DENVER — Shortly before the Broncos' emotional 38-10 win over the Lions, former Bronco and Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and his children walked out to Ring of Fame Plaza on the south side of Empower Field at Mile High.
Just in front of the stadium's horse statues, the organization had set up a memorial in honor of Demaryius Thomas, the former franchise great who lost his life tragically on Thursday at the age of 33. The three Mannings — Peyton, son Marshall and daughter Mosley — made their way to pay their respects and reflect on the life of one of their dear friends before returning to the stadium.
"A special and unique guy," Manning said later. "Obviously an incredible player — dependable, accountable, tough, hard-working, unselfish. All the things you want in a great teammate … much less an incredibly talented receiver."
Thomas also played a key role in Manning's decision to sign with the Broncos in 2012 as a free agent, he said.
"He was a big reason why I came out here to play," Manning said. "I knew what he had done in just two years, but I also knew what he was capable of doing. That was a big part of the attractiveness for coming to play for the Broncos. So, for so many reasons, I'm very indebted and thankful to Demaryius."
Thomas, of course, had been more than just a teammate for Manning — he had been a dear family friend. This past summer, Thomas spoke of his friendship with the family, how he would go to the Mannings' home and play with the kids. And when Thomas was traded to Houston, his return to play the Broncos was emotional, too. Despite the trade being only just days old, Marshall already had a Thomas Texans jersey for the game.
Those memories linger for Manning even more than the plays Thomas made on the field.
"Off the field, he was as good a person as he was a player," Manning said. "Very giving to all his teammates' charities, great with all the players and families — coaches' families and kids. It's been really tough. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He will be dearly missed. He was great to my kids, great to my family — which is more important than any touchdown he ever caught for me."