Hoop Dreams: Demaryius and Julius Thomas go from hardwood hopefuls to NFL superstars

Sep 9, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (88) during the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: Following the day in which Broncos legendary receiver announced his retirement from the NFL, we wanted to repurpose a story that ran in the September 2014 issue of Mile High Sports Magazine. Following retirement, perhaps there’s still time for No. 88 to rekindle his relationship with basketball? 

“J.T.! What’d I just say!?”

Ken Bone was steamed. He was trying to teach his basketball team something, and it looked as if one of his freshmen ballplayers wasn’t listening. In fact, the kid was talking – yucking it up with another member of the Portland State men’s basketball team. 

“What’d I just say?” Bone repeated. 

The young man looked up and quoted the coach word for word, not once missing a beat. The lesson of the day had somehow sunk in – 18-year-old Julius Thomas had not only heard what the coach was saying, but he recited it verbatim. 

This was not unusual. Bone was constantly catching Thomas, a player who “was always social,” appearing to be less than attentive. 

“I might be talking to the team, and he’d always be over there on the side talking to his buddy,” says Bone, who recruited Thomas to Portland State in 2006 and then coached him through his junior season. “But doggonit if he didn’t know what I was saying every single time…

“Finally, I just had to bring him in the office and say, ‘Look, you’re distracting the other guys who don’t listen as well as you do. Even though you’re picking up on every single thing I say, even when you’re talking or whatever, you can’t distract the other guys, because they’re not hearing too well.’ 

“My problem was that I could never catch him. I wanted to catch him, but he knew exactly what I was talking about every time. He’s a pretty sharp kid.”

Despite this one flaw, Thomas was never a problem for Bone. In fact, he was a key contributor to the team. During his career at Portland State, Thomas was invaluable – as tenacious defender, a relentless runner and an overachieving rebounder. During his junior and season seasons, Thomas finished in the Big Sky Conference’s Top-10 in games played, field goals made, field goal percentage, offensive rebounds, total rebounds, steals and blocked shots. Thomas set school records for career games played (121), career wins (78), and career field goal percentage (.663). He was part of one Big Sky regular season championship team and two Big Sky tournament championship teams. He played in the NCAA Tournament twice, and was two-time member of the Big Sky All-Tournament team.

“He was brought up the right way, an outstanding athlete with outstanding effort. Every day, every drill, every game – it didn’t matter. He had all the ingredients on and off the court,” says Bone.

But he was not necessarily a traditional basketball player, at least not from the start. 

“When I recruited Julius, what I saw was a big, strong, aggressive, expansive 6-foot-5 player. And I say ‘player’ because I didn’t know what position he was,” admits Bone, who now coaches at Montana State. “I wasn’t sure where to play this guy. He’s definitely not a perimeter guy; he’s not a guard, he’s not a ballhandler or a shooter. He’s not a post player. But, (I thought), ‘We’ve got to find a place for him, because he’s an absolute warrior on the court, and he’s a physical specimen.’ Quick feet. He could run the floor. He could jump. All the natural ability you’d want in an athlete.

“I’m just not sure he was a basketball player.” 

Some 2,780 miles away from Portland, Oregon, in a Toyota Sienna minivan, wedged between a two-year-old boy sitting in a carseat and a four-year-old girl, and watching a Jim Carey movie on DVD, was a true basketball player. 

Adding to its already tired odometer, the van was bouncing down the back roads of Montrose, Georgia. Its passengers included the head basketball coach of the West Laurens High School Raiders, Danny Johnson, his two children Xxxxxxx and Xxxxxxx and Demaryius Thomas, the star of the Raiders basketball team. This was not an uncommon arrangement. After practice or games, Thomas regularly caught a lift back to his aunt and uncle’s house where he lived. 

It was no inconvenience for Johnson, who, over the course of four years, had grown to love Thomas, not just because he was a great basketball player – although he was – but because of the type of kid he’d always been. Besides, Johnson’s children simply “loved Thomas to death.” 

And so did everyone else at West Laurens High School.  

And why wouldn’t they? Thomas was likeable. Like Johnson, everyone in the community took note of his calm and friendly demeanor. Thomas didn’t have any enemies. He was a star athlete, but there was no jealousy to be found anywhere throughout the halls of West Laurens. He boasted a 3.5 grade point average and never caused any trouble. He had a trademark smile. 

