Remembering Demaryius Thomas’ Broncos legacy on his 35th birthday

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — It’s another NFL Friday, this day before the Denver Broncos travel to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a game against the Carolina Panthers.

Safety Kareem Jackson, like the rest of his teammates around him, tries to throw all the essentials into the bag before equipment manager Chris Valenti announces that he needs it.

Jackson holds a hanger in his left hand – the No. 88 jersey will take another turn. A reminder of friend and teammate Demaryius Thomas, who died last year at the age of 33 due to complications from a seizure disorder. Thomas played 10 seasons in the NFL — eight with the Broncos, including their Super Bowl 50 victory — and finished his career as the Broncos’ second-leading receiver (9,055 yards). He would have turned 35 on Boxing Day.

The jersey has traveled from Jackson’s locker to every home and away game, including across the Atlantic to London in Week 8. And every day at the team’s suburban practice complex, it has been there.

“At first, I wasn’t really sure why I wanted it with me,” Jackson told ESPN as he tilted it to reveal several patches of grass down the back. “It just seemed like what I wanted to do. , what I should do. It was important for me to remind myself, to feel his presence, for how he did things, how he carried himself. And when I look at it, you see the green, the patches of grass, that’s what comes to mind for me.

“He put them there, you know, and tried to get everything he could out of every game. Maybe it’s because it’s, it’s from the ground, from a game we were in together. I just see that green, it stops in a way. me every time.”

Jackson traded jerseys with Thomas after a Week 16 game in 2013 in Houston. Jackson was in his fourth season with the Texans when he acquired jersey No. 88 in road white with orange-trimmed blue numbers. Then-Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had set the NFL single-season record for touchdown passes in that game, throwing his 48th, 49th, 50th and 51st of the season. “I look at it now and think about trading him, my jersey for his, the season he had then, the look on his face, what he said,” Jackson said. “I’m sitting here now and it’s not just that, I look at it and it’s playing basketball against him in high school, his laugh, his smile, you know, like everything.”

Thomas and Jackson met as teenagers growing up in central Georgia, became fast friends and played summer league basketball against each other.

For Jackson, the memory of Thomas washes over him as he sits at his locker, taping what needs to be taped, studying what needs to be studied, or finding something more comfortable to slip his feet into after another day’s work. For months, Jackson has faithfully, for reasons he can’t always explain, worn the jersey through this unexpectedly losing Broncos season (4-10).

What was and what could have been, all in the tightly woven threads.

VALENTI HAS BEEN THE Broncos’ equipment manager for as long as anyone in the building can remember — 26 years officially. He has taken care of thousands of jerseys over the years, making them look like new every week. For him, numbers are memories, symbols of lives lived, careers made. John Elway’s No. 7, Terrell Davis’ No. 30, Champ Bailey’s No. 24, “some of them, a few, there’s one person that will always jump out at you when you see it.” And 88?” Valenti said of Thomas. “He, always. Always.”

Every Saturday of a football season, Thomas brought donuts to the team’s equipment staff, boxes to be divided among those in the building whose work keeps the hive going.

The boxes still arrive every Saturday as wide receiver Courtland Sutton does what he saw Thomas do, so he can, as wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said, “continue Demaryius in his own way.’’ “Five, six. [dozen] of them, he would bring [in] to the equipment room because I kind of ended up separating them, making sure they got to the training room and around and it was the same mix,” Valenti said with a laugh. ” … I think about (Thomas) all the time when we do it. There were a couple of times when something came up and (Thomas) kind of ran after and the people from the donut shop just wanted to get them because they knew he should have been there now, and they would help him too.”

THOMAS WAS IN his fifth NFL season when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in Denver in 2012. What followed over the next four seasons on the field was historic. Thomas had at least 90 receptions and 1,300 yards receiving in all four of those years. He joined Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice as well as Torry Holt as the only players to reach those totals over four consecutive seasons.

