‘I had the biggest heart’


“You’ve got the duo here,” Emmanuel Sanders said with a smile as he and Demaryius Thomas stepped onto a podium inside Paul Brown Stadium in 2016. “The one-two.”

The two wide receivers had just put up 217 yards and three touchdowns in a 29-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, one of many impressive performances they had as Denver Broncos teammates from 2014 to 2018.

They became the seventh pair of wide receivers to each have three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and won Super Bowl 50 with quarterback Peyton Manning. Sanders and Thomas also built an unusually close relationship for receivers who compete for targets.

“They were so happy for each other, when another guy was successful, they celebrated each other,” former Broncos and current Chicago Bears wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. “They were such good friends… DT was a laid back guy, he didn’t say much, but on the other hand, Emmanuel, he said what he thought, whether it was good or bad.”

Like many, Sanders was rocked by the news of Thomas’s sudden death last December. The 10-year veteran, who played for the Broncos, Texans and Jets, was found dead at age 33 at his Roswell, Georgia home, six months after retiring from the NFL, due to complications from a seizure disorder. Thomas also had the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to an announcement from doctors at Boston University, who had been studying Thomas’s brain through the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Sanders said he contemplated retirement after Thomas’s death, citing CTE concerns. But he knew his Buffalo Bills teammates were counting on him and he returned to the field that same week.

Sanders, who has played for five NFL teams over 12 seasons but is now a free agent, remembers his friend’s positive energy.

“Go and find me a picture of [Thomas] when he’s not smiling and you send it to me,” Sanders said. “[It would] probably [be from] the last quarter of the game, but most of the time he’s smiling, he’s laughing. She had the biggest smile. If you don’t know much about him, google a picture of him and look at him when he smiles and that will tell you about the person he was.”

Sanders also remembers Thomas for his generous spirit. Thomas worked closely with the Boys & Girls Club and other organizations, impacting the lives of children, including some who grew up in difficult circumstances like him. Sanders and others have kept Thomas’s memory and legacy alive by keeping that work going.

“He was one of those kind of guys,” Sanders said of Thomas. “He did everything, he took his shirt off his back for anyone.

“He had the biggest heart, and I feel like I have the biggest heart. I feel like his could be bigger than mine, and I think that’s why we get along so well… I tell people all the time weather, [if] The more people were like Demaryius, the world would be a better place. I really mean it.”

TOMAS’S MOMKatina Smith can only remember one time she had to scold Thomas when he was little.

He went to a friend’s house two doors down from where he grew up in Montrose, Georgia. Thomas noticed that his friend needed some clothes, so he went to his own closet and gave her some.

“I said, ‘Where are your clothes?'” Smith recalled. “‘And he said to me, ‘Oh, I gave it to a friend of mine.

“I was like, ‘What?’ And then my first thought was to get mad, but then I was like, ‘Okay, they must need them,’ so I didn’t force him to get the clothes or anything like that.”

Growing up was not easy for Thomas and his two sisters. When he was 11 years old, the police raided his house. Smith and his mother, Minnie Pearl, were arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. They were found guilty and Pearl received two life sentences in prison and Smith was sentenced to more than 24 years. (Smith and Thomas’ sentences were commuted by former President Barack Obama.)

After his mother went to jail, Thomas lived with different members of the family. He didn’t go live with his father, Bobby Thomas, who was in the army. Demaryius eventually found a home with his aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown, who lived outside of Montrose.

Thomas found success in a stable home and then on the football field, arriving at Georgia Tech where he impressed teams enough to become the first wide receiver selected in his draft class. After the Broncos drafted him in 2010, Thomas made his presence felt in the Denver community, working with kids at youth soccer camps, local hospitals and at the Boys & Girls Club of Denver, which opened in 2003 and is fully financed by the Broncos. I used to visit the club once a month.

“DT was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever worked with and then gotten to know on a personal level,” Broncos director of community development Liz Jeralds said. “He had a larger than life presence and he really showed when he was around kids.”

