Commemorating the Broncos legacy of Demaryius Thomas on his 35th birthday

ENGLEWOOD, Colorado — It’s another NFL Friday, this one the day before the Denver Broncos travel to Charlotte, North Carolina for a game against the Carolina Panthers.

Safety Kareem Jackson, like the rest of the teammates around him, tries to toss all the essentials in his bag before kit manager Chris Valenti announces he needs them.

Jackson is holding a hanger in his left hand – the No. 88 jersey will have another journey. A memory of friend and teammate Demaryius Thomas, who died last year at the age of 33 from complications from a seizure disorder. Thomas played 10 seasons in the NFL — eight with the Broncos, including their Super Bowl 50 win — and finished as the Broncos’ second-best receiver (9,055 yards). He would have been 35 years old on Christmas Day.

The jersey has traveled from Jackson’s locker to every home and away game, including across the Atlantic to London in Week 8. And every day at the team’s suburban training complex, it’s been right there.

“At first I wasn’t exactly sure why I wanted to keep it with me,” Jackson told ESPN as he tilted it to reveal multiple patches of grass on the back. “It just seemed like what I wanted to do, what should I do. It was important for me to remember to feel his presence because of how he did things, how he behaved. And when I look at it, you see the green, the patches of grass, I notice that immediately.

“He put them there, you know, trying to get everything he could out of every game. Maybe it’s because it’s from the floor, from a game we were in together. I only see this green, it just listens to me every time.”

Jackson swapped shirts with Thomas after a 2013 Week 16 game in Houston. Jackson was in his fourth season with the Texans when he snapped the No. 88 jersey in street white with orange blue numbers. Then-Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning had the NFL’s single-season record for touchdown passes in that game, throwing his 48th, 49th, 50th, and 51st of the season. “I’m looking at it now and thinking about trading with him, my jersey for his, the season he was in then, the look on his face, what he said,” Jackson said. “I’m sitting here now and it’s not fair that, I’m looking at it and it’s playing basketball against him in high school, his laugh, the smile, you know, pretty much everything.

Thomas and Jackson met as teenagers, grew up in central Georgia, became fast friends, and played basketball against each other in the summer league.

Jackson overwhelms the memory of Thomas as he sits by his locker, sticking up whatever needs sticking, studying whatever needs studying, or finding something more comfortable to slide onto after another day’s work. For months Jackson has worn the jersey faithfully through that unexpectedly lost Broncos season (4-10) for reasons he can’t always explain.

What was and what could have been, all in these tightly woven threads.

VALENTI has been the Broncos’ equipment manager for as long as anyone in the building can remember — 26 years officially. He’s taken care of thousands of jerseys over the years, making them brand new every week. For him, numbers are memories, symbols of lives lived, careers made. John Elways’ No. 7, Terrell Davis’ No. 30, Champ Bailey’s No. 24, “some of them, a few, there’s that one person that always springs to the fore in your mind when you see them.” “And 88?” Valenti said of Thomas. “He, always. Always.”

Every Saturday of a football season, Thomas would bring donuts for the team’s equipment staff, boxes to be shared among those in the building whose work keeps the hive thriving.

The boxes still come every Saturday when wide receiver Courtland Sutton does what he’s seen Thomas do so, as wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni has said, “he can continue leading Demaryius in his own way.” “Five, six [dozen] of them he would bring [in] into the equipment room because it kind of ended up separating them, making sure they got into the training room and everywhere and it was the same mix,” Valenti said, laughing. “…I think about (Thomas) all the time when we’re doing this. There were a few times when something happened and[Thomas]was chasing after a little bit and the donut shop people just brought her in because she knew that he should have been there by now and they wanted to help him too.”

THOMAS WAS IN his fifth NFL season when quarterback Peyton Manning came to Denver in 2012. What followed on the field over the next four seasons was historic. Thomas had at least 90 receptions and 1,300 yards in all of those four years. He joined Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice and Torry Holt as the only player to reach those totals in four consecutive seasons.

