Dublin, J.A.; Demarius Thomas’ parents see their son every day.
A painting of the former NFL star is on a wall in Katina Smith’s home, and his father, Bobby Thomas, keeps the same picture on his mobile phone. It depicts a cherished moment that now seems alarming: Cheerful parents surround their son in the moments after the Denver Broncos win Super Bowl 50 as Demarius looks down with a sore expression, scratching the back of his head.
The receiver was flattened by Carolina Panthers midfielder Luke Kuechly during the match and had such a headache that he missed most of the party after the win.
“He was like, ‘Hey, I need to leave and go on my own because I don’t feel very well,'” Smith recounted. “So, you know, he left and he didn’t even finish celebrating or anything like that.”
Demarius Thomas died in December at the age of 33, just months after retiring from a Pro-Bowl career in the NFL, as his charisma, humility and first-team spirit on the field made him a favorite of his teammates and fans. Those close to him said his behavior became increasingly erratic in the last year of his life, which was marked by amnesia, paranoia and isolation, hallmarks of CTE, the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.
On Tuesday, doctors from Boston University announced that Thomas had been posthumously diagnosed with stage 2 CTE, but that his life and death were also complicated by seizures from a 2019 car crash. They attacked without warning or without warning and led Thomas to smash Other cars are falling on degrees. The coroner’s office in Fulton County, Georgia, has yet to rule on the cause of his death, but doctors in Boston said he likely died after an epileptic seizure.
“He had two different conditions at the same time,” said Dr. Ann Mackey, a neurologist who studied Thomas’ brain. She added that the seizures were not generally associated with CTE
Given the dual circumstances, Thomas’ CTE diagnosis does not bring the elegant clarity that has permeated the deaths of other NFL players. His family, friends and former teammates won’t know how much football is responsible for Thomas’ struggles and are only now dealing with the extent to which he has suffered.
“It was just a testament to how strong he is,” said Carlos Jones, Thomas’s patron who was with him when an epileptic seizure caused Thomas to fall down the steps of his house in early 2021.
Reunited in the Super Bowl
Football changed the course of Thomas’ life, as his achievements on the field helped stabilize his family, which was broken during his adolescence.
Thomas was born on Christmas Day 1987 in Montrose, Georgia, a spot of town between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave birth to him, and she never married Bobby, who joined the army and was often away.
When Thomas was 11, federal agents broke into the family home with a search warrant and found money linked to a drug network led by Smith’s mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas. Smith was arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and after she refused to testify against her mother, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Minnie Pearl Thomas has been sentenced to life imprisonment.
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Thomas bounced from house to house for two years before settling down with Bobby Thomas’ sister, Shirley, and husband James. His schoolmates bullied Thomas because his mother was in prison, but he found solace and affirmation in track, football and basketball. In sports, overcoming pain was the key to his success.
‘He had a lot of injuries he’d been through,’ said Paul Williams, ‘You know how I grew up, you know how I trained, I’m not going to let my team down’, Thomas high school basketball coach and close friend. He said that Thomas has Always a ready smile despite his many challenges off the field.
Denver Thomas drafted 22 overall in 2010, the first receiver of that year, and his career soared when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, the first of five consecutive years in which he earned 1,000 yards or more. Thomas became a mentor to many of his teammates, including fellow receiving Benny Fowler, and was a favorite teammate for his gentle approach to the game.
Denver reached the Super Bowl the following season and were lost by the Seattle Seahawks, but Thomas scored 13 what was then a record for receptions in a title game.
In the lead-up to Thomas’ next appearance in the tournament, his family history gained just as much attention as his playing. After 17 years of pleas and pressure from family, President Barack Obama commuted Smith’s sentence As part of the Department of Justice focused on clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. Their story became a focus in the lead-up to Super Bowl 50, with media reporting widely that Smith was finally able to watch her son play in person on the biggest stage of the game.
Thomas, who has been meeting with lawyers and who has written a letter to Obama on his mother’s behalf, has never been happier.
“He loved her to death,” said Jamuel Jones, a friend of Thomas from high school. “I saw a spark inside him when I came out. They talked every day. That was his main goal, getting them out,” he said, referring to Thomas’ mother and grandmother.
(Obama Minnie Pearl Thomas’ sentence reduced in 2016.)
“It is not easy to leave football.”
As much as football lifted Thomas, it also contributed to some extent to his rapid decline. In the years following that high watermark depicted in the painting, Manning retired and Thomas’ injuries accumulated. Smith said her son told her his peripheral vision had diminished.
In 2019, Thomas was driving at 70 mph in a 30 mph zone in Denver when he lost control and flipped his car multiple times. His head cracked the windshield and life jaws were needed to remove him from the car. Jamuel Jones, who also played college football, was riding in the passenger seat and said doctors told the soccer players that their ability to absorb strikes might have saved their lives.
Thomas played a split final season with the Jets, then returned to his home country of Georgia, life at a crossroads. He wasn’t under contract and wasn’t sure about playing during the pandemic, yet he was determined to get another 237 yards to hit the 10,000 yards. So he was working five days a week, but his comeback was stalled by shifts that began in the fall of 2020.
As the episodes increased in number and severity, neurologists told him they might be stress related. Thomas’ anti-seizure medication made him sluggish, and a second prescription didn’t stop him, so he tried ozone therapy, hyperbaric chamber, massage and other treatments that didn’t have a lasting effect.
“He spent a lot of money on his body and look what happened, you know?” said Bobby Thomas, who was depressed when Demarius died and exacerbated it when he learned about the seriousness of his son’s condition.
“I didn’t know it was that bad.”
In a video he announced his retirement last June, Demarius Thomas admitted he was trying to find his way. He said he is still deciding what to do next and is looking forward to building relationships with anyone who can help. “It is not easy to leave football,” he said. “Because that’s the main thing for me, just trying to find oneself and put out love.”
Thomas made plans to launch a foundation to help single mothers. He earned $75 million playing football and invested some of it in various companies. He wanted to build a complex in which his whole family could live.
But he isolated himself and was taken advantage of by former friends.
His parents said Demarius had stopped returning their texts and calls, and Bobby recalled that his paranoia had grown to the point where 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 suspended during the last year of his life.
Thomas’ death shocked his former teammates, who sought ways to remember him publicly. Manning started two scholarships – One for Denver area students, and another at Thomas University, Georgia Tech. Von Miller, who was with the Los Angeles Rams last season, wore a T-shirt with Thomas on it during the playoffs warm-up and dedicated the team’s Super Bowl win to him.
Fowler, a former trainee for Thomas, said he and many players believe they have a form of CTE “It comes with the game,” he said, acknowledging that they all balance that risk with the life-changing benefits of football. Thomas was supposed to attend Fowler’s wedding this year. Instead, Fowler ended up being one of Thomas’s casket bearers.
Thomas’ parents now find relief in talking about their son. Smith helps Dublin city officials plan for Demarius Thomas Day on July 16, when residents will release 88 balloons – Thomas Bronco’s standard number. She hears about the many anonymous donations her son made around town: shoes for the kids, and turkeys at Thanksgiving.
Parents here also ask her for her advice on letting their kids play soccer. Thinking about that photo of her son after Super Bowl 50 and how he reached the top of his career only to run away, she warns them to be careful.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream,” she said. But “Now I’m more adamant about liking, educate yourself on this.”