NEWARK, N.J. -- Near the end of his time in front of reporters Tuesday, a correspondent from the celebrity news show The Insider got the attention of Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas and told the Montrose native that his family had recorded a special message for him.
Thomas fiddled with the video player that the correspondent handed him. He unplugged the headphones and inserted them back into the jack. Still, he couldnt hear the words. As good as Thomas hands are on the football field, as jaw-dropping as some of the catches he makes, he couldnt figure out how to play the message.
Its your family giving you love, the correspondent said.
Thomas eventually figured it out -- he could see on the video images of his family and friends and his former school -- but he couldnt hear the words. It was an imperfect moment of nostalgia.
It means a lot, said Thomas, a former West Laurens standout who went on to star at Georgia Tech. Coming from a small town and having that much support, it means a lot to me. To have people I went to school with and family and friends that I saw on that video, it makes me truly blessed.
When Thomas was growing up, he and his friends fantasized about playing like Michael Irvin and Jerry Rice. That Thomas is even here about to play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII is a testament to his motivation and work ethic. When he was 11 years old, his mother and grandmother were taken away from him and convicted of drug charges, sending both of the influential women in his life to prison.
Somehow, Thomas persevered. His aunt and uncle raised him, and he grew to be a star football player. His mother never saw any of it live.
Its been a blessing to watch him evolve, his mother, Katina Smith, recently told ESPN New York from a Tallahassee, Fla., prison. I dont want to sound too boastful, but Im a very proud mother. He had the choice of taking the wrong path or the right path, and he chose the right path even though he had all those negative situations around him.
Thomas cant call his mother or grandmother. They have to call him from their low-security correctional institution. Smith calls him before and after every game. The conversation is short. The most time they get on the phone is three minutes. Its short salvation for a mother and son who wont reunite for another few years. Its probably imperfect nostalgia.
Thomas, somehow, has grown into one of the better receivers in the game. Hes quick to point out that Detroits Calvin Johnson is the best in the NFL. Yet Thomas -- who was hampered by injuries his first two seasons in the league but who caught 94 passes and 10 touchdowns in 2012 and 92 passes for 14 touchdowns this season -- has been impressive in his own right.
After all, Thomas competes for Peyton Mannings attention along with receiver Eric Decker, receiver Wes Welker and tight end Julius Thomas -- all of whom caught at least 10 touchdown passes this year. Thomas is probably the best receiver of all of them, but Manning spreads the ball around.
Still, Thomas manages to stand out a little more than his colleagues.
Watching him mature as a football player and as a person has been tremendous, said Decker, who came in with Thomas as a rookie in 2010. The guy has so much talent. I really think hes one of the best receivers talent-wise in the NFL. Its fun to see him progress and get better every year. Hes got that quiet swagger about himself, and I really do respect that about him.
Said Broncos receivers coach Tyke Tolbert, He always wants to get better. He takes coaching really well. You work with a guy with that kind of size and speed and strength, and hes really worked hard to improve his craft, his route running and technique. Thats one of the things that separates him from some of the (taller) guys. He can run routes like a smaller receiver.
On Sunday, hell have to play large. The assumption is that Thomas will spend much of his day trying to get away from Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman -- who, like Thomas, is 6-foot-3. Sherman already has called Thomas one of the best five receivers in the game. When he heard that, Thomas smiled, because he knows the Broncos, one of the most-explosive offenses in NFL history, will have a challenge against the NFLs best defense.
But Thomas has defeated challenges throughout his life. On Sunday, he wants to beat another so he can hoist the Super Bowl trophy and so that he can return as a hero to the hometown he saw on that video player filled with so much pride. And so that he can make his mother, who resides so far away, so very proud.