Somehow, Bay-Bay found his way

Editor's note: This story first ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in April 2010 after Demaryius Thomas was drafted by the Denver Broncos after a successful career as a wide receiver at Georgia Tech. Since its publication, Thomas' mother has had her sentence commuted and could possibly see him play football in person for the first time this weekend.

Mother in federal prison. Grandmother in federal prison. Father often absent because of the Army. At least seven homes and five caretakers. And one choice that a child shouldn't have to make.

The life of Demaryius "Bay-Bay" Thomas could have gone in many directions, nearly all of them bad. But after his standout career at Georgia Tech, his life  has come to this: The boy who had reason to cause trouble but never did was drafted by the Denver Broncos on Thursday and will soon be a millionaire.

Why didn't he use his circumstances as an excuse?

Ask Bay-Bay, and he'll say his determination kept him on track.

"Aside from my family, this is the most important thing to me," Bay-Bay said. "I won't let anything get in the way."

--

Bay-Bay's father's house in Hampton looks like a bachelor pad. A black leather-sectional sofa faces a big-screen TV. It's very clean but very sparse. Because Bobby Thomas travels a lot for the Army, there's not a lot of time to accumulate clutter.

The few mementos hanging on the wall or sitting on the TV cabinet are the only evidence that Bay-Bay is his son. A plastic orange from the Orange Bowl with Bay-Bay's autograph and a trophy he received for his work in the weight room are the most prominent.

But you don't need to see the trophies to know that this is Bay-Bay's dad. They'll give you the same looks when they talk. They have the same upper-body shape, the same easy-going temperament. They even have the same walk.

Sitting on the sofa, Thomas beginsto tell how Bay-Bay got where he is today.

Bobby met Katina in the summer of 1985. A friend introduced them at her home in Allentown, near Macon. An Army enlistee, he was to report to Ft. Rucker in Dothan, Ala., later that year.  Despite his situation and 200-mile distance, they decided to date. On Christmas 1987, Demaryius was born and quickly nicknamed "Bay-Bay," a take on Bobby's nickname of "Boo-Boo."

The 3½-hour drive began to take its toll and Bobby and Katina split. He would see Bay-Bay on weekends and on holidays. There were no disagreements between the two over Bay-Bay.

But soon her trouble began.

She was arrested when Bay-Bay was 5 and charged as an accomplice to a robbery. It was her second brush with the law in three years; she and her mom, Minnie Pearl Thomas, were arrested in 1990 for selling pot.

Bobby Thomas had just landed in Saudi Arabia and quickly made arrangements for Bay-Bay to stay with an aunt. When his deployment ended in 1991, he and Bay-Bay moved in with his mom, Gladys, in Dublin.

Bay-Bay was 6 when his mother finished her year in Wilkinson County jail, and he asked his dad if he could move back. Not wanting to keep his son away from his mom, Bobby said yes.

But when she went to prison in 1999, there would be no moving back for Bay-Bay, then 11.

Nor could he stay with Bobby, who didn't know where the Army would send him next.

Not wanting to leave his friends, Bay-Bay asked his dad whether he could stay in Dublin. Bay-Bay had always played sports – he and his momma used to compete in foot races and basketball -- but he began to realize that he was good at them. Always one to try to make Bay-Bay happy, Bobby arranged for him to move in with Gladys again.

That didn't last. A foster parent, she had three girls living with her. So, Bay-Bay's father arranged for his sister, Sheila, to take the child.

Bay-Bay began to develop a pattern that would make him successful: He would take the conflict in his off-the-field life and carry it into his game. It focused him on the field. Sports became his release.

His aunt didn't want to deal with the hassle of shuttling Bay-Bay back and forth to practices and games.

Before Bay-Bay went to school one morning, she told him that after the final bell rang he had to come home, he recalls.

He stayed after for practice.

When he did get home, she told him to choose between her and sports.

How do you give up the one thing that was always there for you?

Bay-Bay couldn't do it.

He chose sports.

"I needed to move on," Bay-Bay said, " so I moved on."

--

His next stop was family, too.

Photos of Bay-Bay adorn the walls of his aunt and uncle's den in Montrose: Bay-Bay as prom king, Bay-Bay on the homecoming court. A trophy from his state championship basketball team hangs here. A recruiting letter from Louisville hangs there. It's an impressive showcase.

Sitting on a dark plaid couch, surrounded by her parents, sister, grandmother and cousins, Bay-Bay's cousin Angela picks up the story.

