Demarius Thomas diagnosed with CTE, family comes to terms with his death

DUBLIN, Georgia. – Demarius Thomas’ parents see their son every day.

A painting of the former NFL star hangs on the wall in Katina Smith’s home, and Bobby Thomas, his father, keeps the same image on his cell phone. It depicts a cherished moment that now feels like a premonition: two radiant parents flanking their son in the moments after his Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 as Demarius looks down with a pained expression, scratching the back of his head.

The wide receiver was leveled by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during the game and had such a bad headache that he missed most of the games after the win.

“He said, ‘Hey, all of you, I need to leave and go alone because I’m not feeling very well,'” Smith said. “And so, you know, he left and didn’t even finish celebrating or anything like that.”

Demarius Thomas died in December at age 33, just months after retiring from an NFL Pro-Bowl career, in which his charisma, humility, and team ethos on the field made him a favorite with teammates and fans. Those closest to him said that in the last year of his life, his behavior became increasingly erratic, marked by memory loss, paranoia, and isolation, which are signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head.

Doctors from Boston University announced Tuesday that Thomas was posthumously diagnosed with stage 2 CTE, but his life and death were also complicated by seizures caused by a 2019 car crash. They attacked with little to no warning and caused Thomas to crash other cars and fall down the stairs. The coroner’s office in Fulton County, Georgia, has yet to rule on the cause of his death, but doctors in Boston said he most likely died as a result of a seizure.

“He had two different diseases at the same time,” the doctor said. Ann McKee, neurologist who studied Thomas’ brain. She added that seizures are not usually associated with CTE.

Due to dual states, Thomas’s CTE diagnosis doesn’t bring the clear clarity that marked the demise of other NFL players. His family, friends and former teammates will not know how much football is responsible for Thomas’ struggles and are only now realizing how much he has been hurt.

“Now it amazes me when we talk about how a young person at this age can be in so much pain and still smile,” said Carlos Jones, Thomas’s pastor, who was with him when Thomas fell down the steps due to a seizure. in my house. at the beginning of 2021. “It was just a testament to how strong he is.”

Football changed the trajectory of Thomas’ life, his accomplishments on the pitch helping to stabilize his family, which fell apart in his teens.

Thomas was born on Christmas Day 1987 in Montrose, Georgia, a small town between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave birth to him, and she never married Bobby, who went into the army and was often absent.

When Thomas was 11 years old, federal agents broke into the family’s home with a search warrant and found money connected to a drug business run by Smith’s mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas. They arrested Smith for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, and after she refused to testify against her mother, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Minnie Pearl Thomas was sentenced to life in prison.

For several years, Thomas wandered from house to house until he settled with Bobby Thomas’s sister, Shirley, and her husband James. Classmates bullied Thomas because his mother was in prison, but he found solace and support in athletics, football and basketball. In sports, overcoming pain was the key to his success.

“He had a lot of injuries that he went through and he always said, ‘You know how I was raised, you know how I was trained, I’m not going to let my team down,'” Paul Williams said. Thomas’ high school basketball coach and close friend. He said that Thomas always had a ready smile despite his many problems off the pitch.

Denver selected Thomas 22nd overall in 2010, the first wide opener that year, and his career skyrocketed when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, the first of five consecutive years he had 1,000 or more receiving yards. Thomas became a mentor to many teammates, including fellow receiver Benny Fowler, and was a well-loved teammate for his affable work approach to the game.

Denver reached the Super Bowl the following season and lost to the Seattle Seahawks, but Thomas’ 13 catches set the record for most receptions in a title game.

In the run-up to Thomas’ next championship appearance, his family history has attracted as much attention as his game. After 17 years of calls and lobbying from the family, US President Barack Obama commuted Smith’s sentence. as part of the Department of Justice’s work to pardon criminals who have committed non-violent drug-related offences. Their story became the focus of attention ahead of Super Bowl 50, with the media widely reporting that Smith was finally able to see her son play on the game’s biggest stage in person.

Thomas, who met with lawyers and wrote a letter to Obama on behalf of his mother, has never been happier.

“He loved her to death,” said Jamuel Jones, one of Thomas’s school friends. “I saw a spark in him when she came out. They talked every day. That was his main goal, to get them out,” he said, referring to Thomas’s mother and grandmother.

(Obama reduced the sentence of Minnie Pearl Thomas in 2016.)

No matter how high football raised Thomas, it also contributed in some way to his rapid decline. Years after the peak shown in the painting, Manning retired and Thomas’ injuries piled up. Smith said her son told her that his peripheral vision had deteriorated.

In 2019, Thomas was driving at 70 mph in the 30 mph zone in Denver when he lost control and flipped his car several times. His head shattered the windshield and it took the Jaws of Life to get him out of the car. Jamuel Jones, who also played American football, was riding in the passenger seat and said doctors told the two football players that their ability to absorb shock could have saved their lives.

Thomas played one last erratic season for the Jets and then returned home to Georgia, his life at a crossroads. He didn’t have a contract and wasn’t sure if it was worth playing during the pandemic, but he was determined to get another 237 yards to reach 10,000 career yards. So he trained five days a week, but his comeback was stalled by bouts starting in the fall of 2020.

As the number and intensity of the attacks increased, neurologists told him that they might be related to stress. The anti-seizure medication Thomas took made him lethargic and the second prescription didn’t stop them, so he tried ozone therapy, hyperbaric chamber, massage, and other therapies that didn’t have a lasting effect.

“He spent a lot of money on his body, and look what happened, you know?” said Bobby Thomas, who became depressed after Demarius’ death and intensified when he learned of the severity of his son’s condition.

“I didn’t know he was that bad.”

In a video announcing his retirement last June, Demarius Thomas admitted he was trying to find his way. He said he is still deciding what to do next and is trying to build relationships with anyone who can help. “It is not easy to leave football,” he said. “Because that’s my main thing – just try to find myself and put out love.”

Thomas planned to create a fund to help single mothers. He earned $75 million playing football and invested some of it in various businesses. He wanted to build a complex where his whole family could live.

But he also isolated himself and was taken advantage of by former friends.

His parents said that Demarius stopped returning their text messages and calls, and Bobby recalled that his paranoia grew to the point that he never left the house without a weapon.

After Thomas’ death on Dec. On January 9, family members discovered that money, weapons and football memorabilia had been stolen from his home. The police arrested several men who were hangers-on during the last year of his life.

Thomas’ death shocked his former teammates, who were looking for ways to publicly remember him. Manning started two scholarships – one for Denver students, another at Thomas’ alma mater, Georgia Institute of Technology. Von Miller, who played for the Los Angeles Rams last season, wore a T-shirt with a picture of Thomas during the playoff warm-up and dedicated the team’s Super Bowl victory to him.

Fowler, a former ward of Thomas, said that he and many players believed they had some form of CTE. “It comes with the game,” he said, acknowledging that they all balance that risk with the life-changing benefits of football. Thomas was supposed to attend Fowler’s wedding this year. Instead, Fowler ended up being one of Thomas’ pallbearers.

Thomas’s parents are only now becoming cathartic when talking about their son. Smith is helping the city of Dublin plan for Demarius Thomas Day on July 16, during which residents will release 88 balloons, the uniform number of Thomas’s Broncos. She hears about the many anonymous donations her son has made around town: shoes for the kids, Thanksgiving turkeys.

Parents here also ask her for advice on whether to allow their children to play football. Remembering that photo of her son after Super Bowl 50 and how he reached the top of his profession only to slip away, she warns them to be careful.

“This is a once in a lifetime dream,” she said. But “now I’m more adamant that, hey, study this.”