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MHSM Exclusive: Decker and Thomas, salt and pepper

Black and white.

Ebony and ivory.

Salt and Pepper.

“When we came in, we called ourselves ‘Salt and Pepper.’ He’s 87. I’m 88,” Demaryius Thomas says, grinning a smile that’s even whiter than the good friend he’s referring to.

In 2012, it’s standard practice to dance around the whole “black-white” thing. It’s a politically correct world, but that’s not their world. In fact, it doesn’t come into play – that simply doesn’t matter to Thomas and Eric Decker, friends and teammates who are on the precipice of something big.

“Salt and Pepper. We kind of both came up with that. It was at the rookie symposium,” says Decker, who arrived at a recent photo shoot with Thomas and a set of salt-and-pepper shakers, just to reinforce the notion that it’s all in good fun. “We were talking about what our goals were going into our rookie year. We wanted to establish ourselves in Denver. We came up with the nickname – we wanted to be the Rod Smith-Ed McCaffrey combo. Being the white-guy-black-guy, we came up with Salt and Pepper.”

Brothers from another mother.

“We just clicked right away,” says Decker. “We always did stuff together. We always looked out for one another. That bond, that camaraderie off the field, definitely helped us on the field. Those competitive juices pushed each other to get better.”

Their entry into the NFL was eerily similar. Both players starred for their college teams, but were bitten by the injury bug prior to the draft. They both signed with the same agent. They both ventured to Phoenix to train. They both stayed there for additional rehab.

And then, they both got drafted by the same team – the Broncos. Thomas bought a home in Denver. Eric followed.

“He bought a home, so I went to live with him that first year,” Decker recalls. “It was a brotherhood.”

Decker’s decision to move in that first year was no imposition for Thomas, who welcomed the chance to grow into his new city alongside a close friend.

“We did a lot of things together, but we (also) did our own thing,” says Thomas. “He had his own space, and I had my own space. It was cool. We got to know each other better. I met his family. He met my family. We were like brothers. We got each other birthday presents. It was fun.”

On the field with the Broncos, however, fun wasn’t always the mantra. Decker jumped out to a slow start as a rookie. He played in 14 games, but only hauled in six catches. Thomas could barely find the field at all. The foot he had broken while training for the NFL combine was re-injured in the first week of training camp, and Thomas was inactive when the season rolled around. In week two, Thomas gave the Broncos a glimpse of why he was the first receiver drafted that summer; he snagged eight passes for 97 yards against Seattle. In the next eight games, however, he never caught more than three. In November, he suffered an ankle injury, sidelining him for the rest of the season.

In February of 2011, Thomas tore his Achilles tendon while working out in Atlanta. He missed all of training camp, but surprisingly, was cleared to play in week one of the regular season. That never happened, though, as bad luck reared its ugly head again; Thomas broke his pinky finger during his very first practice. Surgery on the finger kept him out until game six.

Meanwhile, Decker wasn’t injured, but he was playing in an offense that was sputtering at best. With Kyle Orton at quarterback, the Broncos limped out to a 1-4 start. Decker and Orton had a decent connection, but it wasn’t good enough for Orton to keep his job as the starter.

Enter Tim Tebow.

Under Tebow, the path of Thomas and Decker again took a new twist. The Broncos first- and third-round picks from a year earlier transformed into blockers. With Tebow at the helm, the Broncos were suddenly a throwback team that relied on the run and only passed on occasion. With the exception of week six, when Tebow found him six times for 72 yards, Decker never caught more than three passes in a game.

Brandon Lloyd, the closest thing the Broncos had to a “star” at the receiver position, couldn’t handle the situation. With free-agent status looming after the season, Lloyd essentially forced a trade following week five.

Thomas, back healthy, assumed Lloyd’s role, returning the same week that Tebow was handed the starting job. From there, the combination of Tebow and Thomas proceeded to average less than one completion per game, until week 12, when the pair found an uncanny connection in Minnesota.

Still, the offense was anything but consistent, as the game plan and the play of Tebow were rarely the same from one week to the next.

“Coming out of their breaks, they never knew when, or if, the ball was going to be there,” says former Broncos great Rod Smith, who has taken a noticeable interest in the development of Decker and Thomas. “That’s tough on a young receiver.”

