ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—The message from Demaryius Thomas was just to congratulate Garett Bolles on being drafted.
It meant so much to the Denver Broncos left tackle that, even years later, he still has the exchange stored on his phone.
Thomas was always thinking of others.
The five-time Pro Bowl receiver found the time to make a difference, whether it was working with a young wideout, signing autographs, attending a football clinic or welcoming a teammate. The football community was devastated by the loss of Thomas, who died Thursday night in his suburban Atlanta home at 33—nearly six months after officially announcing his NFL retirement.
To honor him, the Broncos players will wear a decal on their helmets Sunday against Detroit. There will also be a video tribute at the stadium and a moment of silence for the charismatic receiver.
“His smile lit up a room every time he walked in,” said Bolles, who was drafted in 2017 and warmly welcomed by Thomas. “Every time we talked to him, he was always happy. I don’t think I heard one negative thing out of his mouth or anything.”
Thomas was that rare humble player at a position that tends to attract the brash. He quietly went about his business of catching passes and making friends.
He had many of both.
Broncos kicker Brandon McManus posted photos of the two of them together on social media with the caption: “This is who my friend was. Always Smiling. I love you DT #RIP Broken heart.”
Several players remain on the Broncos roster who had ties with him from when he was in Denver for his last season in 2018, including receivers Tim Patrick and Courtland Sutton. There are a few coaches, too, and about 40 workers inside the organization. Although Broncos coach Vic Fangio never spent time with Thomas, he felt like he did through all the stories.
“Just seeing and feeling their reaction and hurt just tells me what a special player D.T. was,” Fangio said.
The Broncos (6–6) plan to pay tribute to him the best way they know how Sunday—through their performance.
“We’ve got to put ’88’ in our hearts and hopefully he gives us that juice, he gives us that desire to go make the playoffs,” Bolles said. “I feel like that’s what we need to do for him.”
Thomas’s contributions in Denver went far beyond the football field. He was noted for his work with the Broncos Boys and Girls Club, along with hospital visits and his annual football camp.
Social media was filled with tributes to Thomas, who was found dead in his home in Roswell, Georgia. LaTonya Bonseigneur, a cousin who grew up with Thomas, told The Associated Press the family believes he died from a seizure.
“Honored to have known you brutha. R.I.P!” Broncos Hall of Fame running back Terrell Davis posted on Twitter.
Thomas grew up in the tiny town of Montrose in southeast Georgia, where he rose to great heights after a troubled childhood that included his mother and grandmother being sent to prison for selling drugs. Thomas attended Georgia Tech, where he was a standout even in a run-oriented offense.
The Broncos and the coach at the time, Josh McDaniels, picked Thomas at No. 22 in the 2010 draft. That was over Dez Bryant, who went No. 24 to Dallas. A pick later, Denver took quarterback Tim Tebow.
Tebow and Thomas later teamed up for one of the most memorable passes in Broncos lore. On the first play of overtime in an AFC wild-card playoff game, Thomas broke free over the middle, hauled in a Tebow pass, and sprinted for an 80-yard touchdown to beat Pittsburgh.
On social media, Tebow wrote: “… I’ll be remembering him for his kindness, his smile that would light up a room, and the love he had for those in his life.”
Thomas also paired with Peyton Manning, the fruitful partnership starting in 2012 when he had 94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. Thomas made his first of five straight Pro Bowl selections.
In Manning’s final year, the Broncos defeated Carolina 24–10 in the Super Bowl to cap the 2015 season. Thomas had only one catch for 8 yards as Denver relied mainly on its defense and running game to secure the title.
“D.T. was a better person than he was a player, and he was a Hall of Fame player. That tells you how good of a person he was,” Manning posted on Twitter through the Broncos. “He treated my kids like they were his own. He was there for every teammate’s charity event.”
Then there’s former Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme, who posted a video of his son conducting a mock interview as he put on a football helmet.
“First of all, can you introduce yourself to us?” he asked in the video.
“Demaryius Thomas,” his son responded.
By Pat Graham