This story was updated with more information at 4:20 p.m. on Dec. 10, 2021.
ATLANTA — Demaryius Thomas overcame a troubled childhood. He managed to shine as a receiver in Georgia Tech's run-oriented offense. By the time his NFL career was over, he had made five straight Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos.
The football world mourned Friday for Thomas, who died in his suburban Atlanta home at the age of 33, less than six months after officially announcing his retirement from the game.
Tim Tebow, who delivered perhaps the most famous pass of Thomas's career, wrote on Twitter that he "woke up and saw the really devastating news about my teammate and friend."
"So many are going to remember him for his athletic ability," Tebow wrote, "but I'll be remembering him for his kindness, his smile that would light up a room, and the love he had for those in his life."
Thomas was found dead in his home 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 early Friday.
LaTonya Bonseigneur, a first cousin who grew up with Thomas, told The Associated Press the family believes he died from a seizure.
"He had been suffering from seizures for over a year, and we believe he had a seizure when he was showering," Bonseigneur said in a telephone interview. "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 last played in the NFL in 2019, appearing in 11 games with 10 starts for the New York Jets. He announced his retirement this past June in a video posted to the Broncos' Twitter account.
"I'm just happy to say I'm done and it did me well," Thomas said.
In a team release, the Broncos said they were "devastated and completely heartbroken" at the death of one of their greatest players, who helped lead them to a pair of Super Bowls.
His contributions to the Denver community went beyond the playing field, the team said, noting his annual football camp, hospital visits and work with the Broncos Boys & Girls Club.
"We were very much looking forward to celebrating Demaryius for years to come as one of the greatest players in franchise history," the team said in a release. "Demaryius' humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile will always be remembered by those who knew him and loved him."
A native of the tiny town of Montrose in southeast Georgia, Thomas thrived even after his mother and grandmother were sent to prison for selling drugs. Officers burst into the family home when Thomas was 11, allowing his mother to walk her son and his two younger sisters to the school bus before taking her away.
While he put up huge numbers after the Broncos signed quarterback Peyton 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 an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tebow to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Every time I see it, every time I watch it, I still get the chills because it was just crazy," Thomas said on his retirement video.
Near the end of his career, Thomas got a chance to work briefly with quarterback Tom Brady after signing with the New England Patriots. Thomas was cut before they played a regular-season game together.
On Friday, Brady posted a photo on Twitter of the two together at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in August, when Manning was among those enshrined.
"I'm so sad to wake up this morning to hear about the passing of my friend Demariyus Thomas," Brady wrote. "We were all blessed with his humility and positive spirit, and we will all miss him."
Nicknamed "Bay Bay" as a child after the animated movie "Bébé's Kids," Thomas managed to make his mark as a receiver at Georgia Tech even after the school hired Paul Johnson to replace Chan Gailey as coach in 2008.
The Yellow Jackets left their pro-style offense behind as Johnson installed a run-oriented, option-based scheme, greatly reducing the number of passes. Thomas was often left in single coverage, though, and managed to show off the skills that would lead the Broncos to draft him 22nd overall in 2010.
"He was such a talent with a great heart for helping others," Johnson said. "He had the ability to make everyone around him feel special."
Geoff Collins, who replaced Johnson when he retired after the 2018 season, was on Gailey's staff during Thomas's first year at Tech in 2006. Thomas visited the Jackets this past August during their preseason camp.
"I will always remember what a thrill it was for our players when he was able to stop by and spend some time with us," Collins said. "Bay Bay was truly one of my favorite people. I will miss him terribly."
Thomas finished his Tech career with 120 receptions for 2,339 yards and 14 touchdowns in three seasons.
Paired 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 his first Pro Bowl selection.
He twice had more than 100 receptions in a season, highlighted by career bests of 111 catches and 1,619 yards in 2014, both of which remain single-season records for the Broncos. Thomas had five consecutive seasons with more than 1,000 receiving yards.
In Manning's final year, the Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 to wrap up the 2015 season. Thomas had only one catch for 8 yards as Denver relied mainly on its defense and running game to secure its first title in 17 years.
The Broncos also made the Super Bowl two years earlier, having piled up the greatest offensive numbers in NFL history that season. They went down with a whimper in the title game, though, routed 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks even though Thomas made 13 receptions — a Super Bowl record at the time — totaling 118 yards.
"If we all played like he did, we'd have won," moaned Denver general manager John Elway, who as a quarterback led the Broncos to five Super Bowls and won two.
During the four seasons Manning and Thomas were together, the Broncos went 55-17.
When Denver capped that amazing run with another Super Bowl, Thomas' mother, Katina Smith, got a chance to watch him in person rather than on a prison television. She had been sentenced to 20 years after refusing a lesser term in exchange for testifying against her mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, 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 were freed by President Barack Obama under an initiative to reduce the number of nonviolent drug offenders doing time. Smith was released in time to watch from the stands as her son helped the Broncos to the franchise's third title.
After Manning retired, Thomas' production began to decline as the team struggled to settle on a quarterback. Then, during the 2018 season, he was traded to the Houston Texans, managed only 23 catches in seven games with his new team and was released after that brief tenure.
Thomas signed with the Patriots in 2019 but was cut before their opener and finished his NFL days with the Jets. In 143 career games, he had 724 catches for 9,763 yards and 63 touchdowns.
Thomas was not married and had no children, Bonseigneur said. After his mother went to prison, he lived with an aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown, a Baptist minister who helped instill a humble demeanor that Thomas retained.
He never demanded more passes from the quarterback, never jawed with defenders.
"It made me a stronger man and a better man just being in that atmosphere, working harder, knowing that nothing's going to be easy," Thomas once said.
Brown died Nov. 15 of a heart attack at age 69, and 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."