NFL star’s CTE diagnosis only offers partial insight

DUBLIN, Ga. — Demaryius Thomas’ parents see their son every day.

A painting of the former NFL star rests against a wall in Katina Smith’s home, and Bobby Thomas, her father, keeps the same image on his cellphone. It depicts a cherished moment that now seems ominous: the two beaming parents flank their son in the moments after his Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50 as Demaryius stares down with a pained expression, scratching the back of his the head.

The catcher had been called by Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly during the game and had such a headache that he missed most games after the win.

“He was like, ‘Hey y’all, I gotta go and go alone because I’m not feeling too good,'” Smith recounted. “And so, you know, he left and didn’t even finish celebrating or something.”

Demaryius Thomas died in December at age 33, just months after retiring from an NFL Pro-Bowl career in which his charisma, humility and team philosophy on the field made him a favorite of the teammates and fans. Relatives said his behavior became increasingly erratic during the last year of his life, marked by the memory loss, paranoia and isolation that characterize chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease related to the repeated blows to the head.

On Tuesday, doctors at Boston University announced that Thomas was posthumously diagnosed with stage 2 CTE, but his life and death was also complicated by seizures brought on by a car accident in 2019. They attacked with little or no warning and led to Thomas destroying other cars and falling down the steps. The Fulton County, Georgia coroner’s office has yet to rule on his cause of death, but doctors in Boston say he likely died of suffocation after a seizure.

“He had two different conditions running concurrently,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the neuropathologist who studied Thomas’s brain. She added that the seizures were not usually associated with CTE.

Due to the dual condition, Thomas’ CTE diagnosis does not provide the stark clarity that has punctuated the demise of other NFL players. His family, friends and former teammates won’t know how much football is responsible for Thomas’ struggles and are only beginning to understand how much he suffered.

“It amazes me now when we talk about how a young man of this age can suffer so much but still smile,” said Carlos Jones, Thomas’ pastor who was with him when a seizure caused Thomas to fall into the pangs. steps from his home in early 2021. “It was just a testament to his strength.”

Football changed the trajectory of Thomas’ life, with his exploits on the pitch helping to stabilize his fractured family during his teenage years.

Thomas was born on Christmas Day 1987 in Montrose, Georgia, a small sliver of town between Macon and Savannah. Katina was 15 when she gave birth to him and she never married Bobby, who joined the army and was often absent.

When Thomas was 11, federal agents broke into the family home with a search warrant and found cash tied to a drug ring run by Smith’s mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas. They arrested Smith for conspiring to distribute cocaine and after refusing to testify against her mother, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Minnie Pearl Thomas was sentenced to life.

Thomas bounced from house to house for a few years before settling down with Bobby Thomas’ sister, Shirley, and her husband, James. Classmates bullied Thomas because his mother was in prison, but he found solace and affirmation in athletics, football, and basketball. In sports, overcoming pain was the key to his success.

“He had a lot of injuries and he was always saying, ‘You know how I was raised, you know how I was trained, I’m not going to let my team down,'” said Paul Williams, Coach Thomas’ high school basketball team and a close friend. He said Thomas always had a smile despite his many challenges off the pitch.

Denver drafted Thomas 22nd overall in 2010, the first receiver taken that year, and his career exploded when quarterback Peyton Manning arrived in 2012, the first of five consecutive years in which he had 1,000 yards or more upon receipt. Thomas mentored many teammates, including fellow receiver Bennie Fowler, and was a favorite teammate for his professional and affable approach to the game.

Denver reached the Super Bowl the following season and was beaten by the Seattle Seahawks, but Thomas’ 13 catches set what was then a title game receptions record.

In the run-up to Thomas’ upcoming championship appearance, his family history has garnered as much attention as his game. After 17 years of family appeals and lobbying, President Barack Obama commuted Smith under a Department of Justice clemency program for non-violent drug offenders. Their story became a priority ahead of Super Bowl 50, with media reporting extensively that Smith could finally watch his son perform in person on the game’s biggest stage.

Thomas, who had met with lawyers and who wrote a letter to Obama on behalf of his mother, had never been happier.

“He loved her to death,” said Jamuel Jones, one of Thomas’ high school friends. “I saw a spark in him when she came out. They were talking every day. That was his main goal, to get them out,” he said, referring to the mother and grandmother of Thomas.

(Obama commuted Minnie Pearl Thomas’ sentence in 2016.)

As high as football raised Thomas, it also contributed to some extent to his rapid decline. In the years since that high water mark shown in the chart, Manning has retired and Thomas’ injuries have piled up. Smith said his son told him his peripheral vision was impaired.

In 2019, Thomas was driving 70 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone in Denver when he lost control and flipped his car multiple times. His head cracked the windshield and the Jaws of Life were needed to remove him from the vehicle. Jamuel Jones, who had also played college football, was in the passenger seat and said doctors told the two football players that their ability to absorb the blows could have saved their lives.

Thomas played a scrappy final season with the Jets, then returned home to Georgia, his life at a crossroads. He was uncontracted and unsure of playing during the pandemic, but he was determined to get 237 extra yards to hit 10,000 career receiving yards. He therefore trained five days a week, but his comeback was blocked by seizures that began in the fall of 2020.

As the seizures increased in number and intensity, neurologists told her they could be stress-related. The anti-epileptic drug Thomas took made him lazy, and a second prescription didn’t stop him, so he tried ozone therapy, a hyperbaric chamber, massages and other treatments which had little effect. lasting impact.

“He spent a lot of money on his body and look what happened, you know?” said Bobby Thomas, who fell into a depression at the death of Demaryius that worsened upon learning of the seriousness of his son’s condition.

“I didn’t know he was so badly off.”

In a video announcing his retirement last June, Demaryius Thomas admitted that he was trying to find his way. He said he was still deciding what to do next and was looking to build relationships with anyone who could help. “It’s not easy to leave football,” he said. “Because that’s my main thing, just trying to find myself and turn off the love.”

Thomas planned to start a foundation to help single mothers. He had earned $75 million playing football and invested some of it in various businesses. He wanted to build a compound where his whole family could live.

But he also isolated himself and was exploited by old friends.

His parents said Demaryius stopped returning their texts and calls, and Bobby recalled that his paranoia grew to the point that he never left the house unarmed.

After Thomas died on December 9, family members discovered that money, weapons and football memorabilia had been stolen from his home. Police arrested several men who had been hangers in the last year of his life.

Thomas’ death shocked his former teammates, who sought ways to remember him publicly. Manning launched two scholarships — one for Denver-area students, another at Thomas’ alma mater, Georgia Tech. Von Miller, who played for the Los Angeles Rams last season, wore a t-shirt with Thomas’ picture during playoff warmups and dedicated the team’s Super Bowl victory to him.

Fowler, Thomas’ former mentee, said he and many players thought they had some form of CTE “It comes with the game,” he said, acknowledging they all balance that risk with the life-changing benefits of football. Thomas was supposed to attend Fowler’s wedding this year. Instead, Fowler ended up being one of Thomas’ carriers.

Thomas’ parents instantly find catharsis in talking about their son. Smith is helping Dublin City officials plan Demaryius Thomas Day on July 16, when residents will release 88 balloons – Thomas’ Broncos uniform number. She hears about many anonymous donations her son has made around town: children’s shoes, turkeys for Thanksgiving.

Here, parents also ask him for advice on whether to let their children play football. Thinking back to this photo of her son after Super Bowl 50 and how he reached the peak of his career only to slip away, she warns them to be careful.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime dream,” she said. But “now I’m more adamant about the genre, hey, ask about that.”

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