But folks also loved him for what he did

In school, the young man everyone called “Bay Bay” was a gentle giant. But in any setting that involved high school sports he was a beast – a 6-foot-4, 210-pound nightmare for opponents all over Georgia. He ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash, making him a standout in track, and nearly impossible to cover as a wide receiver on the Raiders football team. 

But mostly, the students at West Laurens loved him for what he could do – and had done – on the basketball court.

As was well known in the area, Thomas’ home life was far from picture perfect. His father was a military man who wasn’t home often. When his mother and grandmother were sentenced to prison for trafficking drugs, Thomas, at the age of 11, went to live with his paternal grandmother, Gladys, before ultimately settling in with his Aunt Shirley and Uncle James – the Browns. Sports were really the only constant.

James Brown was a preacher and a strict man; there were no loosely defined rules in his home. There were expectations and responsibilities. In the summers, Thomas would wake up early every morning to pick peas and mow grass. 

When he was done, he’d swap out his normal shoes for specially designed “jump shoes” and slip on a weighted vest, determined to improve his jumping ability. He and his younger cousin Morocko Blash would ride their bikes five miles just to play in the “good” pickup games in the next town over. 

Basketball was everything. Thomas wanted to be the next Michael Jordan and worked hard at his craft. 

As a 6-foot-3 eighth grader, Thomas started on the West Laurens junior varsity team. He’d already been playing on the best AAU team in the area, so when he arrived as West Laurens High as a freshman, he quickly earned a spot on the varsity. He could defend any position on the court. During the summer that followed his freshman year, Thomas was the only varsity player who never once missed a summer league game.  

That next season, he was the only sophomore to start for the Raiders, a team that eventually made it all the way to the state championship game. In the title bout, he was given the assignment of guarding East Hall’s top scorer. Before fouling out of the game, Thomas held his man, a deadly shooter who’d been averaging close to 30 points per game, to just six points. West Laurens went on to win the AAA state crown, and Thomas would later be honored as the team’s top defensive player. 

But beyond the 2004 state title run, there were highlights. Anyone who saw him play has a personal favorite. 

There was the dunk against Toombs County. Blash describes it like this: “It was kind of a dull game, one that we should have been winning but weren’t. We were better than Toombs, but they were hanging around because we were just flat. Bay Bay got a steal and took off. There was a little guard who was waiting on the other end, trying to take a charge. The poor kid got there in time, but Bay Bay jumped into the air – it couldn’t have been too far from the free-throw line – and he cleared this kid’s head and just dunked it. It changed the whole complexion of the game and we won easy.” 

In 2005 against No. 1 ranked Dublin, West Laurens’ biggest rival and the ultimate state champion that year, Thomas won the game in improbable fashion. Johnson recalls it fondly: “We were down one, with less than 10 seconds to play. D.T. shoots a three. He misses. But he gets the rebound and puts it back in as time expires. If you go back to the tape, he probably got it off a little late. But it was a sardine can in that gym, which housed about 800 people and we probably had a few more than that on that night. That game sold out by 5 p.m. during the J.V. game. Nobody else was allowed in. Because it was so loud, the officials didn’t hear the horn.”

In 2006, in the state tournament, Johnson says Thomas “willed West Laurens to a win” over Dodge County. Thomas rifled off 36 of West Laurens’ 61 points while playing every position on the court. The next night the Raiders lost – “only because they played a triangle-and-two defense against D.T.,” says Johnson. 

But none of those were “the best” according to Blash – that came in a loss against Wilkinson County, a powerhouse known for its basketball tradition.  

“I’ve never seen him play like he did that night,” says Blash. 

On that particular night, there were four, future-Division 1 athletes in the gym when the game tipped off – five once Thomas arrived at halftime. He was late, and West Laurens was down big – 20 points – but that didn’t discourage Thomas. Senario Hillman, an Alabama-bound All-State guard, had dominated the game, scoring 20 in the first half. Martavius Adams, another All-Stater who was headed to Oklahoma State, had dominated the low post. Thomas put on a masterful defensive effort, guarding both players off and on as the game wore on. Hillman finished with just 25. 

But Thomas’ defense wasn’t the only thing that helped West Laurens claw back into the game. With the ball in his hands, he was on fire. 

“It was one of those games where I felt like I should shoot after I crossed half court,” Thomas still recalls; he finished with 39 points. 

Unfortunately for West Laurens, the remarkable effort came up short; Wilkinson County stole away with a 2-point victory. 

