DUBLIN, Ga. — Demaryius Thomas’s parents see their son day-after-day.
A painting of the previous N.F.L. star rests against a wall in Katina Smith’s home, and Bobby Thomas, his father, keeps the identical image on his cellphone. It depicts a cherished moment that now seems foreboding: The 2 beaming parents flank their son within the moments after his Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 as Demaryius looks downward with a pained expression, scratching the back of his head.
The receiver had been leveled by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly in the course of the game and had a headache so bad that he missed many of the parties after the victory.
“He was like, ‘Hey, y’all, I would like to go away and go by myself because I don’t feel too good,’” Smith recounted. “And so, , 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. during which his charisma, humility and team-first ethos on the sphere made him a favourite of teammates and fans. Those closest to him said his behavior became increasingly erratic within the last yr of his life, which was marked by the memory loss, paranoia and isolation which can be hallmarks of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits.
On Tuesday, doctors from Boston University announced that Thomas was posthumously diagnosed with Stage 2 C.T.E., but his life and death were also complicated by seizures brought on by a 2019 automobile crash. They attacked with little or no warning and led Thomas to wreck other cars and fall down steps. The coroner’s office in Fulton County, Ga., has not yet ruled on the reason for his death, but doctors in Boston said he almost certainly died of suffocation after a seizure.
“He had two different conditions in parallel,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who studied Thomas’s brain. She added that seizures weren’t generally related to C.T.E.
Due to the dual conditions, Thomas’s C.T.E. diagnosis doesn’t bring the neat clarity that has punctuated other N.F.L. players’ demises. His family, friends and former teammates won’t know the way much football is accountable for Thomas’s struggles and are only now coming to grips with the extent to which he suffered.
“It amazes me now after we speak about how a young man that age will be in a lot pain but still smile,” said Carlos Jones, Thomas’s pastor who was with him when a seizure caused Thomas to fall down the steps in his home in early 2021. “It was only 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 helping to stabilize his family that was fractured during his adolescence.
Thomas was born on Christmas Day, 1987, in Montrose, Ga., a speck of a town between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave birth to him, and he or she never married Bobby, who joined the military and was often away.
When Thomas was 11, federal agents burst into the family’s home with a search warrant and located money connected to a drug ring led 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 twenty years in prison. Minnie Pearl Thomas was given a life sentence.
Head Injuries and C.T.E. in Sports
The everlasting damage brought on by brain injuries to athletes can have devastating effects.
Thomas bounced from home to home for a few years before settling with Bobby Thomas’s sister, Shirley, and her husband, James. 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 a key to his success.
“He had quite a lot of injuries that he played through, and he would all the time say, ‘You realize how I used to be raised, how I used to be trained, I’m not going to let my team down,’” said Paul Williams, Thomas’s highschool basketball coach and shut friend. He said Thomas all the time had a ready smile despite his many challenges off the sphere.
Denver drafted Thomas twenty second overall 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 during which he had 1,000 or more receiving yards. Thomas became a mentor to many teammates, including Bennie Fowler, a fellow receiver, and was a favourite teammate for his affable workmanlike approach to the sport.
Denver reached the Super Bowl the following season and was trounced by the Seattle Seahawks, but Thomas’s 13 catches set what was then a record for receptions within the title game.
Within the lead-up to Thomas’s next championship appearance, his family history gained as much attention as his play. After 17 years of appeals and lobbying from the family, President Barack Obama commuted Smith’s sentence as a part of a Department of Justice concentrate on clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. Their story became a spotlight ahead of the Super Bowl 50, with media reporting extensively about Smith’s finally with the ability to watch her son play in person on the sport’s biggest stage.
Thomas, who had been meeting with lawyers and who penned a letter to Obama on his mother’s behalf, was never happier.
“He loved her to death,” said Jamuel Jones, one among Thomas’s friends from highschool. “I saw a spark in him when she got out. They talked day-after-day. That was his predominant goal, to get them out,” he said, referring to Thomas’s mother and grandmother.
(Obama commuted Minnie Pearl Thomas’s sentence in 2016.)
‘It ain’t easy leaving football.’
As high as football lifted Thomas, it also contributed in some measure to his rapid decline. Within the years after that high-water mark shown within the painting, Manning retired and Thomas’s injuries piled up. Smith said her son told her that his peripheral vision was diminished.
In 2019, Thomas had been driving 70 miles per hour in a 30-m.p.h. zone in Denver when he lost control and flipped his automobile multiple times. His head cracked the windshield and the Jaws of Life were needed to remove him from the vehicle. Jamuel Jones, who had also played college football, was riding within the passenger seat and said doctors told the 2 football players that their ability to soak up hits might need saved their lives.
Thomas played a final, desultory season with the Jets, then went home to Georgia, his life at a crossroads. He was not under contract and was unsure about playing in the course of the pandemic, yet he was determined to get one other 237 yards to achieve 10,000 profession receiving yards. So he worked out five days per week, but his comeback was stalled by seizures that began in the autumn of 2020.
Because the seizures grew in number and intensity, neurologists told him they could be related to emphasize. The anti-seizure medicine Thomas took made him sluggish, and a second prescription didn’t stop them, so he tried ozone therapy, a hyperbaric chamber, massages and other treatments that had little lasting impact.
“He spent quite a lot of money on his body and look what happened, ?” said Bobby Thomas, who fell right into a depression when Demaryius died that deepened as he learned of the severity of his son’s condition.
“I didn’t know that he was that bad off.”
In a video announcing his retirement last June, Demaryius Thomas acknowledged that he was trying to search out his way. He said he was still deciding what to do next and looked to construct relationships with anyone who could help. “It ain’t easy leaving football,” he said. “Because that’s my predominant thing, just trying to search out self and put out love.”
Thomas made plans to launch a foundation to assist single moms. He had earned $75 million playing football and invested a few of that in various businesses. He wanted to construct a compound where his entire 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 that his paranoia grew to the purpose that he never left home with no gun.
After Thomas died on Dec. 9, members of the family found that money, guns and football memorabilia had been stolen from his home. Police arrested several men who had been hangers-on in the course of the last yr of his life.
Thomas’s death shocked his former teammates, who sought ways to recollect him publicly. Manning began two scholarships — one for Denver-area students, one other at Thomas’s alma mater, Georgia Tech. Von Miller, playing for the Los Angeles Rams last season, wore a T-shirt with Thomas’s picture during warm-ups within the playoffs and dedicated the team’s Super Bowl win to him.
Fowler, Thomas’s former mentee, said he and lots of players believed that they had some type of C.T.E. “It comes with the sport,” he said, acknowledging that all of them balance that risk with football’s life-changing advantages. Thomas was speculated to attend Fowler’s wedding this yr. As a substitute, Fowler ended up being one among Thomas’s pallbearers.
Thomas’s parents are only now finding catharsis in talking about their son. Smith helps Dublin city officials plan Demaryius Thomas Day on July 16, during which residents will release 88 balloons — Thomas’s Broncos uniform number. She hears about many anonymous donations her son made around town: shoes for kids, turkeys on Thanksgiving.
Parents here also ask her for advice on whether to let their children play football. Considering back to that photo of her son after Super Bowl 50 and the way he reached the highest of his career only to slide away, she warns them to watch out.
“This can be a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true,” she said. But “now I’m more adamant about like, hey, educate yourself on this.”