Former Georgia Tech star Demaryius Thomas dies at 33

One of the greats to wear a Georgia Tech uniform, former Yellow Jackets wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, died at the age of 33. The news was confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late Thursday and early Friday by Laurens County athletic director Jeff Clayton, a high school coach of Thomas’, and the Roswell police department.

“To say we are all heartbroken is an understatement,” Clayton wrote in an email.

According to a Roswell police spokesman, Thomas was found dead in his Roswell home Thursday evening. He would have turned 34 on Christmas Day.

“Preliminary information is that his death stems from a medical issue, and our investigators currently have no reason to believe otherwise,” Officer Tim Lupo wrote in an email.

Thomas retired from the NFL in June of this year having played 10 seasons, making five Pro Bowls and winning Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos.

It followed his career at Tech, where he was an All-American and a first-team All-ACC selection in 2009 for his dominating play. That season, as a downfield threat in coach Paul Johnson’s option offense, he caught 46 passes for 1,254 yards and eight touchdowns as Tech won the ACC title and played in the team’s first Orange Bowl since 1966.

Thomas’ undeniable combination of speed, power, eye-hand coordination and will made him a first-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos in the 2010 NFL draft.

His life was a story of triumph over considerable challenges. With his mother and grandmother serving federal prison sentences starting from the time he was 11 and a father who was often absent because of Army commitments, Thomas lived in at least seven different homes growing up.

Sports became his release, an outlet where he could take the turmoil of his life and use it as fuel. He starred at West Laurens High before accepting a scholarship to Tech, first playing for coach Chan Gailey and then Johnson. Remarkably, in his first season with the Jackets, 2006, he was in the same position group as another future NFL star, Calvin Johnson.

His determination to succeed kept him on a narrow path.

“Aside from my family, this is the most important thing to me,” Thomas told the AJC in 2010, before the NFL draft. “I won’t let anything get in the way.”

As a professional, his career flourished with the arrival of quarterback Peyton Manning to the Broncos before the 2012 season. Over the next four seasons, he caught at least 90 passes for 1,300 yards in each, becoming only the fourth player in NFL history to hit those standards in four consecutive seasons. Thomas was instrumental when Manning set single-season NFL records for passing yardage (5,477) and touchdowns (55) in 2013.

Thomas became the subject of widespread attention in 2015 when his mother Katina Smith was one of 46 non-violent drug offenders whose prison sentences were commuted by President Barack Obama. After her release, she was able to see her son play in a playoff game against Pittsburgh and then Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif., in February 2016.

“I always wish that she was around to see me play and stuff,” Thomas said at the Super Bowl. “The good thing about it is that she always gave me a call before I played and after I played. Now, to have her out, it’s even better. To have her at games, I don’t have to think no more and wish she was at the game. Now, I can go out and know that she’s in the stands and play ball.”

In Super Bowl 50, Thomas caught one pass for eight yards (he caught a Super Bowl record 13 passes in the Broncos’ 43-8 loss to Seattle in Super Bowl 48), but his team was victorious, defeating Carolina 24-10.

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Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas (88) celebrates as the clock winds down in the second half of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif. The Broncos defeated the Panthers 24-10. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Credit: Ken Sugiura

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Credit: Ken Sugiura

Thomas was able to thank Obama personally when the Broncos visited the White House as Super Bowl champions in June 2016.

“I talked to him for a quick second. I told him, “Thank you for helping my family,’ " Thomas said. “We talked about my mother and we also talked about my grandmother.”

Thomas’ grandmother Minnie Pearl Thomas, who was serving two life sentences for drug trafficking, had her sentence commuted in August of the same year, one of 214 federal inmates to be given their release.

“When they went away, I got good at football and I just chased it and chased it and chased it,” Thomas said in a video recorded by the Broncos to announce his retirement. “It did wonderful things for me and my family. I’ve been able to get my mom and grandma out of prison. I don’t know if football did it, but winning the Super Bowl, meeting Obama, after that situation, they both kind of got out, which I’m thankful for. But football has done a lot.”

Thomas was a visitor to Tech as recently as August, when he stopped by to take in a Jackets’ preseason practice. In the presence of greatness, Jackets wide receivers asked him for advice about playing the position.

“Anytime you get a guy like that to come back and talk to the guys, it has the extreme impact on them, not only football-wise, but as far as life, as well,” wide receivers coach Kerry Dixon said.

Demaryius Thomas had clear sailing on this 88-yard touchdown.

Credit: Johnny Crawford

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Credit: Johnny Crawford