DUBLIN, Ga. — Demaryius Thomas’s mother and father see their son each day.
A portray of the previous N.F.L. star rests in opposition to a wall in Katina Smith’s house, and Bobby Thomas, his father, retains the identical picture on his cellphone. It depicts a cherished second that now appears foreboding: The two beaming mother and father flank their son within the moments after his Denver Broncos gained Super Bowl 50 as Demaryius seems to be downward with a pained expression, scratching the again of his head.
The receiver had been leveled by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly through the recreation and had a headache so dangerous that he missed many of the events after the victory.
“He was like, ‘Hey, y’all, I need to leave and go by myself because I don’t feel too good,’” Smith recounted. “And so, you know, he left and didn’t even finish celebrating or anything like that.”
Demaryius Thomas died in December at 33, mere months after retiring from a Pro-Bowl profession within the N.F.L. through which his charisma, humility and team-first ethos on the sphere made him a favourite of teammates and followers. Those closest to him mentioned his conduct grew to become more and more erratic within the final yr of his life, which was marked by the reminiscence loss, paranoia and isolation which are hallmarks of persistent traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative mind illness linked to repeated head hits.
On Tuesday, docs from Boston University introduced that Thomas was posthumously recognized with Stage 2 C.T.E., however his life and dying have been additionally sophisticated by seizures introduced on by a 2019 automotive crash. They attacked with little or no warning and led Thomas to wreck different vehicles and fall down steps. The coroner’s workplace in Fulton County, Ga., has not but dominated on the reason for his dying, however docs in Boston mentioned he most probably died after a seizure.
“He had two different conditions in parallel,” mentioned Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who studied Thomas’s mind. She added that seizures weren’t usually related to C.T.E.
Because of the twin circumstances, Thomas’s C.T.E. prognosis doesn’t deliver the neat readability that has punctuated different N.F.L. gamers’ demises. His household, mates and former teammates won’t understand how a lot soccer is chargeable for Thomas’s struggles and are solely now coming to grips with the extent to which he suffered.
“It amazes me now when we talk about how a young man that age can be in so much pain but still smile,” mentioned Carlos Jones, Thomas’s pastor who was with him when a seizure induced Thomas to fall down the steps in his house in early 2021. “It was just a testament of how strong he was.”
Reunited on the Super Bowl
Football modified the trajectory of Thomas’s life, his achievements on the sphere serving to to stabilize his household that was fractured throughout his adolescence.
Thomas was born on Christmas Day, 1987, in Montrose, Ga., a speck of a city between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave start to him, and she or he by no means married Bobby, who joined the military and was usually away.
When Thomas was 11, federal brokers burst into the household’s house with a search warrant and located cash linked to a drug ring led by Smith’s mom, Minnie Pearl Thomas. They arrested Smith for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and after she refused to testify in opposition to her mom, she was sentenced to twenty years in jail. Minnie Pearl Thomas was given a life sentence.
Head Injuries and C.T.E. in Sports
The everlasting injury brought on by mind accidents to athletes can have devastating results.
Thomas bounced from house to house for a few years earlier than settling with Bobby Thomas’s sister, Shirley, and her husband, James. Schoolmates bullied Thomas as a result of his mom was in jail, however he discovered solace and affirmation in monitor, soccer and basketball. In sports activities, overcoming ache was a key to his success.
“He had a lot of injuries that he played through, and he would always say, ‘You know how I was raised, you know how I was trained, I’m not going to let my team down,’” mentioned Paul Williams, Thomas’s highschool basketball coach and shut buddy. He mentioned Thomas all the time had a prepared smile regardless of his many challenges off the sphere.
Denver drafted Thomas twenty second general in 2010, the primary receiver taken that yr, and his profession skyrocketed when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, the primary of 5 consecutive years through which he had 1,000 or extra receiving yards. Thomas grew to become a mentor to many teammates, together with Bennie Fowler, a fellow receiver, and was a favourite teammate for his affable workmanlike method to the sport.
Denver reached the Super Bowl the following season and was trounced by the Seattle Seahawks, however Thomas’s 13 catches set what was then a report for receptions within the title recreation.
In the lead-up to Thomas’s subsequent championship look, his household historical past gained as a lot consideration as his play. After 17 years of appeals and lobbying from the household, President Barack Obama commuted Smith’s sentence as a part of a Department of Justice give attention to clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. Their story grew to become a spotlight forward of the Super Bowl 50, with media reporting extensively about Smith’s lastly having the ability to watch her son play in individual on the sport’s greatest stage.
