammates talk about how good he was with their kids. Demaryius would tell me how much he cared for Manning's children, and how he still spent so much time with them, even after Manning retired. He routinely passed time on plane and bus rides by hanging out with teammates' kids. It made perfect sense, in a way, because Thomas was robbed of his own childhood. And maybe that's why he had such a jubilance to him as an adult. It was almost like he was living the childhood he never had, making up for lost time. Stealing a cart on the practice field and driving it around during training camp, posing for pictures as he raced by. Doing the things we all had a chance to do when we were young.

On the field of play, though, he certainly handled his business. Former Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. always told me Thomas would go down as the best Broncos receiver of all time. With 9,055 receiving yards and 60 touchdown catches, he ranks second in franchise history in both categories, trailing only Rod Smith. Harris would say he'll be in Denver's Ring of Fame one day. Demaryius never said anything about that to me, but I think that honor would've meant a lot to him.

Thomas' personality and warm heart radiated to everyone in his presence. Considering everything that he'd been through, how could you not marvel at his infectious positivity? And if you knew all the physical issues he played through, how could you not respect his quiet professionalism?

In 2018, before the trade to Houston, we spent almost two hours on the practice field at Dove Valley talking football, life and legacy. We discussed what he was reading at the time, how he had transformed his diet in an attempt to continue playing with a body that was breaking down. Thomas always believed that if you can play on Sunday, you don't talk about your injuries. He never publicly discussed the partially torn labrum in his hip that dated back years. He played through the pain -- and through the criticism from analysts and fans. The hip got so bad that he literally couldn't run a route where he had to come to a sudden stop and work back to the ball. Imagine playing wide receiver in the NFL and your body won't allow you to run and stop. But Thomas believed his presence on the field would draw enough attention from defenses to allow others to operate in one-on-one coverage. Those are the things teammates and coaches knew. Fans? Not so much.

Thomas didn't understand the criticism he received, but he felt it. In fact, he told me that, at times, it impacted his play -- that is how much he cared. And so, at the time of that practice field chat back in 2018, Demaryius didn't know what his legacy would be in Denver.

I'd like to think he got a small taste of the appreciation on that November afternoon a few months later, when he returned to Denver as a member of the Texans. The Broncos draped a massive banner on the side of the stadium reading, "Thank You D.T." When he walked to the bus after the game, Manning's kids ran up to him in little Thomas No. 87 Texans jerseys. I don't even know how Manning was able to get them made in a matter of days. The children hugged Thomas like a favorite uncle they hadn't seen in years. Just as he'd been during Manning's retirement ceremony, Thomas was basically an honorary member of the family.

There wasn't a person in that stadium who didn't want a picture with DT. Or just to shake his hand and tell him they missed him. He'd been gone less than a week.

Thomas had a southern accent that was unique to him. I can hear it when I think about him. He was equally unique on the field, a freakish talent that doesn't come around very often. But I think what set him apart, really made him a diamond in the rough, was his outlook on life. He chose to remain authentic and grounded. He decided that going through life spreading joy made for a better existence than dwelling on hardships. Cynicism never captured him. I'll remember that part the most. And obviously, the smile.

Follow James Palmer on Twitter.

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