But behind Tebow, the Broncos were managing to win some games along the way. Tebow Mania was in full effect, and Thomas and Decker blocked, smiled after every game and avoided the temptation to voice the frustrations of being a receiver in a Tebow-led offense. The situation was anything but ideal, but even at 8-8, the Broncos managed to find a way into the playoffs.

“Last year, we really learned a lot about patience,” says Decker, saying everything without saying anything at all.

With two years of NFL experience under their belt, Thomas and Decker were still on a nearly identical path. Thomas headed into his third season with just 54 career catches. Decker was just behind him with 50.

And both faced the thought of playing another year in a throwback, run-heavy offense.

***

Night and day.

While the professional paths of “Salt and Pepper” are oddly similar, their lives before college football could not have been more different.

Thomas grew up in Montrose, Georgia. It’s a tiny, rural town – population 154, according to the 2000 census report.

“Dirt roads,” Thomas says of the place he grew up.

In 1999, when Thomas was just 11 years old, he witnessed his mother’s arrest. Policemen took Katina Smith away right in front of Thomas and his two younger sisters. On the very same day, his grandmother, Minnie Pearl, was arrested, too. Both women were selling cocaine. In February of 2000, they were convicted and sentenced to federal prison. His mother was sentenced to 20 years; his grandmother got 40. Thomas was there for all of it.

Since 2000, he’s only seen them a half a dozen times. But conversations on the phone are frequent.

Thomas’ father, Bobby, wasn’t around, either. Enlisted in the Army right after high school, Bobby Thomas was stationed in Alabama when Katina found out she was pregnant with Demaryius. Bobby moved all over – Alabama, Virginia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – and could only send money to support his son. After two unsuccessful living arrangements with Bobby’s mother and sister, Demaryius was living with Shirley and James Brown, his aunt and uncle.

Uncle James and Aunt Shirley showed tough love and created a disciplined environment for Demaryius and his three cousins. The Browns made him work in the summer, but during the school year, he excelled both in the classroom and in sports at West Laurens High School.

Thomas boasted a 3.5 GPA and was a standout AAU basketball player – a point guard – but he didn’t realize football would be his future until later. He stayed out of trouble and avoided the wrong crowd; he didn’t make some of the poor choices his mother and grandmother had made.

“He’s pretty quiet,” says Morocko Blash, a talkative younger cousin who lived next door and played football alongside Thomas at West Laurens, and is now playing at CSU-Pueblo. “He’s always been pretty quiet.”

By the time Thomas was a senior, he was a whopping 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. He was strong and fast, and was coveted by plenty of big-time, Division I football programs. Georgia Tech won out.

A little more than 1,300 hundred miles northwest of Montrose, Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minn., had its own star athlete – a kid named Eric Decker.

Cold Spring is a quiet, Midwestern, All-American town, and Decker was the quintessential, All-American boy. The Cold Spring Granite Company and the Cold Spring Brewing Company anchor the local economy, and when Decker was growing up, the town boasted a population that hovered around 3,000 people, 98 percent of whom were white.

“It’s got one spring running through it that the brewery uses for its products,” says Decker. “I call it ‘God’s Country.’ I think there are more square feet of water than land. I lived on the lake and grew up on the water.”

In an interview with the Denver Post last season, Decker described his parents as “middle class.” His mother and father divorced when he was in second grade, but they remained good enough friends to regularly attend their son’s sporting events together – even the away games.

“There was nothing glamorous about my upbringing,” Decker told the Post’s Mike Klis. “But at the same time, my parents gave me and my sister whatever we wanted, whether it was going to camps (or) snacks at night.”

Decker grew up a Vikings fan; he had season tickets for about eight years growing up. But he wasn’t just a football fan or the star of his high school football team; he was the star of everything at Rocori.

Throughout his childhood, Decker played sports all day, every day. And by the time he was in high school, his work had paid off. He averaged 18 points per game on the basketball team. And he was good enough to play both football and baseball at the University of Minnesota.

***

Then and now.

Today, both Thomas and Decker are still sports stars. And despite the fact that their pockets are considerably deeper – Thomas signed a five-year, $15.5 million dollar contract in 2010 after getting drafted in the first round, Decker was inked for four years at $2.52 million, and both are beginning to see the fruits of endorsement money – their personalities are still reflective of their upbringing.

“I’ve never been a vocal guy, not even in high school. I never said nuthin!,” Thomas laughs, confirming Blash’s assertion. “I didn’t even say anything when I played basketball.”