“I see him every day, I see him every Sunday … I think about him a lot,” Manning told ESPN.

Manning remembers how children were drawn to Thomas and how he always seemed to know exactly what to say or when to listen.

Thomas often said “some of these kids might be like me, some might not, but they’re all kids, and they should all know that people love them.” Manning’s children – Marshall and Mosley – asked Thomas every time he crossed into view in the locker room. The snapshots remain throughout Manning’s life, the smiles on his children’s faces, in Thomas’ arms, Thomas chasing across a practice field, Thomas throwing a ball, all while scrolling through the photos on his phone.

“You know on your iPhone, the pictures come up … ‘five years ago today’ kind of deal, and it seems like every day different pictures of Demaryius with Marshall and Mosley, him and me out at practice, just pictures that shows up,” Manning said.[We] missing him makes me sad at the same time, but I know people are thinking about him.”

During the Broncos’ 2013 season — Manning set records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) as the Broncos scored a record 606 points — Thomas finished with a career-best 14 touchdowns. The following season, he finished with a career-best 1,619 receiving yards.

“I have a lot of pictures of DT … sitting in the stadium, and in my office there’s this great picture of me and Demaryius after a touchdown, a big old smile on his face,” Manning said “What Kareem does, what he do with it (the jersey), it’s special,” he added. ” … It’s carrying on DT’s legacy. Just special.”

Erich Schubert has been with the Broncos for 15 seasons, since he was an intern in the media relations department, helping to oversee the team’s digital media efforts.

One of Schubert’s favorite photographs is of his older of two sons, Cade, now 10, on the sideline years ago before a Broncos game, shaking the hand of a smiling Thomas, in uniform. Cade was 5 or so at the time, Thomas his favorite player on the beloved team his father works for. Schubert had the photo, taken by an Associated Press photographer, framed and signed by Thomas as a gift for Cade one Christmas.

“His favorite player of all time,” said Erich Schubert. “He has that picture on the wall.”

Last December, the day after Thomas died, Schubert told his son what happened.

“He was devastated, just devastated,” Schubert said. “And we talked about it and it was really hard and later on in the evening everybody calmed down a little bit, he was getting ready for bed and I walked by and just looked in. And I saw that he had taken the picture of the wall on bedroom and leaned it up against the bathroom mirror and he just stood there and looked at it while he brushed his teeth. He took it in and carried it back to his room to go to bed.”

THOMAS’ MOTHER, KATINA Smith, did not see Thomas play in a game until the Broncos’ 23-16 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional round on January 17, 2016.

Manning gave Thomas the game ball seconds after the win to give to his mother. Two wins later, the Broncos were Super Bowl 50 champions. “That ball Peyton gave us is probably my favorite football memory,” Smith said. “My first time watching Demaryius play, every time I see it I think of that day.”

Thomas and Smith’s relationship gained national attention around Denver’s Super Bowl 50 run. Smith began serving a prison sentence in 1999 related to cocaine distribution charges. President Barack Obama commuted the sentence in 2015, allowing her to see her son fulfill his football dreams. Thomas died two weeks before his 34th birthday. Smith said this past week “will always be the toughest time of the year.” Looking through the camera roll on her phone, she lists the reminders of Thomas — his smile, his way. Reminders of a trip they took to practice at a local high school school — “we took all kinds of funny pictures that day” — or a smiling Thomas towering over her before a game.

“All those pictures you take and think you want so many, but now you wish you had more,” she said.

Smith withdrew a bill from an ATM in recent days; an unknown person in an unknown place for an unknown reason had written “DT” in black marker in the upper right corner. It made her stop “just to catch her breath”, much like every time a car passes her with a number 88 or 1225 somewhere on the license plate, or 33, his age when he died.

“I call them all my signs,” Smith said. “Just the things that make me think of him. And those kinds of things, what Kareem does, I’m so glad to know, I hope he knows, it helps me get through it. It’s real, it is friendship, it’s a blessing.”

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