ATLANTA—Demaryius Thomas, who earned five straight Pro Bowl honors and a Super Bowl ring during a prolific receiving career spent mostly with the Denver Broncos, has died at the age of 33.
Thomas was found dead in his suburban Atlanta home Thursday night, said Officer Tim Lupo, public information officer for the police department in Roswell, Georgia.
“Preliminary information is that his death stems from a medical issue, and our investigators currently have no reason to believe otherwise,” Lupo said in a statement early Friday.
LaTonya Bonseigneur, a first cousin who grew up with Thomas and was so close they considered themselves siblings, told The Associated Press the family believes he died from a seizure.
Family members were notified by the Roswell police at about 9 p.m. EST that they had found Thomas in a shower at his home.
“He had been suffering from seizures for over a year, and we believe he had a seizure when he was showering,” Bonseigneur said early Friday. “We’re not sure when he died. We just spoke with him yesterday.”
She added, “He was alone and a friend couldn’t get hold of him, so he called his driver, who has a key because of these seizures, and he went into his home and found him in the shower.”
He will be remembered mostly for his eight-plus seasons with the Broncos.
“We are devastated and completely heartbroken,” the team said in a statement. “We were very much looking forward to celebrating Demaryius for years to come as one of the greatest players in franchise history.”
His contributions to the community went beyond the playing field, the team said, noting his work with the Broncos Boys and Girls Club, hospital visits, his annual football camp, and “many other genuine interactions.”
“Demaryius’ humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile will always be remembered by those who knew him and loved him,” the statement said. “We have lost an incredible player and a special person in Demaryius Thomas.”
While he put up huge numbers after the Broncos signed quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012, Thomas made his best-known catch the previous season, his second year in the league.
On the first play of overtime in an AFC wild-card playoff game, he broke free over the middle and hauled in an 80-yard touchdown from Tim Tebow to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A native of Montrose, a tiny town in southeast Georgia, Thomas managed to make his mark collegiately as a receiver at Georgia Tech—even after the school hired Paul Johnson to replace Chan Gailey as coach.
Ditching Gailey’s pro-style offense, Johnson installed the run-oriented scheme that had been so successful for him at lower-division Georgia Southern.
Despite a huge drop-off in the number of passes the Yellow Jackets threw, Thomas was often left in single coverage and managed to show off the skills that would lead the Broncos to take him with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Thomas finished his career at Georgia Tech with 120 receptions for 2,339 yards and 14 touchdowns in three seasons.
Teaming up with Manning, Thomas put up much gaudier numbers for the Broncos beginning with a dazzling 2012 season—94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns—that led to the first of those five straight Pro Bowl selections.
He twice had more than 100 catches in a season, highlighted by career bests of 111 catches and 1,619 yards in 2014. He had five consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving.
In Manning’s final year, the Broncos defeated Carolina in the Super Bowl to cap the 2015 season.
The Broncos also made the Super Bowl during the 2013 season, piling up the greatest offensive numbers in NFL history.
But they went down with a whimper in the title game, routed by the Seattle Seahawks 43–8 even though Thomas set a then-Super Bowl record with 13 receptions, totaling 118 yards.
“If we all played like he did, we’d have won,” Denver general manager John Elway moaned.
When the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl two years later, Thomas’ mother got a chance to watch him in person rather than on a prison television.
Nicknamed “Bay Bay” as a child after the animated movie “Bébé’s Kids,” Thomas was 11 when police burst into his home and arrested his mother, Katina Smith, and grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, on drug charges.
Katina Smith was sentenced to 20 years in prison after refusing a lesser term in exchange for testifying against her mother, who wound up receiving a life sentence.
“I think that drives me more to know that they’re there and they’re watching me,” Thomas said before his first Super Bowl. “I try to go out there and play my best because they’re going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse.”
Both women would be freed by President Barack Obama under an initiative to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders doing time.
Smith was released in time to watch from the stands as her son won a championship. The first thing she asked him for after prison was a Sony Walkman.
“I don’t even know if you can find a Walkman right now,” Thomas told her.
He got her an iPhone instead. Before long, she was texting like a teenager and calling her son all the time.
One of Thomas’ teammates on the Super Bowl-winning team expressed shock at the news of his untimely death.
“Heartbroken,” former Broncos defensive star DeMarcus Ware wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of the two together.
Similar sentiments came in from current and former players around the league.
“RIP Young Legend,” Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted.
“I’m just shocked to hear that Demaryius Thomas has died,” former Broncos running back Terrell Davis wrote. “Gone way to soon.”
“My heart is hurting right now,” Broncos Hall of Famer Steve Atwater said. “We’ll never forget you my brother.”
After Manning’s retirement, Thomas’ production began to decline as the Broncos struggled to settle on their next quarterback.
Then, during the 2018 season, he was traded to the Houston Texans. He managed only 23 catches in seven games with his new team and was released after that brief tenure.
Thomas signed with the New England Patriots, but was cut before their opener. He finished up with the Jets.
In 143 career games, Thomas had 724 catches for 9,763 yards and 63 touchdowns.
Thomas was not married and had no children, according to Bonseigneur. After his mother went to prison, he lived with an uncle, James Brown.
Brown died on Nov. 15 of a heart attack at age 69. Thomas attended his funeral.
“Demaryius was a great guy,” Bonseigneur said. “He came from humble beginnings. He knew God. He was raised in the church and by a close-knit family. Even though he rose to stardom, to us he was just a kid from Montrose. We never fathomed he would go on to do all these amazing things. He was just a kid who loved playing football.”
By Paul Newberry