DEXTER – Jamuel Jones stood outside the West Laurens High gymnasium early Saturday afternoon. A high-school teammate and friend of the late Demaryius Thomas, and later a business partner in a kennel, Jones was among the last to leave Thomas’ funeral, held on a partly-cloudy day in Middle Georgia.

ExplorePhotos of Tech and NFL great DeMaryius Thomas

The service, lasting roughly two hours, was a tribute to Thomas’ life, of which his football greatness – including his All-American career at Georgia Tech – was only part of the story. More than that, it was a celebration of the humility, generosity and joyful spirit that those who knew him will hold close in the wake of his tragic death Dec. 9 at the age of 33.

“Happy,” Jones said, recounting the memorial. “Love, man. You could feel him.”

A gathering of an estimated 1,200 filled the gym at West Laurens, Thomas’ alma mater, in rural Laurens County, east of Warner Robins. Some mourners wore suits and dresses. Others were garbed in Thomas’ No. 88 Denver Broncos jersey and T-shirts specially made in his memory. Among those in attendance were former Tech coach Paul Johnson and Yellow Jackets teammates that included Calvin Johnson, Tashard Choice, Morgan Burnett, Joshua Nesbitt, Brad Jefferson and Mario Edwards.

“It was just a reminder why everybody really loved him," said Buzz Preston, Thomas' wide-receivers coach at Tech. “He was just a good soul, good spirit and didn't fall for the trappings of being a big star."

“It was beautiful,” said Dwayne Gibson, who coached Thomas in track his senior year at West Laurens and was asked by the family to speak at the service. “It was uplifting. And Mama laughed some. She cried a lot.”

Gibson shared a story that he told in the service, about how Thomas and a teammate had walked off from practice one day after Gibson got on them for not moving from one drill to the next as quickly as Gibson wanted. At that point, Thomas already was headed to Tech and had little need to be on the track team. It was an opportune moment for the big man on campus to assert himself. But Thomas came back a few minutes later with a humble apology, Gibson recalled, and wasn’t a problem for the remainder of the season.

Over the years, Gibson and Thomas’ relationship continued as Thomas returned to Laurens County to see family and friends. Gibson helped out at Thomas’ football camp at the high school.

“He was humble, he was kind, very well-mannered, soft-spoken,” Gibson said. “He didn’t like to talk in front of people. He’d rather stay in the background.”

Were Thomas present, Gibson continued, he likely would have been goofing with the children.

“He just gravitated to the children,” Gibson said. “The world needs more of that.”

ExploreCoach Paul Johnson's memories of Demaryius Thomas

All the stages of Thomas’ life were present, from his childhood growing up in tiny Montrose to his days as a multi-sport star at West Laurens, his four years at Tech, his 10-year NFL career and the start of his post-football life following his retirement in June.

“Every time you see him, he was smiling,” said Laronica Jones, a family friend who grew up near Thomas in Montrose and recalled playing with him and friends in the dirt and cornfields near their homes.

“He made sure you went hard, regardless,” said Jamuel Jones, his high-school teammate. “And if you weren’t going hard – ‘Oh, man, you’re soft.’ That’s him. That’s who he was.”

Kayvon Webster, a teammate of Thomas’ with the Broncos, said he would honor Thomas by carrying forward Thomas’ positivity, love and peace.

“You would never even know that he was a Super Bowl winner or a superstar because of how selfless he was,” Webster said. “He made even the person who thought they didn’t matter, he made them matter.”

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Credit: Johnny Crawford

Jay Morrison and Thomas were business partners, and they were working together to buy a farm. Morrison also helped work with Thomas to teach financial literacy to students, which had become a cause of his. Thomas was excited for Morrison to bring the class back to Laurens County, where 16% of adults hold bachelor’s degrees and the median household income is $39,120, according to the 2019 U.S. Census.

“He was like, we’ve got to take a ride to my high school and do a program at the high school,” Morrison said. “So I’m actually going to do that this coming year.”

Their relationship extended far past their business.

“We literally just poured into each other, just uplifted each other,” Morrison said.

ExploreMark Bradley: Demaryius Thomas gone too soon, never to be forgotten

Following the service, Chris Foreman, a cousin, remembered taking Thomas to football and basketball camps as a boy. Despite the circumstances of his childhood – his mother Katina Smith and grandmother Minnie Thomas were arrested in 1999 on drug-trafficking charges when Thomas was 11 and later were convicted and imprisoned; their sentences were commuted in 2015 and 2016, respectively – Foreman remembered his cousin’s loving way.

“He never frowned, he never showed anger,,” said Foreman, who helped carry Thomas’ polished casket into a waiting hearse after the service. “He just showed love to everybody.”

The Broncos will hold a second service (by invitation only) Monday at Tech’s McCamish Pavilion. Saturday’s service was for a favorite son who made great but never forgot his roots.

“Whoever you are, no matter who you are, he’s going to make you feel like you’re everything,” Jamuel Jones said. “That’s how awesome of a guy he is. I’m going to miss him a lot.”