SAN JOSE, CALIF. – Demaryius Thomas is going to wind up in a country music song.
He grew up in a small town in Georgia, and his mother got out of prison just in time to watch him play in the Super Bowl.
“At first, she said she may not want to make the trip because she’s not used to so many people,” Thomas said Thursday. “Now she’s excited. She can’t wait to be here.”
Thomas was speaking at the San Jose Convention Center. He leaned forward, elbows on the table. He was wearing his Broncos jersey, and the motion tugged the sleeves up onto his shoulders, revealing massive arms that seem to stretch the inky lines of his tattoos like writing on an inflated balloon.
He’s a strong young man in his athletic prime. He has become one of the NFL’s most productive receivers. He is playing in the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons. All of which makes it easy to forget that he’s a small-town kid whose mother went to jail when he was 12, a player who can’t say the Super Bowl is a dream come true because he probably never had reason to dream so boldly.
“I never thought I’d be able to play in a Super Bowl with my mom watching,” Thomas said. “I’m excited about that.”
Sunday, his mother will see him play in person for the second time. The first was the Broncos’ first playoff game, against Pittsburgh. Before that, she had not been allowed to travel.
In 2000, Katina Smith, Thomas’ mother, was convicted on conspiracy to distribute crack. She had conspired with her mother and Thomas’ grandmother, Minnie Thomas.
Minnie Thomas received a life sentence. Smith was scheduled to spend 20 years in jail until President Obama commuted her sentence along with 45 other nonviolent drug offenders.
She was released in November, but travel restrictions kept her from leaving Georgia for 60 days. She traveled to Denver for the playoffs and was scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area on Thursday.
Demaryius has a gift waiting for her. After the playoff victory over Pittsburgh, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning gave Thomas the game ball, and told him to give it to his mother.
“I’ve still got it,” Thomas said. “I was going to send it to her, but she told me to get a bunch of signatures on it first.”
Denver took Thomas out of Georgia Tech in the first round in 2010. He had two mediocre seasons before Manning arrived in 2012. Thomas’ 1,304 yards and five receiving touchdowns this year were his lowest outputs since 2012, as the Broncos emphasized their running game, Manning was sometimes injured or ineffective and Thomas dropped a number of passes.
Sunday could be a culmination or a turning point in the 28-year-old Thomas’ career. With Manning expected to retire, catching 100 passes a season might no longer be a possibility. With Manning throwing to him Sunday, Thomas could win a Super Bowl with his mother watching.
“I never thought I would get the chance to play with Peyton,” Thomas said. “I remember the first time I met him, I called him ‘Sir.’ I was nervous. Having him on this team has been a blessing.”
Manning’s arm has made Thomas’ face familiar. When Thomas shared his family story, Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler contacted him to share his own story of childhood abandonment. His mother discarded Butler when he was 13, leaving him briefly homeless. Thomas and Butler have become friends who attend each other’s games.
Thomas would be an easy guy to befriend. He’s open and relaxed. He’s learned to speak about his childhood publicly, and how to appreciate what his mother’s return means.
“It’s the little things,” he said. “Always the little things. Just having dinner, hanging around the house. That’s all you need.”