At this year’s ESPY Awards ceremony, Thomas and his former quarterback Tebow walked away with the award for “Best Moment.” At the podium, Tebow did all the talking. Thomas’ black-on-black custom suit and tie was a loud combination, but he didn’t say a peep.

“I’ll talk,” says Decker. “Demaryius is the really quiet one.”

Every high school has its own version of Decker. The kid who’s good at everything. Blessed with good looks and charm. The guy who gets the girl. In Denver, Decker is still that person. As a rookie, GQ featured him in a six-page, fall fashion photo spread. He’s a regular at charitable functions and helps Ed McCaffrey with his youth football camps. Colorado companies seek his likeness. Women gaze in awe.

In July, Decker visited the Mile High Sports studios to record some radio commercials and have his picture taken for two new, separate endorsement deals. When he left, the new girl stood up from her workstation and asked, “Who was that?”

But he’s taken. In April of 2012, Twitter broke the news that Decker was engaged to country music star Jessie James. Us Weekly ran a photo of the couple after the big news, obviously not taking into consideration the number of hearts that had just broken in Denver.

And while Decker’s name filled the headlines when he was officially taken off the market, Thomas would have preferred not see his name associated with any girl. But that’s not what was happening. He was mentioned frequently in the highly publicized Perrish Cox rape trial, as it was Thomas who was essentially asked to testify against his former teammate.

In June, despite the fact that Cox was acquitted of all charges, the accuser filed a civil lawsuit seeking unspecified damages against both Cox and Thomas. The lawsuit claims battery, sexual assault and battery, aiding and abetting tortious conduct, conspiracy, outrageous conduct, and negligence, which include failing to ensure the woman’s safety.

Those who know him well don’t buy into the woman’s claims. They’ll tell you that Thomas actually did the right thing – that he ultimately left one of those situations he probably shouldn’t have been in to begin with – the kind that he always tried to steer clear of back in Georgia. Thomas didn’t want trouble then, and he certainly doesn’t want any now.

There is no shortage of women in Denver, some of whom claim to know both Thomas and his accuser, who will happily, but anonymously, tell you that the lawsuit – like many civil cases – is nothing more than a money grab. It’s no secret the kinds of dollars professional athletes make these days.

The courts will ultimately decide, but Thomas has tried not to let the case bother him.

“I haven’t worried about the court case,” Thomas says. “I let my lawyers handle it and if they need me, they’ll (call) me about it. It was bothering me at first because I really didn’t do anything.”

To know Thomas is to like him. In June, when wildfires were destroying massive amounts of Colorado, he – unprompted and without the nudge of a public relations agent – reached out to a member of the media and asked for ideas as to how he might best help the families who had lost their homes. On July 23, just three days after the Aurora theatre shootings, Thomas was one of the first Broncos to visit victims at Swedish Medical Center. His typical definition of “going out” is hitting up the bowling alley near his home.

After all he’s been through of late, and all that’s been said about him with regard to the Perrish Cox trial, it’s still difficult to imagine an evil streak in Thomas. He’s not a bad guy. Ask Decker. Ask his other friends and teammates. Better yet, ask Rod Smith.

“Both of those guys are strong in the community, and that’s how Eddie and I tried to be,” says Smith, who on many levels can relate to the friendship of Decker and Thomas. After all, during their playing days, Smith seemed a little quieter, while McCaffrey appeared to be the outgoing one.

“I like them a lot,” Smith says. “They’re just good people.”

***

The opportunity at hand.

LeBron James is Demaryius Thomas’ favorite basketball player. Before that, it was Michael Jordan.

“LeBron can do it all,” says Thomas. “He’s big. He can run and jump. And he makes everyone around him better. I don’t know why so many people want to be hatin’ on him.”

It’s June 9, and LeBron is trying to close out the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. Thomas is sporting a Miami Heat baseball cap and eating inside the steakhouse owned by his boss – Elway’s. It’s Blash’s birthday, and Thomas is treating his cousin to dinner and a small get together. But he’s distracted; Thomas is trying to watch his guy on a TV that’s about 15 feet from the table.

Just two nights prior, LeBron posted one of the greatest games in NBA playoffs history. He scored 45 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and had five assists in game six – saving the Heat from elimination. Thomas seizes every chance to remind Blash, who’s more of a Kobe Bryant fan, of King James’ latest performance and that the Lakers were ousted in the conference semifinals.

