On Nov. 29, 2008, Georgia Tech opened its game against Georgia with a completed pass. The Yellow Jackets were in their first season under Paul Johnson, whose offense didn’t rely overmuch on passing. Never was this more blatant than on that unforgettable day in Sanford Stadium. Tech upset the Bulldogs, who’d entered the season ranked No. 1 in the land. The final score was 45-42. The Jackets’ joy was unconfined.
That game produced many memories – Roddy Jones flying down the sideline as the Jackets were scoring 23 points in the first seven minutes after halftime – and many curiosities. My favorite: The pass Tech completed on its first play was its last completion. It went for 19 yards. Joshua Nesbitt threw it. Demaryius Thomas caught it.
That’s how good Demaryius Thomas, known as Bay-Bay, was as a collegian. In 2008 and 2009, you went to Tech games knowing you’d see Nesbitt keeping and the A-backs – Jones among them – flitting around the corner and B-back Jonathan Dwyer storming up the middle, but you’d leave recalling those times the ball was thrown in Thomas’ vicinity. You’d leave asking how a wideout could make such magic on a team that dealt more in pitchouts than forward passes. There was no prettier sight than Thomas rising to attack, as they say in the trade, the football.
His Tech career overlapped Calvin Johnson’s, a wonder unto himself. The two never played together, though. (Imagine if they had.) Thomas took a redshirt in Johnson’s last Tech season. The latter left for the NFL in 2007, which would be Chan Gailey’s final year on the Flats. We’ll never know if Thomas would have signed with Tech to play for Paul Johnson, but he stuck around and, between B-back dives, built a legacy and a future.
Calvin Johnson, among the greatest receivers in collegiate and professional history, averaged 16.4 yards on 178 Tech catches; on 120 catches, Thomas averaged 19.5 yards. In 2009, when Tech went 11-3 and beat Clemson in the ACC Championship game, the Jackets completed a total of 78 passes; 45 were to Thomas. That’s 58%. Tech gained 1,774 yards passing; Thomas had 1,154 of those. That’s 65%.
That was the genius part of Paul Johnson’s offense. No, Tech didn’t throw much. When it did, its wideouts – Johnson’s offense included no tight ends – drew single coverage. Thomas against any cornerback was a mismatch. He’d outrun most. He’d overpower any and all.
For all the numbers we’ve cited, here’s the jaw-dropper: In 2009, Thomas averaged 25.1 yards per catch. That’s one-fourth of a football field per reception. That’s outrageous. That was Bay-Bay.
Demaryius Thomas was found dead in his Roswell home Thursday. He was 33. I’ll not pretend I knew him well, but I saw many of his Tech games and witnessed many interviews. The first two seasons under Paul Johnson were among the giddier in Institute annals. Thomas was a source of much of that joy. He was fun to watch. He had fun playing. He was a great collegian. He became a great pro.
In the NFL, he played a key part in the signature moments of quarterbacks as disparate as Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Thomas’ 80-yard touchdown for Denver in overtime against Pittsburgh is what we recall first about Tebow’s post-Florida life. Of Thomas’ five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, four came with Manning as quarterback. The fourth ended with the Broncos winning the Super Bowl in Manning’s final game.
Thomas grew up in Laurens County, which sits just off I-16 between Macon and Savannah. His mother and his grandmother went to jail for distributing crack cocaine. His father often was away on military duty. His mother’s sentence was commuted by President Obama in November 2015. The first two times she saw her son play football came in a playoff win against Pittsburgh and the Super Bowl victory over Carolina.
Thomas is gone now. It makes no sense, but what, in the grand scheme, really does? The best we can hope to do is live a life that makes others remember us fondly. Bay Bay Thomas aced that test. We’re saddened by his loss. We’ll never forget his life.