On an early summer day, we walked up the driveway and Demaryius Thomas opened his front door with that smile that was uniquely his.
His house, resting atop a small hill, was imposing and impressive, several stories of red brick in a northern suburb of Atlanta.
D.T. was ready to announce that his career as an NFL player was over, and Phil Milani and I had been dispatched from Denver for a one-day sojourn to his home to interview him and prepare a send-off worthy of the kind of person and player he'd been for the Broncos.
Strange as it sounds, I'd been looking forward to this for some time. Obviously, it wasn't the end of his career that I longed for so much as the opportunity to catch up with him, reminisce over the good times and finally give people a chance to appreciate him after the way things had ended in 2018, when he was traded to Houston. That had been the last time I had spoken with him face to face.
He looked much the same now, about 18 months later, on the brick stairs in front of his house calling down to us to come inside.
As you could expect, his home was impeccably decorated. In the foyer, before a grand, winding staircase was a black cruiser bicycle outfitted with gold spokes, gold handlebars and white-walled tires. That was, in essence, the décor of his home, the stark contrast and the gold accents. He had hired an interior designer from Japan, he told us.
Off the atrium was a dining room — the words "FAMILY FOREVER" were framed over on one wall — and a living room, which had a balcony off of it. From that balcony, D.T. could look over his pool and into a swath of trees.
It seemed like a good place for him. Not far from the city but far enough away to be secluded. A meticulously decorated home that was both aesthetically pleasing and relaxing.
After welcoming us inside, we sat down for the interview in a sitting area off his kitchen and began by discussing the decision to retire. It hadn't come easily to him, he said. He talked it through with some former teammates who had been veterans on the Broncos when he was young — Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard, those kind of guys.
"It was a tough decision, a real tough decision, because I do say this: … Always as a kid, when I did something, it was always [giving] my best, to go and go and go," D.T. said. "And football was my goal. Every year I tried to get better and better, and I knew I was aging, of course. It was something tough, but I'm grateful I did 10, 11 years."
He'd accomplished practically everything one could reasonably set out to do in his career. Super Bowls, Pro Bowls, franchise records — memories that lasted a lifetime. The last thing he wanted was 237 more receiving yards to cross the 10,000-yard milestone for his career, but at some point he realized that with his 759 playoff receiving yards, he'd already done it and the chase wasn't worth it.
"My main goal was to go in there and get 10,000, and ultimately, playoffs and [regular season], I got it," D.T. said. "If they don't count the playoffs then I don't got it, but I don't care. I did a lot of good in there. There was some bad in there, but that's OK. I won a Super Bowl, I played with some of the greats. I got a lot of memories that I remember, so the ultimate goal is good."
Demaryius Thomas' time with the Broncos was unforgettable — he made game-winning plays, set franchise records, helped the Broncos reach two Super Bowls — including a win in Super Bowl 50 — and he was a star in the community.
Over the course of the 30-minute conversation, D.T. took us through the past 10 years of his life, beginning with the moment he became a Bronco.
He told us about how being drafted in 2010 with the 22nd-overall pick had been "one of the most exciting nights" of his life and how the game-winning catch in overtime against the Steelers in the playoffs made him "still get the chills, the cold chills."
He smiled when we reminded him that he called Peyton Manning "Sir" when the Hall of Fame quarterback first joined the team.
"I was nervous," D.T. admitted. "I was like, Man, I'm going to get a chance to play with Peyton. A lot of guys don't get that. I don't care what they say, with the injury or not. It was just learning the game and being around him, and that was some great times."
Though D.T.'s playoff game against the Steelers had signaled his emergence as one of the game's best receivers, Manning's arrival changed the trajectory of his career, and he recalled for us one of his favorite stories to demonstrate how.
"I remember a Tampa Bay game," D.T. said. "I was in the slot. I called an audible to him to change a play because I read the defense, because I learned it from him. I learned it from him. He gave me a head nod and we threw a touchdown. … I even remember the coverage: It was Cover 2. I was supposed to have a corner. I said, I can't run a corner route into Cover 2. I alerted and I gave him a post, a post route. This. He gave me a nod. Bingo. Touchdown. …
"I'd never done that with a quarterback. I never saw a receiver do that with a quarterback. This is why I still say he's the best that does it, because … we go to the line with the plays and if you know the game, you know when it's time to alert. That's why I loved playing with him."
The bond between those two clearly had a special place in D.T's heart, and even nine years after they met, it seemed like D.T. had to pinch himself when he thought about it. Later, when we surprised him with a video message from Manning congratulating him on his retirement, D.T. appeared to genuinely be shocked by the gesture.
