ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Josh McDaniels had just finished putting his daughters to bed when he looked at his phone and saw all the texts from people informing him of the shocking passing of Broncos receiver great Demaryius Thomas.
As the New England Patriots’ longtime offensive coordinator who was briefly in charge of the Denver Broncos’ football operations as head coach from 2009 until the final four games of 2010, McDaniels deserves credit for bringing Thomas to the Broncos.
"He was such a special person,’’ McDaniels said Friday morning in a phone interview with 9NEWS. “Coming from the background he did and all he overcame, just an amazing story of perseverance. I'm stunned. D.T. was one of the guys who if you texted or called him, he'd text or call you right back. Always positive. There was nothing negative about this kid. We’ve all known a lot of good people, thousands I'm sure you met. Not many better people than D.T.’’
Entering the 2010 draft, none of the mocksters had Thomas going to the Broncos in the first round. Dez Bryant was supposed to be the first receiver off the board. Thomas? He came out of Georgia Tech where only 74 passes were attempted in Thomas’ sophomore season. He caught 39 of them but still, D.T. wasn’t exactly a polished product of the receiver route tree. And then he broke his foot while training for the NFL Scouting Combine.
And what about his upbringing? Thomas was 11 years old and at his Georgia home when a police drug sting crashed in, a traumatic moment that resulted in his mom and grandmother being taken away and eventually sentenced to prison, where they stayed until Thomas was a grown man.
Because they couldn’t interview Thomas at the combine, McDaniels and then Broncos’ general manager Brian Xanders made a special trip to Atlanta to hang out with the receiver prospect at the office of D.T’s agent Todd France.
"We spent the day with him, put him on the white board,’’ McDaniels said. “It was easy to take him. Such a great athlete.’’
“Just a great person who overcame an unbelievable childhood to be a great success in the NFL,’’ Xanders, who now works in the Los Angeles Rams’ front office, told 9NEWS on Thursday night. “For him to overcome that and go on to dominate at Georgia Tech and then have a great career in the NFL speaks … It’s just sad.’’
As a coach and talent evaluator, McDaniels didn’t get to much enjoy the fruits of his astute first-round pick. He was fired with four games left in the 2010 season. His job might have been saved had Thomas not been so banged up as a rookie, first with the foot injury and then after he suffered a wicked body blow while returning a kickoff.
Tyke Tolbert was the coach who helped Thomas take off. Tolbert was the Broncos’ receivers coach from 2011, Thomas’ second season, through 2017, which was D.T.’s last full season with the Broncos. During that period, Thomas had the best five-year run of any Broncos’ receiver ever, averaging 98 catches for 1,374 yards and 9 touchdowns from 2012-16.
“He had it all,’’ Tobert said. “Size, strength, speed, ran good routes, make you miss for a big guy. And he would knock you down in run game. I’m just a loss of words. None of this is ever expected but this was so unexpected.”
Tolbert is now the receivers coach for the New York Giants, who are in Arizona preparing for their game Sunday against the Chargers in Los Angeles. He first heard of the unconfirmed social media reports of Thomas’ passing Thursday night from his agent Brian Levy, then received texts from former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and Carolina receiver great Steve Smith, whom Tolbert also coached. He talked with Miami and former Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville.
“It’s just awful. Awful,’’ Tolbert said. “It’s sad. I’m heartbroken.”
Asked about his fondest memory of Thomas, Tolbert didn’t flash to an on-field moment.
“When he came to our house on holidays,’’ Tolbert said. “Thanksgiving, Christmas. My girls would bake him a cake on Christmas because that was his birthday. He’d tell the guys, ‘No one touch my cake. No one touch my cake.’ And then of course he’d give a piece to everybody.”
Thomas carried a shy, but friendly demeanor not only for his teammates, but the behind-the-scenes personnel, equipment, security and operations staff. He was especially in his element around kids. Mark Thewes has been a do-everything vice president of operations for the Broncos since 2009. Among his many tasks, Thewes would throw passes to receivers at the beginning of every practice and speak to his rare physical talent.
“But his heart was more impressive,’’ Thewes said. “He cared deeply about those around him. Had a million-dollar smile and lit up around kids, mine included. My favorite Bronco.’’
That’s just it as those closest to Demaryius remembered him. It wasn’t just the player, although his remarkable gifts were a marvel. Most of the recollections, though, were about Thomas the person.
“I’m telling you his story is unbelievable,’’ McDaniels said. “Growing up the way that he did and to go to college at Georgia Tech and make it and become so successful in the NFL says a lot about his character and who he is. This guy is one of the all-time special people. God must have needed another angel because this doesn’t make sense.”
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