Sunday’s matchup between the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers will be the 86th NFL game of Demaryius Thomas’s six-year-career. It will also mark the first time the receiver’s mother, Katina Smith, has ever seen him play football in person.
Smith was jailed on drug trafficking charges in 2000, when Thomas was 11 years old. The athlete’s grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, was also arrested at that time. Neither woman has ever had the chance to see Demaryius play his sport at any level—high school, college or pro—in person.
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Thomas said their arrests were hardest thing he’s ever faced in his life, but they fueled his determination to succeed.
“I feel like the thing I had to overcome the most was when my mother and my grandmother went to prison,” Thomas told STACK.
Following the arrest, Thomas spent the better part of four years drifting among four different houses. He didn’t find a full-time home until he landed in the care of his aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown.
Throughout that time and thereafter, as Thomas became a standout football player at West Laurens High School in Dublin, Georgia, the athlete saw his mother infrequently, on rare visits to the minimum security facility in Tallahassee, Florida, where she was held. When he did meet her, he always assured her that he would choose a different path.
“As a little kid, I always told my mother that I was striving to [accomplish] something. That I had the chance to go pro at something,” Thomas said. “Once I had my chance to go to college and had a full scholarship, I just took advantage of it, and I got better and better every year. And I remembered what I told my mom. I’d build on that and keep going.”
Thomas earned a scholarship to Georgia Tech, where he established himself as the team’s best wide receiver since Calvin Johnson. Then he went on to the Denver Broncos. As he did, his mother and grandmother could only watch his games on a community TV at Federal Correctional Institution housing them.
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“It will be a bittersweet situation,” Smith told ESPN ahead of taking the field for Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII. “Sweet that my son made it to this point, and bitter that I’m not there to celebrate this time in his life.”
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Smith was released from prison late last fall after President Obama commuted her sentence, along with those of 45 other non-violent drug offenders. Following Smith’s stay at a halfway house, she had her travel ban lifted earlier this week, making this Sunday’s playoff showdown the first of Thomas’s games that she will see in person.
“I know she’d be excited. It’d mean a lot for her to see my first game live,” Thomas told reporters.