Thomas, who had been assembly with legal professionals and who penned a letter to Obama on his mom’s behalf, was by no means happier.
“He loved her to death,” mentioned Jamuel Jones, one in all Thomas’s mates from highschool. “I saw a spark in him when she got out. They talked every day. That was his main goal, to get them out,” he mentioned, referring to Thomas’s mom and grandmother.
(Obama commuted Minnie Pearl Thomas’s sentence in 2016.)
‘It ain’t straightforward leaving soccer.’
As excessive as soccer lifted Thomas, it additionally contributed in some measure to his speedy decline. In the years after that high-water mark proven within the portray, Manning retired and Thomas’s accidents piled up. Smith mentioned her son instructed her that his peripheral imaginative and prescient was diminished.
In 2019, Thomas had been driving 70 miles per hour in a 30-m.p.h. zone in Denver when he misplaced management and flipped his automotive a number of occasions. His head cracked the windshield and the Jaws of Life have been wanted to take away him from the automobile. Jamuel Jones, who had additionally performed faculty soccer, was driving within the passenger seat and mentioned docs instructed the 2 soccer gamers that their capability to soak up hits might need saved their lives.
Thomas performed a last, desultory season with the Jets, then went house to Georgia, his life at a crossroads. He was not beneath contract and was not sure about taking part in through the pandemic, but he was decided to get one other 237 yards to succeed in 10,000 profession receiving yards. So he labored out 5 days per week, however his comeback was stalled by seizures that started within the fall of 2020.
As the seizures grew in quantity and depth, neurologists instructed him they is likely to be associated to emphasize. The anti-seizure medication Thomas took made him sluggish, and a second prescription didn’t cease them, so he tried ozone remedy, a hyperbaric chamber, massages and different remedies that had little lasting influence.
“He spent a lot of money on his body and look what happened, you know?” mentioned Bobby Thomas, who fell right into a melancholy when Demaryius died that deepened as he realized of the severity of his son’s situation.
“I didn’t know that he was that bad off.”
In a video saying his retirement final June, Demaryius Thomas acknowledged that he was looking for his method. He mentioned he was nonetheless deciding what to do subsequent and regarded to construct relationships with anybody who might assist. “It ain’t easy leaving football,” he mentioned. “Because that’s my main thing, just trying to find self and put out love.”
Thomas made plans to launch a basis to assist single moms. He had earned $75 million taking part in soccer and invested a few of that in varied companies. He wished to construct a compound the place his complete household might stay.
But he additionally remoted himself and was taken benefit of by former mates.
His mother and father mentioned Demaryius stopped returning their textual content messages and calls, and Bobby recalled that his paranoia grew to the purpose that he by no means left house with out a gun.
After Thomas died on Dec. 9, relations discovered that money, weapons and soccer memorabilia had been stolen from his house. Police arrested a number of males who had been hangers-on over the past yr of his life.
Thomas’s dying shocked his former teammates, who sought methods to recollect him publicly. Manning began two scholarships — one for Denver-area students, one other at Thomas’s alma mater, Georgia Tech. Von Miller, taking part in for the Los Angeles Rams final season, wore a T-shirt with Thomas’s picture throughout warm-ups within the playoffs and devoted the group’s Super Bowl win to him.
Fowler, Thomas’s former mentee, mentioned he and lots of gamers believed that they had some type of C.T.E. “It comes with the game,” he mentioned, acknowledging that all of them steadiness that threat with soccer’s life-changing advantages. Thomas was presupposed to attend Fowler’s wedding ceremony this yr. Instead, Fowler ended up being one in all Thomas’s pallbearers.
Thomas’s mother and father are simply now discovering catharsis in speaking about their son. Smith helps Dublin metropolis officers plan Demaryius Thomas Day on July 16, throughout which residents will launch 88 balloons — Thomas’s Broncos uniform quantity. She hears about many nameless donations her son made round city: footwear for youngsters, turkeys on Thanksgiving.
Parents right here additionally ask her for recommendation on whether or not to let their youngsters play soccer. Thinking again to that picture of her son after Super Bowl 50 and the way he reached the highest of his career solely to slide away, she warns them to watch out.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true,” she mentioned. But “now I’m more adamant about like, hey, educate yourself on this.”