Demaryius Thomas, the former Pro Bowl wide receiver and Super Bowl champion with the Denver Broncos, was found dead Thursday evening, according to Roswell, Ga., police. He was 33.
“We are devastated and completely heartbroken by the sudden, tragic passing of Demaryius Thomas,” the Broncos said in a statement. “D.T. was beloved by our entire organization, his teammates and coaches, and our fans. Recently retiring as a Bronco, we were very much looking forward to celebrating Demaryius for years to come as one of the greatest players in franchise history.”
A first-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2010, Thomas played nine of his 10 NFL seasons with the Broncos, earning five consecutive Pro Bowl nods from 2012 to 2016, landing second-team all-pro honors twice and winning a Super Bowl 50 ring after the 2015 season. He set numerous franchise records, including for receiving yards in a season (1,619 in 2014) and receiving touchdowns in a season (14 in 2013).
After his rookie season was beset by injuries, Thomas helped tie the longest pass play in Broncos history when he turned Tim Tebow’s first pass of overtime in a 2011 season AFC first-round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers into an 80-yard touchdown for an upset victory.
Thomas died about four weeks before the 10-year anniversary of that play — and about two weeks before his 34th birthday.
Beloved by teammates who respected his work ethic and quiet leadership, Thomas was a staple in Denver’s offense during some of its most prolific years with Peyton Manning as its quarterback.
From 2012 to 2016, Thomas topped 1,000 receiving yards each season to finish with the second-most 1,000-yard seasons in franchise history behind Rod Smith (eight). In those seasons, Thomas also became one of just four players in NFL history to have five consecutive seasons with at least 90 catches and 1,000 receiving yards.
During his tenure with the Broncos, Thomas scaled the franchise record books to rank among the top two or three — typically alongside Smith and Shannon Sharpe — in most career receiving categories. He was second in career receiving yards (9,055), touchdowns (60) and consecutive games with a catch (107); had the most career playoff catches (53); and led all Broncos players with 36 100-yard receiving games.
“D.T. was a better person than he was a player, and he was a Hall of Fame player,” Manning said in a statement. “That tells you how good of a person he was. He treated my kids like they were his own. He was there for every teammate’s charity event. I texted with D.T. on Tuesday. He was talking about a TD audible we called vs. Arizona in 2014. Absolutely devastated.”
But what made Thomas’s story remarkable was not the production or rare athleticism but the obstacles he overcame to achieve it all.
In 1999, when Thomas was 11, his home was raided and his mother and grandmother were arrested for drug trafficking. His mother, Katina Smith, was initially sentenced to more than 24 years, while Thomas’s grandmother Minnie Pearl Thomas was sentenced to two life terms with the chance of parole after 40 years.
Thomas went to live with an aunt and uncle. His mother and grandmother could watch his budding football career only on prison televisions. In the summer of 2015, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 imprisoned drug offenders. Smith was one of them, and later that year she watched her son play football in person for the first time, in Denver. The Broncos won Super Bowl 50 that season.
Minnie Pearl Thomas was released later in 2016.
On the field, Thomas recovered from injuries early in his career to start 122 consecutive games, a streak that started with the playoff victory over the Steelers in January 2012 and continued through multiple aches and nagging injuries.
“With pain, as long as you know it’s nothing super serious or nothing is structurally wrong, you start getting used to it,” he told the Denver Post in 2017. “If I get hit, I know the pain is going to be temporary. I’m going to hurt for a second, and that might be one of those times I run off the field. But then it’ll ease up, and I’ll go back in. But when you get those, you can’t run the next play, so you want to come off. It’s a mind thing. I’ve had to learn about my body, and I’ve had to figure out things that will work for me — I had to change my diet, and having been injured, I’ve been in the treatment room and learning from those guys and people outside of the treatment room.”
Before the 2018 trade deadline, Thomas was dealt to the Houston Texans for draft picks. The deal marked the beginning of a swift end to his career. Seven games into his time with the Texans, he tore his Achilles’ — the second such injury of his career — and he was released two months later. After a brief offseason stint with the New England Patriots, he was traded to the New York Jets, with whom he played 11 games in 2019.
“Im so sad to wake up this morning to hear about the passing of my friend [Demaryius] Thomas,” Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady tweeted early Friday along with a photo of him and Thomas. “We were all blessed with his humility and positive spirit, and we will all miss him. This photo is from the Hall of Fame this past August, a source of light as always. RIP”
Thomas announced his retirement from the NFL on June 28. He left the sport with 777 catches for 10,522 yards and 69 touchdowns in 10 seasons. Awaiting him still is a spot in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame.
When news circulated about his death, former teammates and players across the league reacted with an outpouring of messages and remembrances on social media.
“We all know how gifted D.T. was on the football field,” Tebow said on ESPN on Friday. “But that was not his greatest gift. His greatest gift was the joy he brought to life. I had the chance to talk to [former Broncos wide receiver] Eric Decker this morning, and we were reminiscing on our great times together with D.T., and the one thing we kept coming back to was how when he would walk in a room, he made the room brighter. He made the room better. Not because of what he did on the football field but because of his smile, because of his kindness, because of his joy for life, because of his love for people.”
Former Broncos and Dallas Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware posted a photo of himself with Thomas along with the message “heartbroken.”
Sharpe, a Hall of Fame tight end who was especially close to Thomas, said on Fox Sports 1′s “Undisputed” on Friday that he was skeptical of the news when he first saw rumors of the wide receiver’s death on social media.
“It just happened so quick,” Sharpe said. “I just cannot believe that D.T.’s gone. … It’s heartbreaking, man.”
Terrell Davis, the Hall of Fame running back and the Broncos’ all-time leading rusher, tweeted: “I’m just shocked to hear that Demaryius Thomas has died. Gone way to soon. Honored to have known you brutha. R.I.P!”
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