ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — When Demaryius Thomas stiff armed Ike Taylor and took off on the first play of overtime in the 2011 Wild Card round, he did more than just free himself to run for the game-winning touchdown.
As Thomas burst down the right side of the field to secure a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, he thrust himself into Broncos history.
Before the snap, Thomas was a second-year player with 54 career receptions to his name. The 25-year-old had yet to make a Pro Bowl and was still a first-round pick aiming to find his first 1,000-yard receiving season.
But in mere moments, as Mile High shook with noise as Thomas crossed the goal line, he earned an indelible spot in the hearts of Broncos Country.
That won’t change, even after the Broncos agreed to trade Thomas and a seventh-round pick to Houston for a fourth- and seventh-round draft pick on Tuesday.
In the years after his catch-and-run, Thomas only endeared himself more to this community and fan base.
On the field, No. 88 tallied five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons from 2012 to 2016 and racked up five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Only Antonio Brown, Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison also have five consecutive seasons with 90 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards.
In Thomas’ first three seasons with Peyton Manning under center, he caught at least 10 touchdowns and went over 1,400 yards every year from 2012-14. At the end of the 2013 season, Thomas set a Super Bowl record for receptions in a game when he caught 13 passes against Seattle. He followed up that effort by setting franchise’s single-season receiving yardage record with 1,619 yards in 2014.
Thomas also holds the most 100-yard receiving games (36) of anyone who has ever played in a Broncos uniform.
Barring a future return to the team, Thomas ends his Broncos career second to Rod Smith in both all-time receiving touchdowns and receiving yards.
Those are the numbers — and man, are they impressive. No matter who was at quarterback, Thomas found ways to rack up numbers and make the players around him better.
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.
Just think of some Thomas’ favorite moments:
Taking a bubble screen 78 yards for a score to tally Manning’s seventh touchdown in a 2013 game against the Ravens.
Jumping above Darius Slay on fourth-and-1 to pad Denver’s lead over Detroit in 2015.
Catching Manning’s record-breaking 509th and 510th touchdowns against the 49ers.
And, of course, pulling in Tim Tebow’s short pass to secure an improbable walk-off win vs. the Steelers.
Thomas seems destined to be enshrined in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame when he becomes eligible, and he may one day have a chance to earn a gold jacket from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The on-field moments only tell part of the story, though.
In the community, Thomas was a player who often gave his time — and never wanted the recognition that followed.
He spent time at Children’s Hospital Colorado, was a frequent part of Broncos’ Make-A-Wish visits and hung out at the Denver Broncos Boys & Girls Club.
On more than one occasion, Thomas asked to visit the Boys & Girls Club or a local hospital with just a single stipulation: no media coverage.
It was more than just talk for Thomas, who always seemed most comfortable when he was joking and playing with kids. And though they were always thrilled to be around one of Denver’s most recognizable players, D.T. often appeared to get the most out of the interactions.
Take one December night in 2017, when Thomas dressed up as Santa Claus for the Boys & Girls Club’s holiday party. No one smiled brighter that night than No. 88.
It’s these actions that ensure Thomas won’t be remembered in Broncos Country in a singular way. He won’t be just the receiving yards or just the touchdown against the Steelers.
That’s not to discount his play in any fashion. Thomas was a generational player who was worth every bit of the first-round pick the Broncos spent on him in 2010.
But the four-time team captain also deserves recognition for his contributions to the community and to the locker room.
And certainly, Thomas would acknowledge the ways in which being a Bronco has affected his own life.
When the Broncos visited the White House in 2016 after winning Super Bowl 50, Thomas got the chance to deliver a letter to President Barack Obama to thank him for commuting Thomas’ mother’s prison sentence, which she received for a nonviolent drug offense.
Obama’s decision allowed Thomas’ mother to see her son play in person during Super Bowl 50.
Thomas’ letter also addressed his grandmother’s status, as she was then seeking a commuted sentence. She has since been released, as well.
It’s not a stretch to say Thomas’ life has changed quite a bit during his nine years with the Broncos.
And perhaps that’s what makes goodbye difficult. This fan base has watched Thomas help deliver five AFC West titles, two Super Bowl berths and a Lombardi Trophy. Broncos Country has seen a 22-year-old rookie grow up to be the longest-tenured Bronco.
On Sunday, when the Texans visit the Broncos, those same fans will get the chance to shower Thomas with their appreciation. It will be their first chance, but not their last. It’s a near certainty that Thomas’ bust will eventually take its place among the other Ring of Fame pillars outside Broncos Stadium at Mile High.
He’s certainly earned it over the last nine years, and that should provide some solace, even as Thomas’ playing career in Denver appears to be over.
No. 88 will be back.
We’ll see you soon, D.T.