Remembering DT: Demaryius Thomas was one of the good guys

Demaryius Thomas before his final game as a Broncos player. Credit: Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports.
Demaryius Thomas before his final game as a Broncos player. Credit: Denny Medley, USA TODAY Sports.

If it’s true that only the good die young, heaven got this one right.

Thirty-three-years-old – that’s too young, at least for all of us. We simply weren’t ready to say goodbye to Demaryius Thomas.

“This isn’t real.” That was the prevailing sentiment on social media late last night when the news began to break. Demaryius Thomas? The Denver Bronco? Thirty-three? Just retired? No way. No how. Say it ain’t so.

This one hurts. It really hurts.

But there is comfort in knowing that only the good die young. Demaryius Thomas was a lot of things, but above all else, he was good.

A truly good person: A kind soul. A humble hero. Gentle. Generous. Sincerely nice to little kids and older people he would call “sir” and “ma’am.” He was genuine in every way – never an ounce of phony in his body. He was innocent in ways one wouldn’t expect, considering how famous he’d become as a professional football player.

That he was an incredible athlete was just a gift to the rest of the world. His athletic abilities provided him with a platform to positively impact so many – and he didn’t waste it. Find me a person who encountered Demaryius – once or a thousand times – and I’ll show you a person who adored him. Everyone loved DT.

Despite my profession, I’m always hesitant to write about a famous person dying. It’s not that I’m not saddened; I am. It’s not that it’s not news; it is. And reporting it is often my job.

I think it has more to do with this: Just because someone is a great athlete, and just because I covered them as a sportswriter, doesn’t mean I really knew them. One’s life is about so much more than a game. It feels strange to write about what I know about them – typically whatever it was they did in sports – and not about what really matters, which is who they were as a person.

But when I heard that Demaryius Thomas had died, it was different. I had to write something. I couldn’t not write something. I didn’t just cover him as a Denver Bronco. He was my friend.

I write this humbly, and gratefully, because unlike any athlete I’ve ever covered in the 20-year history of Mile High Sports, he was my favorite – and it isn’t even close. Primarily, that was because I was fortunate enough to get to know Demaryius on a personal level. I’m sure I didn’t know him as well as his teammates or coaches or plenty of other people for that matter. But I came to know a person that I valued and enjoyed whether he was a football player or not. When I say that he was good, I’m not echoing what’s being said on social media. I know it. I saw it. I believe it. Demaryius was the best.

And I didn’t necessarily learn this because of whatever he said into my tape recorder.

There was always a buzz that slowly and quietly filled the gym whenever the guys involved in a pickup basketball game began to realize who was lacing up their shoes on the sideline. Anyone who’s ever played sports could take one look at Demaryius Thomas and realize that a bona fide athlete had just entered the building. Whether you knew who he was or not, you knew he was somebody. But when word began to get out that it was, in fact, Demaryius Thomas who wanted to get a few runs in, the energy in the gym was hard to describe. Guys didn’t know whether to play extra hard or be extra careful, but ultimately they were intrigued, excited, honored. Afterall, he was one of the best players on Denver’s most beloved team.

This is how I came to know Demaryius – through basketball.

I’ve always heard you can learn more about a person by playing a round of golf with them than practically any other encounter. I don’t disagree, but in my experience, I usually substitute “a pickup game” in for “round of golf.”

When Demaryius would show up to the gym to play hoops, he didn’t want special treatment. In fact, he’d just as soon fly under the radar. He played hard but didn’t abuse the fact he was stronger or more athletic than practically everyone else playing that day. He’d shoot when he was open and pass when someone else was more open. He could play defense like few people I’ve ever watched and didn’t loaf just because he could. He didn’t bitch about foul calls or talk trash (maybe some fun, good-natured chatter on occasion) and he never, ever, acted like he was someone special – just one of the fellas, trying to win and hold court.

Sometimes he’d even joke with guys who would sheepishly ask, “Aren’t you Demaryius Thomas?”

“Who?” he’d say.

But he couldn’t keep a straight face. He’d start to laugh before ultimately introducing himself and extending his massive hand.

I suspect I’m not the only rec ball hooper with a “Demaryius Thomas story” or two, but I’ve certainly got a favorite. I play a lot of basketball at a lot of gyms (probably too much basketball and too many gyms), but my favorite, by far, has been the Denver Athletic Club. It’s a huge, well-maintained court in the middle of Downtown Denver, and the Club has put on competitive leagues for as many years as I can recall. My friend and sports reporter colleague Vic Lombardi often plays in these leagues, and one spring, he and I asked Demaryius and his cousin Morocko Blash (another phenomenal athlete) to play on our team.

On opening night of the league, much to our surprise, in walked Demaryius and Morocko. They told us they would, but still, we weren’t really sure if Demaryius would – or even could. There they were though, and they played on the team all season, a run that ultimately ended in a league championship. Neither Vic nor I talked about it much – we both understood that the Denver Broncos might not take kindly to the idea that their Pro Bowl wideout was playing hoops in a league that featured a pair of hacks like us. Selfishly, I suppose, we liked these guys and liked having them on our team.

But there was one game I remember most.

There was a loose ball, somewhere around the top of the key, and Demaryius scooped it up. As if bursting off the line of scrimmage, he was across half court in no time, seemingly all alone. But there was a guy on the other team who thought it might be a good idea to stop what was an inevitable fast break layup.

Or, in this rare case, dunk.

With nobody around, Demaryius slowed up just before he got to the key. As this was happening, everyone noticed a guy from the other team sprinting down the court. He wasn’t doing anything maliciously, just playing hard. It’s since been debated if the guy actually knew who Demaryius was or not. As Demaryius exploded toward the hoop, floating through the air as only a world class athlete could en route to a highlight that would only ever be seen by a dozen or so lucky rec league hoopsters – this damn guy kept sprinting. By the time Demaryius had grabbed hold of the rim, the guy was almost underneath him. The gym got real quiet, real fast.

SLAM!!!

The ball went through the net with tremendous fore, and Demaryius somehow – fortunately – noticed this hustling maniac approaching. He calmly, coolly and gracefully just held on to the rim, performing a “safety pull-up”of sorts. The guy flew by – under him as it looked to the rest of us! – but nobody so much as touched, much less got hurt. A giant sigh of relief swept the gym. Demaryius didn’t say a word. He wasn’t mad or even concerned.

That’s just who he was. He didn’t expect any sort of different treatment in a game of pickup basketball simply because he was a famous professional athlete. He always told me that basketball was his first real love. Somewhere along the way, I wrote a story about Demaryius Thomas the basketball player, not the football player. I learned a lot about him then, too.

“Basketball was always his passion,” Blash said in that story. “In his heart, he’ll always be a basketball player.”

“You know,” Demaryius laughed when I told him what his cousin’s quote in the story would be, “I agree with that.”

Over the years Demaryius played with the Broncos, I’d see him from time to time away from the court. At camp, he’d always say “hi” and ask if I’d “been hoopin’ any.” He’d ask how I was doing, what I’d been up to – normal things. I can’t think of a time he ever said “no” to a media request. I almost hated to ask but he knew I had a job to do and was always graciously willing to help.

I specifically remember getting a text from him one summer, when he was still relatively new to Colorado, which was in the midst of a drought year that saw too many people lose their homes to wildfires: “What is the best way to help these people who lost their homes in the fire?” he asked.

That’s just who he was. Humble. Appreciative. Unassuming.

Good.

Rest in peace, my friend. I hope you don’t mind me telling these stories (I figure the Broncos won’t be too mad today). I hear the pickup games where you’re headed are nothing short of spectacular.

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