Thomas regrets missing the first half to this day. 

Nate Robinson, who currently plays for the Denver Nuggets, is one of the most confident athletes in all of sports. Anyone who’s ever watched him play, or played with or against him, knows this to be a fact. 

Perhaps more than anyone, Ken Bone knows this. 

As an assistant basketball coach at the University of Washington from 2002 to 2005, Bone remembers coaching Robinson.  

“Nate came to Washington on a football scholarship as a defensive back,” Bone recalls. “And he was pretty damn good as a freshman. After football season, he comes over and plays basketball. By midseason, he’s starting as a freshman on our basketball team.”

In fact, Robinson was excellent at both sports. In the fall he was a starting cornerback for Rick Neuheisel. Then, in the winter, he walked across campus and played in 23 games for the basketball team, starting the last 10 and leading the Huskies in scoring with 13 points per game. 

“All odds were against him,” Bone says of Robinson. “But Nate always had that confidence about himself. Even though he was like, 5-foot-6-and-three-quarters, he’d just kind of smile and laugh at you. Like, ‘Keep watching, you’ll see.’

Julius Thomas reminded me, actually, of Nate Robinson. There are some similarities there.”

The differences were obvious – eight inches and 50 pounds – but both athletes had the necessary ingredient to be successful no matter the game. 

“Julius had a hidden confidence about him,” Bone says. “He couldn’t really be arrogant, because he wasn’t ‘great.’ But he just had that confidence about him, like ‘You know what, I’m going to make a difference in this game.’

“And he always did.” 

Bone was right though. Thomas, for as confident as he was, was not great – certainly not great enough for NBA teams to come calling following his senior season. While important to Bone at Portland State, the Association would not provide future employment for Thomas. Still working on his degree, and without any eligibility left in basketball, Thomas thought he might give football a try. 

“When I was around him, (playing football) was more of a joking thing,” Bone says. “He’d say, ‘Man, I could play out there.’”

Apparently he could. 

It had been since the eighth grade when Thomas last played football. As a freshman, he tried out for the high school team at Tokay High School in Lodi, Calif., but growth spurts and back pains sidelined him. By the time he was a sophomore, he was already on a hoops fast track. Football became a casualty of his hardwood success. 

But it wasn’t like he’d forgotten the game. It wasn’t like he wasn’t equipped to play it, either. Despite his 250-pound basketball frame, Thomas ran a 4.65 forty. He could bench press 225 pounds 16 times. Perhaps not surprisingly, especially to him, he made the football team at Portland State. 

After 11 games, 29 receptions for 453 yards and two touchdown catches, Thomas was honored as a first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection in 2010 and was invited to play in the 2011 East-West Shrine Game. 

“Because of his ability to be coached and his willingness to be coached, he was a great teammate,” says Bone of his former hoopster. “My gosh, I don’t know what they’re saying in Denver, but I’m sure people comment on what a great person and teammate he is. 

“It didn’t surprise me that he was successful at football.”

There was a good reason Demaryius Thomas was late to the game against Wilkinson County. 

On that particular day he was playing in the Georgia Athletic Coaches Association North-South All Star Game – a football game. Despite his accomplishments on the basketball court, Thomas had garnered the attention of Division I football coaches around the country. By that point, it was assumed that his future was in football and playing in the North-South Game was an honor. But still, Thomas had a basketball game to win.

The trip from Columbus, where the North South Game was played, back to his high school gym at West Laurens, took too long. 

Thomas was mad at how long it took. He was mad that he missed the first half. He was mad that his team lost.

“If I’d have played in that first half, we win the game,” he says a decade later. 

But he was also confused. His performance against Wilkinson County was so epic that he wondered if he’d made the right choice. Well before the season, he’d committed to play football – and only football – at Georgia Tech. 

The Wilkinson County game not only featured several future college players, but there were college scouts on hand, too. Surely they noticed Thomas, and he knew it. It wasn’t as if Thomas had received limited interest from college basketball coaches In fact, he had been actively recruited by Rice, Tennessee Tech and North Carolina State, a school that was willing to let him play both football and basketball. But because he was so heavily recruited in football, most basketball programs had backed off by his senior year. Thomas had even inquired with Georgia Tech, the winners of the Bay Bay Sweepstakes, about playing both sports. The Yellow Jacket football coaching staff, however, convinced him that concentrating on football was in his best interest. 

“I definitely thought about playing basketball,” says Thomas. 

