During the Broncos' Week 5 win over the Cardinals, Demaryius Thomas finally had a reason to leap with joy.
On second-and-11 at the Arizona 31-yard line, he beat Antonio Cromartie off the line, caught a slant, stiff-armed Larry Foote and then weaved through defenders for a touchdown. He ran straight through the end zone towards a woman wearing a No. 88 jersey and leapt up to sit on the wall that separates fans from the field.
While Thomas and the fans surrounding him were showered with beer that was elevated above them, he was beaming.
That was his first score of a record-breaking game where Thomas racked up the most receiving yards in franchise history with 226. It was also the most by any receiver in the NFL this season. In setting that new mark for the Broncos, he surpassed one of his role models, Shannon Sharpe. He had scoring catches of 31 and 86 yards, the latter of which is the fourth-longest reception in Broncos history.
Week 5, he could not be denied.
Reading the stat lines from against the Cardinals, Jets and 49ers, it's hard to imagine that in the weeks leading up to the game, Thomas' health, future and confidence were questioned.
He had just one touchdown to go along with just 13 catches for 141 yards during the Broncos' first three games. He exceeded that yardage and had two touchdowns in the season opener last season. Peyton Manning's go-to target of the past two seasons didn't look like himself and, perhaps the most concerning aspect of Thomas' first three games were his four drops. He had five drops all of last season.
When asked after the game what the biggest difference was between the first three games of the season and his record-breaking day, he had a simple answer: "Catching the ball. That's basically what it is."
The Tuesday after the Broncos' loss to Seattle in Week 3, Thomas came in to practice early and caught 250 balls. He was tired of his inconsistent play. Manning, Head Coach John Fox and Emmanuel Sanders all noticed the extra work he put in the week leading up to the Cardinals game and how well he did during practice. Manning said he caught the ball better and was on top of his assignments. While Thomas was hard on himself for his early-season struggles, his teammates stood by him.
"Basically they stayed behind me, they pushed me," Thomas said. "They told me I'm better than what I'm doing right now. I took it like a man because they were telling the truth. Before those games, I never had games where I dropped the ball like that and wasn't performing like I expected to."
While he'd never had three consecutive games with so little output before, he doesn't consider the beginning of this season a "slump." With fellow wide receiver Wes Welker out for the Broncos' first two games due to suspension, Thomas played in the slot, which he wasn't accustomed to.
Emmanuel Sanders, who is in his first season as Thomas' teammate, said he is glad to be on the same team as Thomas this season because when the Broncos and Steelers faced off in previous seasons, Sanders said, "he killed us." He says there is no limit to Thomas' potential and his speed and versatility make him a great weapon.
"He always goes off," Sanders said after the Broncos' 41-20 win over the Cardinals. "All the media has been criticizing him in terms of his production and things of that sort. I went on NFL Network and told them, 'Demaryius can go off at any moment and have a 200-yard game.' He proved that today. He's a big-time player that makes big-time plays in big-time moments, and he proved that today."
At first, Thomas' confidence was affected by the dropped balls. But the two-time Pro Bowler is accustomed to being tested, both on the field and off.
When he was 11 years old, his mother was arrested right in front of him and sentenced to 20 years in prison while her mom, his grandmother, was sentenced for life on drug-related charges. That experience helped make him the resilient, tough person he is today.
"Growing up it was tough and I think that made me a man quicker," Thomas said. "The things with my mom and all the other stuff, it made me a man quicker. To get out here and do this, once you drop a ball or have a bad play you can go on to the next and I think that helped me growing up."
The experience of losing pieces of his family forced him to grow up and learn to bounce back. He said with football, it's all about moving forward, learning from your mistakes and moving on to the next play.
"I think just growing up as a kid, I went through a lot," Thomas said. "I grew up in the church. I worked in the yard a lot and I just remember my uncle always telling me hard work pays off so I just go out and put it all out there mainly because I won't be able to do this the rest of my life. It just comes from how I was raised."
Coming back from a rough start wasn't even Thomas' first dose of hardship for the 2014 season.
Right before training camp, his paternal grandmother who helped raise him, Gladys, died. Before he started living with his aunt, Gladys took him in.
He missed the first five days of camp to help plan and attend her funeral back home in Georgia. With the difficult start to the regular season and the death of his beloved grandmother, this has been one of the toughest beginnings to a football season he's experienced.
Throughout his life, Thomas has been forced to overcome struggles. He returned to camp after her funeral. While he was gone, he watched film. That's the kind of player he is, always working to improve and be a step ahead.
"That's the thing about Demaryius: he doesn't change. No matter what you guys say about him, he's not going to change," Sanders said. 'He's going to come to work every single day. He's quiet. He works extremely quiet. He's going to come in, he's going to bust his butt, and he knows that those plays are going to come all season long."
While this was one of Thomas' toughest starts to a season, it was also unique in another way. He now wears a "C" on his jersey.
Before the season began, he, along with Manning, was voted one of the Broncos' offensive captains. As Sanders noted, Thomas isn't the loudest guy.
When it comes to football, that doesn't matter. He has garnered the respect of his teammates.
"When I got elected captain, I told them I'm not going to be the vocal guy," Thomas said. "I'm not going to speak very much. I'm just going to go out there and work hard and play hard and you all just follow me. That's my main thing- doing the right thing. If you go out there and put in the hard work it's going to pay off."
In back-to-back seasons, he has produced at least 90 catches, 1,400 receiving yards and 10 receiving touchdowns. While it took a little time, it appears that Thomas is back in stride to do the same in 2014. His resilience and work ethic were instilled in him when he was young and it certainly appears that these characteristics will continue to take him to new heights in the NFL.
Thomas acknowledges that he and Manning have vastly different leadership styles. But, there is something he wants to have in common with his quarterback.
"I'm not outspoken like Peyton," Thomas said. "He'll get up and talk in front of the crowd before I will. Day in and day out, he's doing the right thing and trying to make himself the best."
"Whenever I get older, I want the younger guys to say that about me."