ATLANTA — The clock read 88:88 with a shot clock of 88 seconds. Or, at least, it appeared that way.
It seemed right. The No. 88 was everywhere in Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion on Monday, as Demaryius Thomas' alma mater hosted a celebration of life for the beloved former Yellow Jacket who passed away a little over a week earlier at just 33 years old. It was on that campus in Atlanta where Thomas grew into an NFL prospect in his No. 8 uniform; later in Denver, he grew into an NFL star in No. 88.
But the clock wasn't on; all 88s is, of course, just the nature of how digital clocks are designed. This one rested atop one of the gym's backboards, part of a folded-down goal that was out of sight behind the backdrop that was set up behind the displays of mementoes cataloging the career of the man some of us in that auditorium knew as "Bay-Bay" or perhaps just "D.T."
At McCamish Pavilion, there was no need for to look for signs like this. Thomas' No. 88 was everywhere already: on full-length windows by the door, on lapel pins, on the dais.
But we see signs even when we're not looking for them. It's part of being human to do that, and it's natural to be even more attuned to seeing them after losing someone special. When the Broncos drove 88 yards to a score late touchdown in a Week 14 win over the Lions, we saw the shadow of the No. 88 we all missed. The next morning, when a brilliant sunrise threw an orange sky across Denver, I couldn't help but think of him.
There is a vacuum now for his family, for everyone he made feel like family and for all those who loved him. That void and the grief that accompanies losing someone so utterly good, someone who was so easy to love, begs for an indication that he lingers on beyond his physical existence.
In the gym, that feeling was all around us.
Before the celebration of life program began that afternoon, a slideshow played on the four-sided video display that hung over the podium. In no particular order, we watched snippets of his life play out before us.
There, of course, were the defining moments that fans know well — sprinting past Ike Taylor for his game-winning touchdown in the playoffs vs. Pittsburgh, posing with Peyton Manning in the locker room after the two connected for Manning's record-setting 509th career touchdown pass, meeting former President Barack Obama during the team's visit to the White House after Super Bowl 50.
But the ones that stick with me most are the ones that people may be less familiar with. A photo of him as a young boy sitting in a white wicker chair wearing a red plaid shirt, red pants and suspenders and a cherubic smile. Or one where, now an adult, he's wearing a Superman costume and posing for a picture with a young girl dressed as a princess.
One of those less-seen photos is of Thomas in the home tunnel at what's now known as Empower Field at Mile High. During training camp in 2013, the team held an Aug. 3 practice at the stadium, but overcast skies turned dark before opening up completely into a downpour. There, underneath the metal risers, rain streamed through the stands' gaps into the tunnel, which is where Thomas stood. In conditions that most people would dread, Thomas exulted in them — arms outstretched, tongue out and eyes scrunched in a big ol' smile. That, to me, summed up a lot about him.
Thomas, as it's well known now, had a difficult childhood. As an 11-year-old, law enforcement officers stormed his home to arrest his mother, and he spent a large portion of his life waiting for his mother and grandmother to return home from incarceration. In 2015, he wrote of the loneliness in his life — how there was a period where he would cry every night, and how even into adulthood there would be nights like that.
In that photo from that rainy day, I see someone who somehow endured crushing circumstances like that for more than a decade and still lived with a love for life.
The other one is from almost three years later, in the moments after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50. Amid all that's going on in the locker room, Thomas is there, pushing a blue laundry cart that has Peyton Manning's son riding in it.
"It is celebratory, it's chaotic, there's people all over, and I just remember being in the locker room," Manning recalled in a tribute video that played during Monday's ceremony. "My dad [and my] two brothers were in there. I'm talking to them, and Marshall was in there with me and I can't find him. I'm almost going to get worried about him, and the next thing I know, I see D.T. coming around the corner and he's got Marshall in the laundry bin, pushing him like a tractor around the locker room like he's in a parade. My son's having the time of his life, and I'm not sure he realizes that this is pretty unique. … This is a player that just won the Super Bowl, and he's pushing me around the locker room. It just tells you the kind of person D.T. was, that he cared about other people."
The way Thomas was around kids was an inspiration. Moments like that one are probably the ones that will stick with people who knew him, how he was with their kids or watching how he was with anyone's children at his youth football camps, community events or with kids at Make-A-Wish experiences.
These moments were him at his best, truly.
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.
Don't get me wrong — Thomas was an outstanding football player, one of the best of his era. To date, he is one of only 18 players in NFL history with a 1,600-yard season in his career and one of just 16 players to record four or more seasons with at least 1,300 receiving yards. Of those 16, only Thomas and three others accomplished that in consecutive seasons.
But the most unforgettable moments for so many of us were the ones of him as a person, doing perhaps one thing he loved even more than playing football, which was making children smile. Running footraces with kids and pulling up near the end to make it close — or maybe just to showboat a little. Playing four-square, jumping rope with ones that were about 10 sizes too small. Giving a helmet to a Children's Hospital Colorado patient on a spur-of-the-moment idea. Meeting with Manning's children near the loading dock at Empower Field at Mile High after he was traded to Houston for tear-filled goodbyes, and then with children of other Broncos staffers who wanted to see him off, too. Even one of my last memories of him was something like that. In August, Thomas came back to the stadium for a FanDuel fan festival, and at one point, he bumped into the stadium's assistant general manager, Scott Bliek, in the tunnel near the away team locker room. It had been several years since he'd last seen Bliek, and they chatted about how Bliek's son was doing in baseball and high school football.
"The thing that amazes me is that as great of a player as he was — and some would say a Hall of Fame career — you know, nobody talks about that because he was such a better person," Peter Wright, Thomas' financial advisor, said in the tribute video. "All anybody talks about is how he made people feel."
Even in death, Thomas will continue to have that impact. Pastor Carlos Jones, who emceed the celebration of life, told guests on Monday that before Thomas passed, he had arranged to buy gifts for children in need for the holidays.
"Anyone knows 'Bay-Bay' well knows that at the center of his heart was making children smile," Jones said. "As a matter of fact, 600 children here in Atlanta, Georgia are going to be blessed here on Christmas because he had already had it set up to make sure that 600 children receive a Christmas this year. That's just the type of person that he was. And out of all he relationships that he built, the relationships that he built with children will always be special. He changed children's lives in the communities that he was a part of, and his impact will continue to live on through those connections."
The same can be said for the rest of us. We can extend his impact through ourselves in how we move forward with our lives — in how we influence our community or how we simply try to go through everyday life.
"What I'm going to take with me," Tim Tebow said in a video message, "is that every day, I'm going to live with that smile, I'm going to live with that joy, I'm going to live with that passion that he did every single day, because when he walked into a room, that room instantly got brighter."
Born on Christmas Day in 1987, Demaryius Thomas was able to be a gift to seemingly everyone he came across. On what would have been his 34th birthday, we can look to who he was and remind ourselves that we can have the same kind of impact.
"D.T. was not just the type of guy to pass by," Jones said. "He would stop to see about someone else in need. … This is the type of person D.T. was. He was the type of person that healed wounds — with his smile, with his love, by caring. If he could be there for you, he was going to be there for you."
No matter the way we look to incorporate a part of how Thomas lived life, this will be the way we stop looking for signs and start living as one of them.
Like the clocks at McCamish Pavilion when electricity again surges through them, the display will change, but 88 will always be there.