By PAUL NEWBERRY AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA — Demaryius Thomas, who earned five consecutive Pro Bowl selections and a Super Bowl ring during a prolific receiving career spent mostly with the Denver Broncos, has died at the age of 33.
Thomas was found dead in his suburban Atlanta home on Thursday night, said Officer Tim Lupo, public information officer for the police department in Roswell, Georgia.
“Preliminary information is that his death stems from a medical issue, and our investigators currently have no reason to believe otherwise,” Lupo said in a statement early Friday.
LaTonya Bonseigneur, a first cousin who grew up with Thomas and was so close they considered themselves siblings, told The Associated Press that the former player’s family believes he died from a seizure.
Family members were notified by the Roswell police at about 9 p.m. EST that they had found Thomas in a shower at his home.
“He had been suffering from seizures for over a year, and we believe he had a seizure when he was showering,” Bonseigneur said early Friday. “We’re not sure when he died. We just spoke with him yesterday.”
She added, “He was alone and a friend couldn’t get hold of him, so he called his driver, who has a key because of these seizures, and he went into his home and found him in the shower.”
Thomas, who would have turned 34 on Christmas, last played in the NFL in 2019, appearing in 11 games with 10 starts for the New York Jets. He officially announced his retirement this past June with a short video with a peace sign and his characteristic smile.
“I’m Demaryius Thomas. I finally came to a decision to hang it up. … I’m going to retire and I’m going to retire a Denver Bronco. … I’m done and I did well.”
He will be remembered mostly for his eight-plus seasons with the Broncos, who had honored him during their home opener on Sept. 26 against the New York Jets.
“We are devastated and completely heartbroken,” the team said in a statement. “We were very much looking forward to celebrating Demaryius for years to come as one of the greatest players in franchise history.”
His contributions to the community went beyond the playing field, the team said, noting his work with the Broncos Boys and Girls Club, hospital visits, his annual football camp and “many other genuine interactions.”
“Demaryius’ humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile will always be remembered by those who knew him and loved him,” the statement said. “We have lost an incredible player and a special person in Demaryius Thomas.”
Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who played with Thomas for four seasons, also released a statement early Friday.
“DT was a better person than he was a player, and he was a Hall of Fame player,” Manning said. “That tells you how good of a person he was. He treated my kids like they were his own. He was there for every teammate’s charity event. … Absolutely devastated.”
While he put up huge numbers after the Broncos signed Manning in 2012, Thomas made his best-known catch the previous season, his second year in the league.
On the first play of overtime in an AFC wild-card playoff game, he broke free over the middle and hauled in a short pass from Tim Tebow that he turned into an 80-yard touchdown to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A native of Montrose, a tiny town in southeast Georgia, Thomas managed to make his mark collegiately as a receiver at Georgia Tech – even after the school hired Paul Johnson to replace Chan Gailey as head coach.
Ditching Gailey’s pro-style offense, Johnson installed the run-oriented scheme that had been so successful for him at lower-division Georgia Southern.
Despite a huge drop-off in the number of passes the Yellow Jackets threw, Thomas was often left in single coverage and managed to show off the skills that would lead the Broncos to take him with the No. 22 overall pick in the 2010 draft.
Thomas finished his career at Georgia Tech with 120 receptions for 2,339 yards and 14 touchdowns in three seasons.
Thomas had a foot injury – he had been injured working out before the 2010 draft – in his first two seasons in the NFL, but he flourished when healthy.
Teaming up with Manning, Thomas put up much gaudier numbers for the Broncos beginning with a dazzling 2012 season – 94 catches for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns – that led to the first of those five consecutive Pro Bowl honors.
He twice had more than 100 catches in a season, highlighted by career bests of 111 catches and 1,619 yards in 2014. He had five straight seasons with more than 1,000 yards receiving and had at least 90 receptions and 1,300 yards in four consecutive seasons, joining Hall of Famers Marvin Harrison and Jerry Rice and Rams legend Torry Holt as the only players to reach those totals over four consecutive seasons.
In Manning’s final year, the Broncos defeated Carolina in the Super Bowl to cap the 2015 season.
Thomas routinely said Manning revealed parts of the game that enabled Thomas to elevate his play. Manning had called Thomas one of the best receivers he had played with in his career. When Manning’s children would come to practices, Thomas was routinely the first player they would run to as the players had become close friends. Thomas caught Manning’s 509th career touchdown pass, which gave Manning the career record at the time. A picture of Manning and Thomas posing with a handwritten sign after the game has been on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Broncos also made the Super Bowl during the 2013 season, putting up the greatest offensive numbers in NFL history. But they went down with a whimper in the title game, routed by the Seattle Seahawks, 43-8, even though Thomas set a Super Bowl record with 13 receptions, totaling 118 yards.
“If we all played like he did, we’d have won,” Denver general manager John Elway moaned.
When the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl two years later, Thomas’ mother got a chance to watch him in person rather than on a prison television.
Nicknamed “Bay Bay” as a child after the animated movie “Bébé’s Kids,” Thomas was 11 when police burst into his home and arrested his mother, Katina Smith, and grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, on drug charges.
Katina Smith was sentenced to 20 years in prison after refusing a lesser term in exchange for testifying against her mother, who wound up receiving a life sentence.
“I think that drives me more to know that they’re there and they’re watching me,” Thomas said before his first Super Bowl. “I try to go out there and play my best because they’re going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse.”
Both women would be freed by President Barack Obama under an initiative to reduce the number of non-violent drug offenders doing time.
Smith was released in time to watch from the stands as her son won a championship. The first thing Smith asked her son for when she got out of prison was a Sony Walkman.
“I don’t even know if you can find a Walkman right now,” Thomas told her.
He got her an iPhone instead. Before long, she was texting like a teenager and calling her son all the time.
One of Thomas’ teammates on the Super Bowl-winning team expressed shock at the news of his untimely death.
“Heartbroken,” former Broncos defensive star DeMarcus Ware wrote on Twitter, posting a picture of the two together.
Similar sentiments came in from current and former players around the league.
“RIP Young Legend,” Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted.
“I’m just shocked to hear that Demaryius Thomas has died,” former Broncos running back Terrell Davis wrote. “Gone way too soon.”
“My heart is hurting right now,” Broncos Hall of Famer Steve Atwater said. “We’ll never forget you my brother.”
After Manning’s retirement, Thomas’ production began to decline as the Broncos struggled to settle on their next quarterback.
Then, during the 2018 season, he was traded to the Houston Texans. He managed only 23 catches in seven games with his new team and was released after a brief tenure.
Thomas signed with the New England Patriots, but he was cut before their opener. He finished his career with the Jets.
In 143 career games, Thomas had 724 catches for 9,763 yards and 63 touchdowns.
Thomas was not married and had no children, according to Bonseigneur. After his mother went to prison, he lived with an uncle, James Brown.
Brown died on Nov. 15 of a heart attack at age 69. Thomas attended his funeral.
“Demaryius was a great guy,” Bonseigneur said. “He came from humble beginnings. He knew God. He was raised in the church and by a close-knit family. Even though he rose to stardom, to us he was just a kid from Montrose. We never fathomed he would go on to do all these amazing things. He was just a kid who loved playing football.”
News services contributed to this story.