DUBLIN, Georgia – Demaryius Thomas’ parents see their son every day.
A painting of the former NFL star hangs on a wall at Katina Smith’s home, and Bobby Thomas, his father, keeps the same image on his phone. It depicts a cherished moment that now seems foreshadowing: the two beaming parents flank their son in the moments after his Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, while Demaryius looks down with a pained expression, scratching the back of his head.
The receiver had been knocked out by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during the game and had such a bad headache that he missed most post-win parties.
“He said, ‘Hey everyone, I have to go and go by myself because I’m not feeling well,'” Smith said. “And so, you know, he left and didn’t even finish partying or anything.”
Demaryius Thomas died in December at the age of 33, just months after retiring from a Pro-Bowl career in the NFL that saw his charisma, humility and team-first ethos on the field become one favorite of teammates and fans. Those closest to him said his behavior had become increasingly erratic in the last year of his life, which was marked by memory loss, paranoia and isolation that are hallmarks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated head banging.
On Tuesday, Boston University doctors announced that Thomas was posthumously diagnosed with stage 2 CTE, but his life and death were also complicated by seizures caused by a 2019 car accident. They attacked with little or no warning, causing Thomas to wreck other cars and fall down stairs. The Fulton County, Georgia coroner’s office has yet to rule on the cause of death, but doctors in Boston said he most likely died after a seizure.
“He had two different diseases at the same time,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who examined Thomas’ brain. She added that seizures are not generally associated with CTE
Because of the dual conditions, Thomas’ CTE diagnosis doesn’t bring the neat clarity that has interrupted the deaths of other NFL players. His family, friends and former team-mates will be unaware of the extent to which football is to blame for Thomas’ struggles and will only now come to terms with the extent to which he has suffered.
“It amazes me now when we talk about how a young man of his age can be in so much pain and still smile,” said Carlos Jones, Thomas’s pastor, who was with him when a seizure caused Thomas to die Fell down steps of his home in early 2021. “It was just a testament to how strong he was.”
Reunited at the Super Bowl
Football changed the course of Thomas’ life, his achievements on the field helped stabilize his family which had been shattered during his youth.
Thomas was born on Christmas Day 1987 in Montrose, Georgia, a patch of land between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave birth to him and she never married Bobby, who joined the army and was away often.
When Thomas was 11, federal agents broke into the family home with a search warrant and found money linked to a drug ring run by Smith’s mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas. They arrested Smith for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and after she refused to testify against her mother, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Minnie Pearl Thomas was sentenced to life imprisonment.
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Thomas hopped from house to house for a few years before settling down with Bobby Thomas’ sister Shirley and her husband James. Schoolmates bullied Thomas because his mother was in prison, but he found solace and validation in athletics, soccer, and basketball. In sport, overcoming pain was a key to his success.
“He’s had a lot of injuries that he’s played through and he’s always said, ‘You know how I grew up, you know how I was coached, I’m not going to let my team down,'” said Paul Williams. Thomas’ high school basketball coach and close friend. He said Thomas always had a smile on his face despite his many challenges off the field.
Denver drafted Thomas 22nd overall in 2010, the first receiver taken that year, and his career skyrocketed when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, the first of five straight years in which he made 1,000 or had more receiving yards. Thomas became a mentor to many teammates, including Bennie Fowler, a fellow receiver, and was a well-loved teammate for his affable, artisanal approach to the game.
Denver reached the Super Bowl the next season and was defeated by the Seattle Seahawks, but Thomas’ 13 catches set the then-record for title game receptions.
Ahead of Thomas’ next championship appearance, his family history has garnered as much attention as his game. After 17 years of appeals and family lobbying, President Barack Obama commuted Smith’s sentence as part of a Justice Department focus on pardoning nonviolent drug offenders. Her story became a focus leading up to Super Bowl 50, with media coverage of Smith finally getting to see her son in person on the game’s biggest stage.
Thomas, who met with lawyers and wrote a letter to Obama on behalf of his mother, has never been happier.
“He loved her to death,” said Jamuel Jones, one of Thomas’ high school friends. “I saw a spark in him when she got out. They talked every day. That was his main goal, getting her out,” he said, referring to Thomas’ mother and grandmother.
(Obama commuted Minnie Pearl Thomas’ sentence in 2016.)
“It’s not easy to leave football.”
As high as football took Thomas, it also contributed to some extent to his rapid decline. In the years following the high-water mark seen in the painting, Manning retired and Thomas’ injuries mounted. Smith said her son told her his peripheral vision was diminished.
In 2019, Thomas had been driving at 70 mph in a 30 mph zone in Denver when he lost control and overturned his car multiple times. His head shattered the windshield and the Jaws of Life were needed to remove him from the vehicle. Jamuel Jones, who also played college football, was in the passenger seat and said doctors told the two football players their ability to absorb blows may have saved their lives.
Thomas played one final, fickle season with the Jets and then returned to Georgia, where his life was at a crossroads. He wasn’t under contract and wasn’t sure about playing during the pandemic, but he was determined to rush for another 237 yards to reach 10,000 yards for career reception. So he trained five days a week, but his comeback was stalled by seizures that began in the fall of 2020.
As the seizures increased in number and intensity, neurologists told him they might be related to stress. The seizure medication Thomas was taking made him sluggish, and a second prescription couldn’t stop it, so he tried ozone therapy, a hyperbaric chamber, massage, and other treatments that had little lasting effect.
“He spent a lot of money on his body and look what happened, you know?” said Bobby Thomas, who fell into a depression when Demaryius died that deepened when he learned of the seriousness of his son’s condition.
“I didn’t know he was doing so badly.”
In a video announcing his retirement last June, Demaryius Thomas admitted he was trying to find his way. He said he’s still deciding what to do next and trying to build relationships with anyone who could help. “It’s not easy to leave football,” he said. “Because that’s my main thing, just trying to find myself and showing love.”
Thomas planned to start a foundation to help single mothers. He had earned $75 million from football and invested part of it in various companies. He wanted to build an estate where his whole family could live.
But he also isolated himself and was taken advantage of by former friends.
His parents said Demaryius stopped returning their text messages and calls, and Bobby recalled his paranoia growing to the point that he never left the house without a gun.
After Thomas died on December 9, family members discovered that cash, guns and football memorabilia had been stolen from his home. Police arrested several men who had been followers in the last year of his life.
Thomas’ death shocked his former teammates, who sought ways to publicly remember him. Manning began with two scholarships—one for Denver-area students and another at Thomas’ alma mater, Georgia Tech. Von Miller, who played for the Los Angeles Rams last season, wore a t-shirt with Thomas’ picture on it during playoff warm-up and dedicated the team’s Super Bowl win to him.
Fowler, a former mentee to Thomas, said he and many players believed they had some form of CTE. Thomas was scheduled to attend Fowler’s wedding this year. Instead, Fowler became one of Thomas’ pallbearers.
Thomas’ parents are finding catharsis when they talk about their son. Smith is helping Dublin City officials plan for Demaryius Thomas Day on July 16, when residents will release 88 balloons – the Broncos’ uniform number of Thomas. She hears about many anonymous donations from her son around town: shoes for kids, turkeys for Thanksgiving.
Parents here also ask her for advice on letting their children play soccer. As she thinks back to the photo of her son after Super Bowl 50 and how he reached the pinnacle of his career only to run away, she warns her to be careful.
“This is a once in a lifetime dream come true,” she said. But “now I’m more adamant, hey, educate yourself.”