“I see him every day, I see him every Sunday … I think about him a lot,” Manning told ESPN.

Manning recalls how children were drawn to Thomas and how he always seemed to know exactly what to say or when to listen.

Thomas often said, “Some of these kids may be like me, some aren’t, but they’re all kids, and they all should know that people love them.” Manning’s kids — Marshall and Mosley — ran to Thomas whenever he came in the die Snapshots remain in Manning’s life, the smiles on his children’s faces, in Thomas’ arms, chasing Thomas across a practice field, throwing a ball to Thomas, all while scrolling through the photos on his phone.

“You know, on your iPhone the pics pop up… ‘five years ago today’ type deal and it seems like every day different pics of Demaryius with Marshall and Mosley, him and I training, just pics that show up,” Manning said.[We] miss him makes me sad at the same time but i know people are thinking of him.”

During the Broncos’ 2013 season — Manning set records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55) as the Broncos averaged a record 606 points — Thomas finished with a career-best 14 touchdowns. He finished the following season with a career-best 1,619 yards.

“I have a lot of pictures of DT … where we’re sitting in the stadium, and in my office there’s this great picture of me and Demaryius after a touchdown, a big ole smile on his face,” Manning said. “What Kareem’s doing, what he’s doing do (jersey), it’s special,” he added. “… This continues the legacy of DT. Just something special.”

Erich Schubert has been with the Broncos for 15 seasons since he was an intern in the media relations department and helps oversee the team’s digital media efforts.

One of Schubert’s favorite photos shows his eldest of two sons, Cade, now 10, years ago before a Broncos game on the sidelines, where he slaps a smiling Thomas in uniform on the hand. Cade was about 5 years old at the time, Thomas his favorite player on the beloved team his father works for. Schubert had the photo, which was taken by an Associated Press photographer, framed and signed by Thomas as a Christmas present for Cade.

“His absolute favorite player,” said Erich Schubert. “He has this photo on his wall.”

Last December, the day after Thomas died, Schubert told his son what had happened.

“He was devastated, just devastated,” said Schubert. “And we talked about it, and it was really hard, and later that night everyone calmed down a little bit, he got ready for bed and I just walked over and looked in. And I saw that he had taken the picture off his wall in the bedroom and was leaning against the mirror in the bathroom and he was just standing there looking at it while he brushed his teeth. He just took it inside and then carried it back to his room to go to bed.”

THOMAS’ MOTHER, KATINA Smith, did not see Thomas play a game until the Broncos’ 23-16 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional round on January 17, 2016.

Manning gave Thomas the cue ball seconds after the win to give to his mother. Two wins later, the Broncos were Super Bowl 50 champions. “That ball that Peyton gave us is probably my fondest football memory,” Smith said. “I saw Demaryius play for the first time, every time I see him I think of that day.”

Thomas and Smith’s relationship gained national attention around the Super Bowl 50 run in Denver. Smith was serving a prison sentence in 1999 related to cocaine distribution charges. President Barack Obama reduced her sentence in 2015, allowing her to see her son fulfill his soccer dreams. Thomas died two weeks before his 34th birthday. Smith said last week “is always going to be the toughest time of any year.” As she flips through the camera roll on her phone, she lists memories of Thomas — his smile, his manner. Memories of a walk they took working out at a local high school — “we took all sorts of funny pictures that day ‘ — or a smiling Thomas towering over her before a game.

“All those pictures you take because you think you’re going to have so many, but now you wish you had more,” she said.

Smith has withdrawn a bill from an ATM in the past few days; An unknown person in an unknown location had written “DT” in the upper right corner with a black marker for an unknown reason. It made her pause “just to catch her breath,” much like every time a car drives past her with the numbers 88 or 1225 somewhere on the license plate, or 33, his age when he died.

“I call them all my characters,” Smith said. “Just those things that make me think of him. And something like that Kareem does, I’m so glad to know, I hope he knows that, that helps me get through it. It’s real, it’s friendship, it’s a blessing.”

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