During his visits, Thomas played sports in the gym and helped guide the children, reminding them to focus on education. He once had an explosive reaction when he FaceTimed basketball star Jimmy Butler and introduced him to the kids.

“He just had this energy about him, sometimes you could go up and smile and try to play with the kids and it just didn’t show,” Thomas’ former Broncos teammate Von Miller told ESPN. “The energy is not right. And DT, that was his life.”

His reach increased after he met Jayden Tolson, then 14, on a rainy day in November 2016.

“[He’d] check it out to make sure it was okay, like, ‘How’s it going?’ said Tolson, now 20 years old. “Make sure I’m up to date on my grades, make sure I’m not falling behind. He was like a big brother to me.”

Thomas gave Tolson, whose father is in prison, advice on dealing with having a parent in jail and the importance of staying focused. Thomas taking the time to just be there meant a lot to Tolson.

“I had other people show me the ropes,” Tolson said. “I know how to be a good role model in the community or how to show young people that they don’t have a father figure. You don’t always need a father figure, you just need someone who is a role model for you, that will show you the way.” “.

SANDERS OFFICIALLY LOST Practice of bills on December 10, 2021, for personal reasons. The NFL’s injury report didn’t go into detail about Thomas’s death and how it affected his close friend.

“I’m one of those people who brings out the emotions at that time and place, and then once they bring them out, they’re in the back,” Sanders said. “And that’s not to say I can’t mourn my friend, but at the same time I believe in God. Sometimes I get mad at the big man upstairs, like, ‘Why, why? [does] East [have] spend?'”

The former Broncos honored Thomas in their own way. Miller wore a jersey with Thomas’s face on it before the Rams’ wild card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. Manning created a new scholarship at Georgia Tech for students from the county where Thomas was from and another scholarship for high school athletes from Denver.

“An important part of Demaryius’s legacy was the way he inspired the next generation to pursue their dreams with the same perseverance and determination that defined him,” Manning said in a statement in April.

When Sanders returned to the field last season to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few days after Thomas’ passing, Bills fans Andrew Genco and Victoria Pascuzzi began a donation drive to the Emmanuel Sanders Foundation in increments of $10.88, a combination of Sanders’ No. 10 and Thomas’ No. 88, which brought in about $6,000.

“[Thomas’ death] it’s something I don’t think I’ll ever recover from,” Sanders said. “It has impacted me a lot. It’s little things like this, well actually big things like this [donation drive] that really makes me feel good that people care, Bills Mafia cares. …I used to say always [Thomas] 88 plus 10 is the closest thing to perfection.”

Those funds went to the organization that had meant so much to Thomas: the Boys & Girls Club in Buffalo, which got a new game room with a mural of Sanders and Thomas. Sanders spent a night in early February dedicating the room, decorated with balloons and lots of Bills colors, and playing with the kids from the club.

“[Thomas] he was probably the busiest in terms of the Boys & Girls Club, he was always performing for the kids,” Sanders said. “The children knew his truck when he stopped, they would run away because he was there all the time. “

In May, Sanders visited the Denver Boys & Girls Club to make a donation. He brought his daughter and his son, who Thomas would sit with during the Broncos’ Saturday morning breakfasts. Part of Sanders’ donation paid for jerseys for the club’s soccer team, which will feature a No. 88 patch. Thomas was honored at the event and other Broncos came to hang out and play with the kids.

Sanders wants to make sure Thomas’ legacy lives on. He believes that Thomas would have done the same if the situation had been reversed. “I know he would continue to leave a legacy, he would leave my legacy,” Sanders said.

Smith was trying not to cry in the video message she recorded for Sanders’ February event in Buffalo, but as she spoke about her son’s memory and what Sanders meant to her family, emotions welled up. “Thank you for allowing his playroom to be named after my son, in memory of him to carry on his legacy so that other children in this world know who 88 is and what 88 has done.

“… Thank you for loving him, thank you for respecting him, but most importantly, thank you for honoring him and being in his life and being by his side. You saved him. Many times you didn’t even know but you saved him.

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