TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Demaryius Thomas propped his left arm up on the table to rest his head on his large hand, and as he did, a new tattoo on the inside of his biceps peeked out from underneath the sleeve of his gray Denver Broncos T-shirt.
Thomas — the Broncos' No. 1 draft pick this year and the receiver the team hopes will make Denver fans forget about Brandon Marshall — was a celebrity at the Federal Correctional Institution, a low-security women's prison in Tallahassee, Fla.
Inmates shouted out his name across the visitors room, and Thomas signed autographs.
But the thing Katina Smith kept focusing on was that ink on Thomas' arm.
"You got another tattoo!" she said.
WR Demaryius Thomas
"You've got to slow down with the tattoos," Smith said.
It had been nearly a year since the two had seen each other, since Demaryius was last able to make the nearly four-hour trip, take off his shoes to go through the metal detector and walk through a series of heavy metal doors to see his mother and his grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas. Both women have been housed here since 2000, when they were convicted of trafficking cocaine.
They have been incarcerated for half of his life.
"I know it has been hard for him. He's the one who holds everything inside," Smith said in an interview at the prison three days later. "But at the same time, it has given him the strength to go on and be better than the example I set for him."
Thomas has been here only five times, including the most recent visit July 9. He has seen his mother each time, but this latest visit marked the first time he had seen his grandmother in 11 years. He was just a boy, then. Now he is 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, a grown man, nearly a millionaire and on the verge of NFL stardom.
The trio sat around the table for three hours, playing the card game Tonk and tic-tac-toe, talking about family and football, and the new life Demaryius is about to embark on, with Broncos training camp starting this week. They laughed loudly and deeply, and the women flashed their identical smiles. They couldn't remember seeing Demaryius so happy.
As they talked, Minnie Thomas kept leaning over to touch her grandson and to grab onto the Broncos shirt and blue Broncos warm-up pants he wore. The NFL gear somehow made it all seem more real, a tangible sign that yes, Demaryius, the child they nicknamed Bay Bay when he was an infant, had turned out just fine.
"I'm happy to see them, but it's emotional," he said. "It has gotten a little easier because we talk a lot on the phone. But it was real hard when I was young. As I get older, it is different."
Demaryius Thomas and his two younger half sisters were fast asleep on March 15, 1999, when police officers burst into their mother's house in Montrose, Ga.
The officers were shouting, Thomas remembered, ordering his mother and stepfather out of bed. Smith was panicked, but she asked the officers if she could at least get her children ready for school like normal before they took her to jail. She helped the children get dressed, fed them breakfast, packed their backpacks and went outside to wait with them for the bus.
"I hugged them and said, 'I'll see you when I get back,' and told them, 'I love you,' " Smith said, dropping her head. "But I never came back."
His grandmother was arrested the same day, and both women were charged in federal court with conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine and cocaine base.
"I held money on two, maybe three occasions," Smith said. "They said I was the bank, but I wasn't the bank."
Minnie Pearl Thomas sold drugs — marijuana — for the first time in 1986, and was arrested for the first time that same year. Despite her first trip to jail, Minnie Thomas was hooked on the rush of selling drugs and was becoming accustomed to the extra money it provided her family. It wasn't long before she was manufacturing and selling crack cocaine out of her home.
She was arrested again in 1991 but resumed her business after she was released at the conclusion of a 14-month sentence in a jail near Milledgeville, Ga.
"I mostly did it to make ends meet, to buy my kids what they wanted, so they could wear what the other kids were wearing, so I could keep my house nice on the inside," Minnie Thomas said.
Demaryius, who was born in December 1987, was Minnie's oldest grandchild, and old enough to know what was going on inside her house. He remembered seeing his grandmother making the crack and the stream of strangers coming and going, leaving behind their makeshift crack pipes.
"I knew my grandma was selling it and my mom was keeping some money," Thomas said. "I told my mother one time that they needed to stop because I had a dream that they got in trouble. I started crying like every night after then. And then it finally happened."
Prosecutors offered Smith a plea deal and a reduced sentence if she testified against her mother. Smith refused.