"He actually is my friend, man," D.T. said. "Outside of football, I used to go to Peyton's house, kick it with Mosely and Marshall. All the time. … He's my friend. That's my guy. P.M."
With Manning, D.T. and the Broncos of course reached their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl. Like so many players from that team, D.T. commemorated the accomplishment by getting a tattoo. There, on his right forearm, he had an image of the Super Bowl 50 trophy placed right above him being drafted and holding up a Broncos jersey.
"It's right here, it's on me," D.T. said. "I'll never forget it. Great times and great memories. There's so many memories. I would say winning the Super Bowl was one of the best, but there's so many memories behind the scenes that people don't see, like being around [Equipment Manager Chris] 'Flip' [Valenti], the guys. I don't want to call names because I'll miss so many. It's so many people that I was close with, in the community and that's up there. It's a lot of many memories that I had that I'll forget, but I will love all of them."
When he considered his future after football, D.T. could admit that he didn't have it completely planned out just yet.
The game had dominated his life for decades. It had been his purpose.
"Mainly, it's like for the last year or so or whatever it's been, it's just been trying to find myself," D.T. said. "Of course you know leaving ball, it's a tough thing. It's a tough thing to get away from because guys be trying to find that urge [of what] to do next, and it's nothing like ball that you could do next. So I've just been working on myself and trying to find myself. Of course, getting love from my family and friends, but the main thing is just working on self and trying to find what I'm going to do next and being in a relationship where I can help people who are really going to help me out, because it ain't easy. I'm gonna say that: It ain't easy leaving football. So that's my main thing is just trying to find self and put out love."
He floated several ideas he had for the years to come, but it seemed like there wasn't much pressure to figure it out quickly. He considered maybe coaching or devoting his life to community service, perhaps in Denver. He really missed Denver, he said.
"I think my hardest thing with it is I love ball and I love teaching it," D.T. said. "I could develop to teach the game and be around guys. It's excitement being around kids because that's a plus for me. Even when I was in Denver I went to Boys & Girls Clubs, me and [Senior Manager of Community Development] Liz [Jeralds], used to hang out with the kids all the time. That's one of the things I would miss, I think. And I think I want to stay around doing it, but I never know right now. I don't know what's the next goal. But my main thing is take it day by day and go from there."
Part of the future that he looked forward to that was more certain was taking his place in the Broncos' Ring of Fame and crowning the legacy he had left in Denver.
"I just want to be considered as one of the best to come through there," D.T. said. "I tried to do my best. I put it all on the line, each and every week — even in practice, I tried to practice all the time. My thing is it's being there when we needed it. If it wasn't for a catch or whatever it was … I played 122 games straight. And it's a lot of people who couldn't say that. It wasn't all about going to get the catch. It was times where if we needed a big block, I might do that. Or whatever it was, I was just making sure I was there for my team and my guys so I can take pressure off of somebody maybe or spring up or open a big block for somebody, whatever it was. It wasn't never really about me. I was trying to do it for the team."
The Ring of Fame pillar, the name on the fifth-level façade, all of it — he envisioned that future.
"Man, I've been thinking about it for a while," D.T. said. "Just thinking about when I get old. I think about just crazy stuff — when I'm old, when I'm away, just thinking, Man, when I'm in a grave, my name's still gonna be up here. … I think I just owe it to the hard work I put in and being around some of the people that helped me. I'm just grateful."
Following Thursday's tragic news, that day is coming far too soon.
Obviously, D.T. was special.
A special football player, and an even more special person.
Even with all of his accomplishments and accolades, D.T. always seemed approachable. Generally, he was quiet or even shy, but he was also quick to smile, a playful spirit. He simply felt like he was your friend, even if you barely knew him.
That was particularly the case for children, to whom D.T. particularly felt attached. He bonded with kids at his youth football camp and at the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club, where he forged friendships that lasted well after he left Denver. On Saturdays before home games, players and coaches would bring their children to UCHealth Training Center for family breakfasts. D.T. was the easily most popular person in the building on those mornings, playing with toy cars or play fighting or just joking over pancakes.
"It was just trying to give back and be around kids to show them whatever to put a smile on their face because they put smiles on my face and I know they're our next generation," D.T. said. "I know they're a lot of things. It's just so much. I've been around them so much — they're so smart, they know so much and they don't get enough love, so I just try to spread the love and put out love. That's my main thing, just trying to put out love where I could."
Not long after that, we wrapped up the interview. Afterward, as we waited for a car to take us to the airport, we just chatted. He told us about his love for Bob Marley, about the poker games he held with friends in his basement — about the person he was becoming in retirement.
Then the car arrived, he saw us out and waved goodbye.
Take a look inside Demaryius Thomas' life in retirement with these portraits and other photos from his home in Georgia.