Preliminary reports indicated a medical issue. LaTonya Bonseigneur, one of Thomas’ first cousins, told The Associated Press that the family believes he died from a seizure, a condition that she said he had been suffering from for more than a year.
“You hate to lose anybody that early in life,” Johnson said. “He had worked so hard to get to where he was, and he was just now to the point where he could have enjoyed some of it.”
There was no mistaking Thomas’ ability, which he used at Tech to outleap cornerbacks for passes from quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, run under his deep passes down the sideline or to stiff-arm defenders into the turf as he motored downfield for a long gain. It was no less clear in the NFL, where he became a favorite target of Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, a five-time Pro Bowler and a Super Bowl champion.
“He was given a lot of God-given ability, but he worked at it,” Johnson said. “He was a hard worker, and he held himself to a high standard.”
It bears mention that he was a three-star prospect who redshirted his first season at Tech with coach Chan Gailey – 2006 – when he improbably shared the position group with arguably the greatest Jackets football player of all-time, Calvin Johnson.
“He was a project and worked himself into a first-round pick and worked himself into a great NFL player,” said former Tech captain Roddy Jones, a teammate of Thomas for three seasons. “... He worked his tail off at every level.”
Thomas’ life was a story of triumph over immense challenges. With his mother and grandmother serving federal prison sentences for drug trafficking starting from the time he was 11 and a father who often was 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. An aunt and uncle in Montrose gave him desperately needed stability. His determination to succeed, too, kept him on a narrow path.
“Aside from my family, this is the most important thing to me,” Thomas told the AJC in 2010 at the time of his selection by the Denver Broncos with a first-round pick, the first receiver selected that year. “I won’t let anything get in the way.”
Along that way, though, he won friends with a joyful and quiet manner.
“I don’t know of anybody who didn’t like Bay-Bay,” Johnson said. “He was just kind of that way.”
Coach Geoff Collins got to know Thomas when he was on Gailey’s staff in 2006 as player-personnel director, which was the year that Thomas arrived as a freshman.
“He was one of the most genuine, well-meaning people I’ve ever been around,” Collins said.
Buzz Preston, Thomas’ wide-receivers coach at Tech, recalled how some players became more difficult to deal with as their status grew. That was never the case with Thomas, he said.
“He was definitely the greatest player I ever coached,” said Preston, who coached for 38 seasons at the FBS level. “He had it all, all the physical attributes. But the greatest thing he had was the person. That’s what I’ll always remember.”
When Thomas returned to West Laurens, he was the same Bay-Bay, a nickname that was a take on his father Bobby Thomas’ own nickname, Boo-Boo, and had not changed.
“Not a bit,” said Clayton, his high-school coach. “Would sign autographs, take pictures and just nonstop. He was just a real giving kid, and I still considered him a kid when he was an adult. He never really changed his disposition.”
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 in 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 that Super Bowl, 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.
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, 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 in June after 10 seasons. “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, Tech 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.
Collins and Johnson both recalled a particular contribution that Thomas made to Tech. When he came on his official visit as a high-school senior and recruits were treated to dinner at The Capital Grille in Buckhead, Thomas had a special drink made, a mixture of all the fruit juices, Collins said. It’s called Bay-Bay juice, and it has been made for recruits ever since, with Jackets players who were hosting the prospects telling them they needed to order it.
“That was kind of legend,” Johnson said. “They wanted that Bay-Bay juice.”
As timing would have it, Collins was to begin hosting an official-visit weekend Friday ahead of the start of the December signing period Wednesday.
A man whose impact went far beyond touchdowns will be remembered at dinner Saturday night with the serving of a unique and special concoction, and undoubtedly long after that.