She saw Bay-Bay in the hallway one day while walking to class. She could tell that something wasn't right. She invited him to stay over at her house, with her mom, Shirley, and her dad, James.

One night turned into two. Before long, Bay-Bay was living at the little yellow house, with the add-on here and the add-on there, already bulging with Shirley's sister and a foster son.

Uncle James and Aunt Shirley gave him stability and discipline. And they did it the old-fashioned way: with chores and religion.

James worked for Georgia Power during the week and was an usher and deacon at Macedonia Baptist Church, a tiny concrete homage to the Almighty nestled between the railroad tracks that bisect Montrose, a cemetery, and some seasonal marshland.

Bay-Bay had no choice but to go with his aunt and uncle. Eventually, he took to it, and to them.

"Ma'ams" and "sirs," "please" and "thank you" were the norm. Shirley was the enforcer. James was the softy. He would put $2 on the dresser every day for lunch and $10 more every Saturday.

And so the pattern was cast.

Bay-Bay would take his feelings and turn them into fuel on the playing field. Once the game was over, he would go back to living his life. Most popular. The mentor. Off the field, he would make sure that everyone felt loved.

No one in the house can ever remember Bay-Bay doing anything bad, other than driving solo when he was 15 to ease the burden on his new family.

"If I wasn't there," BayBay said, "I wouldn't be here."

--

Katina walks into the visitation room at the federal prison in Tallahassee. . She looks just like Bay-Bay. Same face, same cheeks, same mouth, same smile. Same courteous manners, too. .

She puts her hands on the table and it's obvious why Bay-Bay was one of the most coveted receivers in the draft.

His are her hands: Thick with long fingers. She's slightly embarrassed to show them, but proud that her son shares them.

In her prison dorm room she keeps three folders that are 12-inches thick, crammed with photos and articles. The mementos come from the Internet and the prison's library, fished by her out of the recyclables.

Sitting beside her mother, Minnie, both wearing identical prison-issued plain brown tops and pants, Katina has only an hour to tell her part of Bay-Bay's story.

The last morning of her freedom, Bay-Bay was a sixth-grader. She didn't want to embarrass him with a tearful goodbye. So before she put him on the school bus she simply hugged him and said, "I'll see you when I get back."

Waiting nearby, federal agents took her and Minnie to the county jail in Macon. Minnie had turned to selling drugs out of her double-wide trailer in Dublin, just a few miles down the road from where James and Shirley lived.

Leading up to that final arrest, Bay-Bay had recognized that something wasn't right. His mother would finish the third shift at the local factory and pick him and his sister up from his grandmother's trailer and take them home. Around the house, he would watch his mom hide thick stacks of money.

"I always had this feeling that they were going to get caught," Bay-Bay said. "I asked my mom to stop but she never did."

Federal drug agents had tapped their phones, planted a camera at a neighbor's house and watched Minnie's trailer.

Bay-Bay's grandmother, with two strikes already, got life. His mother was offered eight years to provide evidence against her mother. She refused and got sentenced to 20.

Though they talk on the phone several times a week, just 15 minutes a time, per the rules, Bay-Bay has only seen his mother three times in 11 years, most recently before Tech played at FSU last season.

She remembers asking him once, "Are you that good?"

"Yes, momma."

She watches every game. She and other prisoners take black eye-liner and write Bay-Bay's number "8″ on one cheek, and "GT" on the other.

--

Bay-Bay is sitting in his agent's office, surrounded by photos of NFL greats.

He wears black workout gear given to the players at the NFL combine. His voice is flat. When he's thinking, he bites his lower lip, just like his mother. He only occasionally makes eye contact. He's so detached, he could almost be one of the portraits hanging behind him.

When he decided to leave Georgia Tech after his junior year and go pro, it became clear that an NFL team would find out about his past.

After consulting with his dad and agent, he asked his mom whether he could break his promise never to talk about it.

He doesn't talk about his mother often, but he thinks about her all the time. He has lost count of how many letters she's sent.  He keeps them in a shoebox and re-reads them from time to time. He plans to see her before mini-camps start.

His mother is to be released in 2017. Bay-Bay's career could be over by then., and she hopes that he's able to stay healthy so that she can see him play in person, at least once.

Meanwhile, he hopes that he's able to repay everyone who has helped him along the way. He wants to buy a home for his mom. He wants to build a halfway house or a new church in Dublin for his Uncle James to run.

Those he loves most haven't always been there for him, but others have. Together, they helped Bay-Bay become a young man of grace and determination.

"One of the biggest reasons we're so proud of him," his mother said, "is in spite of everything he has succeeded."