NEW YORK — It is something Demaryius Thomas has lived with for nearly 15 years, but it hasn’t defined him. If anything, it has motivated him, and made him realize that going against NFL cornerbacks, including Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Co. on Sunday, is nothing compared to losing your mother, Katina Smith, and grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, to prison.
“You never know,” Thomas, the Denver Broncos wide receiver, said to the assembled media covering Super Bowl XLVIII. “One day you can be here and the next day you’ll be gone. So I take every day like it’s my last, I play every football game like it’s my last. I was brought up a Christian, I was raised around great people. They drive me more to know that they’re there and they’re watching me. I try to go out there and play my best because they’re going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse.”
It was early in the morning of March 15, 1999, and Thomas was 11 years old when police entered his mother’s house in Montrose, Ga., and arrested both on charges of selling drugs.
In a 2010 interview, Thomas said he remembered seeing crack being produced by his grandmother and the constant arrival and departure of strangers. He told the Denver Post, “I knew my grandma was selling it and my mom was keeping some money. I told my mother one time that they needed to stop because I had a dream that they got in trouble. I started crying like every night after that. And then it finally happened.”
As it was happening, Smith made a simple request to the police, which was granted. She was permitted to get her son and daughters dressed for school, made them breakfast and then waited with them for the bus. Smith told the Post, “I hugged them and said, ‘I’ll see you when I get back,’ and told them, ‘I love you.’ But I never came back.”
Eleven months later, they were convicted in federal court of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base.
Thomas received two life sentences with the chance of parole after 40 years because she had two prior convictions for selling and had served 14 months on the second charge. Smith received 20 years, a sentence longer than it might have been, but she refused to testify against her grandmother that would have resulted in reduced time.
Since then, they have been in the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Fla.
“It hurt me when I found out she wouldn’t tell on me,” Minnie Thomas told the Post. “I think of her kids and how they’re being raised. It’s not that they don’t have good lives, but they would have been better with their mother. I beat up myself about that all the time.”
Thomas then grew up in the home of his aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown, because his father, Bobby Thomas was in the Army. His father has always remained close and helped, and Demaryius feels blessed by the support of everyone through those difficult times. It’s why he has tattoos saying “Family” on his right biceps and “First” on the left side.
As Brown told the Post, “He needed stability. I think he felt comfortable here, like, they won’t belittle me because of who I am and what my family has done.”
The Browns receive cards from Smith on major holidays, and she told the Post, “I just want to say thank you to them for taking care of Bay Bay, and for instilling good morals in him.”
That was evident by what Broncos receiver coach Tyke Tolbert said of Thomas. “He’s the best person, just a great individual. All the credit to him,” Tolbert said. “He called me on Christmas Eve and said, ‘Coach, what do your two daughters want for Christmas?’ I’m just thinking, ‘What? Why?’ He was at the mall and thought of my girls. He didn’t have to, didn’t need to. That’s just who he is.”
Thomas, born on Christmas Day in 1987, was an usher growing up in the Baptist church where Brown was a minister.
Thomas talks to his mother frequently and visits as often as he can.
“I’ve talked to my grandmother and my mom. They both called me this week,” Thomas said. “I can never call them, they have to call me. My mom calls me before and after every game. My grandma tries to call me before every game, but I talk to my mom before every game. It depends. The most is probably three minutes.
“But they’ll call me again before the game. The next time I see them will be after the season.”
As for what the conversation was like, he said, “It was just happy. My momma, she just told me, ‘I told you you would make it.’ We haven’t really talked about it much but I talked to my grandma and she said the same thing. She got emotional and all, but they just said, ‘You were going to make it.’”
Obviously, both mother and grandmother have never seen Thomas play on any level, but he said, “They get to watch every game that comes on TV there and they’ve got the t-shirts. All of the ladies have the t-shirts and watch me, so that’s special.”
Meanwhile, despite the 20-year sentence, Smith could be released from prison in Dec. 2016, when she would live in a halfway house for six months and then be totally free in June, 2017.
Suddenly, that’s only three years away, and Smith thinks often about being able to see her son play in person.
She said, “I want to be in the front row, right next to the sideline. I’m going to lose my voice.”
Most impressive is that Demaryius Thomas didn’t lose his way.
Howard Balzer is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who has covered the National Football League for more than three decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange and co-host on SiriusXM NFL Radio.