ROSWELL, Ga. — Before the Mile High magic in the 2011 playoffs, before the five Pro Bowls and before he became a Super Bowl champion, Demaryius Thomas was just a kid from a small town in Georgia.
But his life changed forever on draft night in 2010, when Thomas was selected by the Broncos with the 22nd-overall pick. That evening was "one of the most exciting nights," Thomas recalled. With his aunt, uncle and cousins with him at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, he beamed as he became the first wide receiver off the board.
The next day, Thomas arrived in the city he would call home for nine years on a chilly, rainy day.
"I knew nothing about Denver," Thomas said. "Never been. First time. A new beginning."
In spite of the dreary weather, the future seemed bright. At the time, Thomas' entire career lay in front of him, nothing but potential.
Thomas was far from a finished product as he prepared to begin his NFL career. He had enormous raw talent: tremendous speed and agility, great size and a remarkable toughness. The main thing he lacked then was traditional route-running skills; in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense, Thomas hadn't run traditional routes. The Broncos trusted that would not be much of an obstacle for him.
It was through his relentless work ethic that Thomas ensured that he could be the player the Broncos thought he would be. Despite injuries that threatened the early years of his career and facing the self-doubt that followed, he dedicated himself to chasing greatness.
Soon enough, he found it. His 80-yard catch-and-run to win the overtime playoff game against the Steelers marked a turning point in his career, and the arrival of Peyton Manning months later helped him reach new levels as a receiver.
The individual and team accolades followed: five Pro Bowls, five AFC West titles, two AFC Championship victories, a Super Bowl 50 win. Thomas was the most dangerous receiving threat on many of those teams, as well as the ones that followed after Manning retired.
During his nine years, Thomas built a career that easily ranks among the franchise's best. And he did build it. He invested the time and resources to take sharpen his skills and to take care of his body to become someone whom teammates and coaches could rely upon. After those injuries in 2010 and 2011, Thomas began a 114-game starting streak (regular season and playoffs) that no other Broncos receiver has matched.
In reflecting on his career, Thomas accepts his career for all that it was. He knows that he may not be unequivocally considered the best Broncos receiver ever. The success he found at the position at an individual level and being a trusted teammate who helped the team achieve the ultimate goal was enough.
"The main thing is I don't consider [that] I've got to be the best to come," Thomas said. "I know it's hard to go up against Rod [Smith] or whoever that's going to be next. I just want to be considered as one of the best to come through there. 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."
Thomas can admit that it wasn't all good times — "Ups and downs — I had my good days and my bad days, but we all do," he said — but he was always willing to do as much as was asked of him.
"It wasn't all about going to get the catch," Thomas said. "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."
It was always about more than himself, and really it was more than the game for him. Football would help him find financial security to support him well after retirement from the NFL, and it'd help bring his family back together after his mother and grandmother both were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses when he was just 11 years old.
"I remember when my momma was going to prison," Thomas said. "I told her, There's something that I'm going to go pro in, because me and her played together mostly in sports, basketball or football, whatever it was. When they went away, I got good at football and I just chased it and chased it and chased it. It has done wonderful things for me and my family."
For almost two decades, Thomas did his best to deal with the painful separation, staying in contact with his mother and grandmother as he grew from an adolescent to an NFL star through phone calls.
His life and the lives of his family members would change in 2015 when his mother, Katina Smith, was one of 46 people who had their sentences commuted by President Barack Obama. A year later, Thomas' grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, received clemency as well.
After the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, Thomas had the chance to personally thank Obama at the White House, which was obviously a very special moment. Thomas recalled that Obama remembered the situation when they met.
"I've been able to get my mom and grandma out of prison — I don't know if football did it, but winning the Super Bowl and meeting Obama after that situation, they both kind of got out, which I was thankful for," Thomas said. "But football has done a lot; [I've] been able to take care of myself and a lot of people and a lot of other people."
One thing that never changed about Thomasin Denver, though, was that he always made time for children. He made a habit of visiting kids at the Boys & Girls Club, making friendships that he long maintained. Quick to smile, Thomas never tired of sharing that gift with children who may be experiencing tough times.
"Hopefully I ain't gone from Denver for long, but my impact when I was there was just trying to give back when I could," Thomas said. "I didn't know all the directions of where to go because I didn't have my mom and dad around at all times or the leadership to go in what direction, but 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."
Sometimes his connections in the community became the strongest ones he made. In the case of the Durkee family, who suffered the devastating loss of 11-year-old son Drake in a 2015 rafting accident, Thomas learned that Drake had been a huge fan of his. Drake had even been buried in a Demaryius Thomas jersey, Thomas was told.
Thomas sent a letter to the family expressing his grief, invited them to his annual youth football camp that summer, when he started an award in Drake's honor. That season, as the Broncos marched to Super Bowl 50, Thomas wore a "Drake 88" wristband in his honor, including at the championship game. He still speaks with the family, he says, and recently talked with Drake's dad.
"They're like part of my family now," Thomas said.
Whether in a Broncos uniform or out of one, Thomas' heart was evident throughout the entirety of his career. We could watch as Thomas grew, as his life was transformed and as he transformed the lives of others.
Through the ups and downs — playoff wins and painful injuries, stunning touchdowns and sporadic drops — he could remind us that this was still an essentially human experience, an open display of someone working through their struggles to touch greatness.
Sometimes it seems like we want our sports heroes to be only Superman, no Clark Kent — but we must remember being superhuman still means you are human. While Thomas almost always made his orange and blue uniform look like a red cape, once in a while we could see where he wore his glasses. And that's what made his triumphs so gratifying to watch.
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.