DENVER — When Emmanuel Sanders walked into the gym at the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday afternoon with his son and daughter by his side, photos from some of the best times from his NFL career greeted him.
They weren't of the touchdowns or the big plays that defined the wide receiver's impact on the field, but rather of the friendship that he'd enjoyed with Demaryius Thomas over five memorable years.
There they were in one photo, flexing their muscles at practice — Thomas the "Thunder" to Sanders' "Lightning" persona. And there they were in one across the room, sprawled on the ground making snow angels in orange-and-blue confetti after winning the AFC Championship. In another, riding on a fire truck through downtown Denver during the team's Super Bowl parade.
Other pictures captured in far more private moments, like one during a Saturday morning breakfast at the team facility. On those days, players were welcome to bring their children to work, and Thomas, who didn't have kids of his own, often spent those mornings at Sanders' table with his son, Princeton.
Now, nearly five months since Thomas' tragic passing at just the age of 33, the photos are naturally bittersweet for Sanders.
"[To] walk in this room and see all these pictures of us, hanging out and eating breakfast with my son, 'Thunder and Lightning' — it's kind of sad for me, because I know that I still want him to be here today," Sanders said. "But the reality is that he's not. So for me, as a friend and as a brother, I'm going to try to do everything that I can to continuously … make sure people know his name and do what he would like for me to do on Earth since he's not here anymore."
That's what brought Sanders to the gym, as he honored his fallen friend by unveiling a mural in Thomas' memory, speaking to the children at the club, taking part in a PLAY 60 football clinic and donating a new set of jerseys to the club's youth football team. Each jersey will be emblazoned with a No. 88 patch, and they retired the No. 88 jersey in Thomas' honor at the ceremony.
"Man, he loved this place," Sanders said. "I don't know a person who loved this place more than Demaryius Thomas. … And I think that the reason he loved this place is the same reason I love this place. Even the kids running up to me, I'm like, 'Man, now I remember why I loved this place so much, because it reminds us of ourselves.' I remember at Demaryius' memorial, they were talking and saying how … he was one of those kids who always, his mom's situation and his dad's situation, he was always at the gym, one of those kids without a parent around him. I feel like I was the same as well, when I was at the Boys & Girls Club growing up. And so to be able to leave this type of legacy here, I know that this is what he would have wanted."
Sanders, who played for the Bills in 2021, received an influx of donations to his Emmanuel Sanders Foundation following Thomas' passing as fans recognized the indelible bond he shared with Thomas. In February, he began to put the funds to work by funding a new room at a Boys & Girls Club in Buffalo in Thomas' name.
At that unveiling, they played a recording that Thomas' mother, Katina Smith, sent. In it, she spoke about how much Sanders' work means to their family.
"Most importantly, I am truly grateful as a mom, as a friend, that you was a friend to D.T.," Smith said. "Not only were you a friend to D.T., but you were his brother, as well. And he talked a lot about you and your family, how much that he loved and cared for you all. I knew you all before I even met you because of the way that D.T. expressed his love and his concern and his respect for you and your family, and your family then became my family."
In Denver, Sanders saw Thomas' generosity firsthand from basically the moment Sanders arrived as a free agent in 2014. After that season, Thomas bowed out of the Pro Bowl to allow Sanders to have the honor in his stead. Thomas' impactful gestures were not uncommon.
"One thing about D.T. is I knew he was different from the moment that I walked into the Broncos' locker room," Sanders said. "… Sometimes you walk in a locker room and you don't know how guys are. You don't know if they're selfish, you don't know their personality. The first thing that I knew about Demaryius, [and] it didn't take long, is that he had the biggest heart in the world."