“This is it,” says Thomas, standing up and removing himself from the dinner table so he can see the end of the game from a better vantage point.

Miami wins. The King pours in another 31. Thomas is happy.

“They’re going to win it all,” he says with a grin.

It could be deducted that Thomas, in some ways, might relate to James. Like LeBron, Thomas has been blessed with remarkable physical gifts. He’s unusually big, unthinkably strong and unbelievably fast for his position. Champ Bailey says he’s a tough matchup because Thomas is always going to be bigger. Broncos cornerback Chris Harris says Thomas is the toughest guy on the team to cover.

“Demaryius is a guy who we’re going to feature his size and strength and speed,” says Peyton Manning of his newest target. “(It) allows you to do certain things with him that other players just can’t do.”

But strangely, Thomas has never been in a situation that’s fully utilized all that he has to offer. At West Laurens, he played in a run-heavy offense. Same thing at Georgia Tech. And last year, Denver was a place unfit for any NFL wide receiver. Plus, his entire professional career has been riddled by injuries.

Like King James, Thomas enters the season with something to prove. Simply put, Peyton Manning represents the opportunity to do just that – a notion that’s clearly understood by both Decker and Thomas.

“This year, the opportunity is more consistent,” says Decker. “It’s there for the taking.”

It’s certainly a different vibe this season. Being a receiver in Denver just went from being one of the worst jobs in sports to being one of the best. All it took was the signing of one man.

“I’ve seen a couple leaders,” Thomas says, “but nothing like Peyton.

“He hasn’t chewed me (out) yet. I’m trying not to get to that point. He’ll get angry; I saw that in OTAs early. I think it makes players better when you have somebody like that on you all the time.”

Decker knows of what Thomas speaks.

“Walkthroughs can be kind of looked at as, ‘Alright, we don’t really need to focus or try as hard; it’s just a walkthrough,’” explains Decker. “But there were a couple of times where we missed our protection or a hot (read) or a certain route, and (Peyton) is on you, like, ‘What the hell? We’ve got to pick it up!’ He’s very vocal and demanding. So, it’s like, ‘Alright, we need to do everything perfect.’ There’s no easy way out. There are no shortcuts. We’re doing everything for a reason.”

Football pundits believe that Manning is a gift from the heavens for any wide receiver, but Smith, the best wide out Denver has ever known, says there’s more to it than just adding No. 18 to the roster.

‘The last two years, (Decker and Thomas) have relied on talent,” says Smith. “Now, they’ve got to become technicians. They’ve got to work on the skills of the position – running routes, coming out of their breaks.”

Smith says he became an effective wide receiver not by learning his position, but by studying what the coach was telling the quarterback.

“You’ve got to know what his reads are. You’ve got to know what his timing is going to be. You need to know when he needs you to be open,” explains Smith.

And that’s nothing new to Decker or Thomas, both of whom have leaned on Smith and McCaffrey for advice from time to time. That duo, after all, is the only pair of primary receivers to ever win a Super Bowl in Denver.

“We talk about (Smith and McCaffrey) a lot,” says Thomas. “We won’t really say it, but we know we can be like those two if we just work toward it and put the effort in, and put the time in. I think we could be similar to Ed and Rod.”

Through a reporter, Smith learned that he and McCaffrey are the gold standard, that they represent exactly what Decker and Thomas deem capable this season.

“That’s awesome to hear,” Smith says. “Eddie and I were friends, and we always tried to do things the right way, but we won! That’s what they want. That’s what I want to see them go get.”

The numbers 80 and 87 will forever have a place in the hearts of Broncos fans. Decker, who proudly wears 87, a jersey that found its way to his rookie locker along with McCaffrey’s stamp of approval, wants the numbers 88 and his number 87 to have a similar meaning some day.

“They talk about how much the Denver community loves the Broncos. I know from watching the Broncos in the ‘90s,” says Decker. “Those guys were so identifiable. They still are.”

With Manning at the helm, thoughts that never surfaced a year ago are a common part of Denver’s new lexicon. With a future Hall of Fame quarterback throwing them the ball, it’s conceivable that Decker and Thomas could become great – seemingly overnight.

They could be like Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Or, they could be just like Smith and McCaffrey.

If all goes the way John Elway has envisioned, Decker and Thomas could be a duo that’s as identifiable as, well, Salt and Pepper.

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