DENVER — As Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning stood at the lectern, his voice swelled with emotion as he remembered his late teammate Demaryius Thomas.
Manning, on Wednesday night as Thomas was inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame's Class of 2023, spoke of the adversity his friend battled through — and did his part to honor another young person who has fought through similar challenges.
A year after announcing the founding of the "18 to 88" scholarship in Thomas' memory, Manning awarded Swink High School's Ben Miner with the inaugural honor.
"It is only fitting that our first '18 to 88' recipient is being awarded on the same night that No. 88 is being inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame," Manning said.
The recently created $10,000 scholarship is intended to go to a high school football player in Colorado who has overcome significant adversity.
"When I heard about it, I cried," said Thomas' mother, Katina Smith, of the scholarship. "I was like, 'Wow, Peyton is such an awesome individual.' Him and his wife, Ashley, I'm so grateful to them for the things that they have done for Demaryius since his transition."
During his childhood, Miner — and his siblings — "endured a revolving door of foster care for years, even being homeless at times," Manning said during the presentation of the scholarship. Miner, who said he underwent "so much abuse and neglect," was separated from his siblings for a time before they were finally reunited in a foster home. They then found their adoptive family, and Miner noted that "from that day forward, our lives changed."
"We were given structure and boundaries and clean beds and good food and love," Miner said, as Manning shared during his speech. "Over the years, the scars — emotional and physical — have faded, and there has been so much healing and learning and living and loving."
Manning, who also previously endowed a scholarship at Thomas' alma mater of Georgia Tech in his teammate's honor, said he could see the similarities between Miner's and Thomas' paths.
"If you've heard something similar about the impact that love can have on a child's life, then you're probably a big fan of Demaryius Thomas," Manning said. "… Like Ben, D.T. overcame great adversity throughout his childhood and grew up to become a role model for others.
"… I'm so proud of what Ben has overcome in his life, just like Demaryius, to become a beacon for others. … Demaryius would be so proud of you, Ben."
Miner, a multi-sport athlete and eight-man football star for Swink, said it was an amazing feeling to receive the first "18 to 88" scholarship.
"It's a big honor to be here in front of you guys to be able to represent D.T. like this," Miner said. "I had a few years of being able to watch him, and … as I could see, as I could watch, he was just a great person, great guy, great football player."
Following the award presentation, Thomas was later officially inducted into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. Smith said before the event she expected the evening to be both a blessing and emotional. As the dominant receiver — who posted 60 touchdowns and more than 9,000 yards in Denver — was inducted, both were clearly true.
"It's a very humbling event, and it's a great thing that they did, because Demaryius always stated that once he retired, he didn't want to be forgotten," Smith said. "This opportunity right here ensures he won't be forgotten."
Thomas was inducted alongside Evie Dennis, Jimmie Heuga, Vincent Jackson and George Karl, and his presence was clear.
"A lot of people want to say was," said his father, Bobby Thomas. "I just still say is. I'm never going to just live my days without him in my life. He's spiritually here to me every day, and that's the way I'm going to look at it [until] the day that I go join him. Either way, I know that everybody loves him. Everything I hear, everything I see, it's nothing but love. And that's all he wanted."
Sixteen months after his passing, Thomas' spirit burned strong on a night during which several former teammates and a Broncos contingent joined Manning and Thomas' parents to honor him.
"It's not really on the field, a touchdown pass or one of his great catches," Manning said of his memories of Thomas. "It's kind of the great moments in the locker room after the game. He always wanted to talk to my wife, Ashley, and pick up my kids. I have a great picture of Demaryius pushing my son, Marshall, around in the Super Bowl locker room in the laundry bucket, so [it's] more off-the-field moments. But it's just fitting because Demaryius was always paying it forward. He never forgot where he came from. Never forgot how much he had to overcome. And so I wanted to keep his legacy alive. Not necessarily his football legacy — more of his giving back legacy. And I think this is a great way to do it."