As a redshirt freshman at Georgia Tech, it wasn’t unusual for Thomas to appear on the sidelines of West Laurens basketball games. Even after he began to emerge as a top-flight ACC wideout, he’d still return home for high school hoops. Sometimes he’d pop into the locker room and talk to the team before the game. On occasion he’d take part in the halftime festivities, a contest that featured attendees taking a half-court shot, something Johnson says was always “an easy shot for Demaryius.” Sometimes Thomas would even bring along his quarterback from Tech. He’d call Blash, who played point guard for the Raiders, before and after every game. 

Thomas still played a little, too. He’d practice with the West Laurens team over Christmas break, and he vividly remembers a pick up game at Georgia Tech, where he and four of his football teammates took down five players on the basketball team. 

“We beat ‘em,” he says coolly.     

Even today, Thomas is an avid fan of college and NBA basketball. Like Jordan was when Thomas was young, LeBron James is now his favorite athlete to watch. 

“Hey may tell you different now,” says Johnson, “but in my conversations with him, he really loved basketball.” 

Blash knows Thomas perhaps better than anyone. 

“Basketball was always his passion,” says Blash. “In his heart, he’ll always be a basketball player.” 

Thomas, who now boasts 240 receptions, 3,698 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns in the NFL – plus a Super Bowl record for most receptions – smiles at the assertion.

“You know,” Thomas chuckles, “I agree with that.” 

It’s July 29, the first day off from Broncos Training Camp. But both Demaryius and Julius Thomas are busy working, not for the Broncos, but for Pepsi Cola. Along with their new Broncos teammate, Aqib Talib, they’ve been chosen by to represent Pepsi products in the Denver market. It’s the kind of opportunity that comes along with being a bona fide NFL superstar. 

Everything is taking place at the Altitude Sports and Entertainment studios, just across the street from the Broncos practice facility. They’ll be filming a television commercial, cutting some audio and taking photographs for Pepsi’s advertising campaign. Football fans in Denver love the Thomases, and the executives at Pepsi understand this.  

The schedule is tight. It’s a lot to get done in three hours. The trio takes turns, bouncing from the audio booth to the studio to the photo set. If there’s ever a minute of downtime, there’s a long table loaded with memorabilia, waiting for their signatures. Jathan Campbell, the photographer who arrived early and helped to carry in the 20 boxes of “stuff,” estimates that there are over 250 items – jerseys, footballs and helmets – to sign. 

It’s an odd scene for the Thomases, who, at one point, went to bed each night with only hoop dreams in mind. 

In many ways, though, their current reality must be better than any dream they ever summoned. 

Demaryius has enjoyed back-to-back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons. He’s tallied more than 1,400 receiving yards in both 2012 and 2013, becoming the weapon of choice for Peyton Manning. 

Julius, despite playing only one full season in the NFL, has emerged as one of the league’s best pass catching tight ends. Last season he broke Shannon Sharpe’s franchise record for touchdown receptions in a season. 

And both players are about to get paid. 

It’s been widely reported that the Broncos are actively trying to extend the contracts of Thomas and Thomas, both of whom will become free agents following the 2014 season. But it’s going to cost John Elway and Co. a pretty penny. Both players will be getting “NBA money.” 

Calvin Johnson, who preceded Demaryius at Georgia Tech, inked his most recent contract with Detroit in 2012 – an eight-year agreement worth up to $132 million that made him the league’s highest-paid wideout. Don’t think for a second that the particulars of Johnson’s deal have gone unnoticed by those close to the Denver receiver, who is more and more frequently compared to his fellow Tech alum. 

Jimmy Graham, another product of college basketball, just signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the Saints. Compared to Graham, Julius is still somewhat unproven, but most general managers around the NFL saw enough in 2013 to know that someone will likely be willing to write similar checks to the product of Portland State.  

“Julius’ success in the NFL didn’t surprise me a bit,” says Bone. “Just like in basketball, once he was given the opportunity to prove himself a little bit, he’s not going to let it go.”

Johnson had a hunch about his former hoopster, too, but even he’s been surprised by exactly how good the kid in the back of his minivan has become. 

“We always knew he was tremendously talented, but never could we predict how successful he would be become in his first few years in the NFL,” says Johnson. “He’s still got that trademark smile. He really hasn’t lost that; he’s just become a lot more famous and has a lot more possibilities.”

And to think, basketball was always the goal. 

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