"It hurt me when I found out she wouldn't tell on me," Minnie Thomas said. "I think of her kids and how they're being raised. It's not that they don't have good lives, but they would have been better with their mother. I beat up myself about that all the time."
Both women were convicted in February 2000, when Demaryius was 12 years old. Smith was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Because Minnie Thomas had two prior drug convictions, she was given two life sentences, with the possibility of parole after 40 years.
Demaryius and his younger sisters, Tonecia and Tyeshia Smith, sat in the courtroom that day. The numbers they heard were incomprehensible.
"I just remember hearing what they got, how many years, and I knew it was going to be a long time without seeing my mother," Demaryius said.
He has seen her in person in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009 and their most recent visit, earlier this month.
Thomas scrunches his face and shakes his head before he tries to describe what those visits, especially the first one, were like. As much as he loves his mother, he could hardly bear to see her locked up.
"I would ask if he wanted to go," his father, Bobby Thomas, said. "I took him once, and then he never wanted to go again."
Smith has never seen Thomas play football in person but watches many games on television. Mother and son share the dream that he will still be in the NFL for the 2017 season. Smith is scheduled to be released to a halfway house in December 2016, then to be living on her own by the following June. By then Thomas will be 29 years old and, they hope, an NFL veteran. Smith already has begun planning that day, what she'll wear, what she'll say, what it might feel like to watch him live instead of settling for a phone call from prison, before and after the game.
"I want to be in the front row, right next to the sideline," she said. "I'm going to lose my voice."
A place to feel at home
The greeting cards arrive in James and Shirley Brown's mailbox on the major holidays. Christmas. Father's Day. Mother's Day.
During her time in prison, Katina Smith has become quite the letter- writer and card-sender. And the Browns are near the top of her list.
"I just want to say thank you to them for taking care of Bay Bay, and for instilling good morals in him," Smith said.
The cards are appreciated, sure, but not necessary, the Browns said. This is what family does.
Bobby Thomas and Katina Smith were teenagers when they met in 1985, and Katina was 15 years old when Demaryius was born. They never married, but the two maintained an amiable relationship with shared custody of Demaryius before she was arrested.
Bobby enlisted in the Army immediately after graduation from high school, and he was stationed at Fort Rucker in Alabama when Smith became pregnant. With Bobby's Army lifestyle, living on bases in Alabama and Virginia and deployments in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, he couldn't provide a stable home for his son, so when Smith was sent to prison, the family decided it was best that Demaryius stay with members of the extended family in Montrose. Bobby Thomas remains a fixture in his son's life — he sent money for clothes and other expenses throughout Demaryius' youth — and the pair lived together near Atlanta this spring and summer.
It was a challenge, though, in those first few months after Katina Smith went to prison, to figure out the right place for Demaryius to stay. He stayed briefly with his father's mother, but that home was crowded with other children. Then he went to live with his father's younger sister, but that home wasn't completely drug-free, and she wouldn't let Thomas play sports.
"I didn't want to be around drugs because I saw what could happen," Thomas said.
So Thomas started spending time with his Aunt Shirley and Uncle James, who had two older daughters, Angela and LaTonya, and one younger son, Ben. The story of how Demaryius came to live with the Browns varies from one family member to another, but the result was the same: He found a permanent home.
"He needed stability," James Brown said. "I think he felt comfortable here, like, they won't belittle me because of who I am and what my family has done."
Living with the Browns meant chores and a non-negotiable 11:30 p.m. curfew. Thomas was baptized and became an usher at the church where James Brown preached. On summer mornings, Brown roused Thomas from bed before sunrise and put him to work in the field behind their house, mowing grass and picking peas. They would take the peas to town to sell, or Thomas and his cousins would shell them by the bucket load for Shirley to cook.
During the school year, the Browns let Thomas focus on his classes (he had a 3.5 grade-point average at West Laurens High School) and on sports. Thomas' first sport was basketball, and he played point guard on a traveling team.
He started playing football in middle school just to have another activity. He didn't start a game until 10th grade, at cornerback, and didn't play receiver full time until his junior year.
As a senior, already 6-3 and 210 pounds, he decided that football was his future. He was average-size for a Division I college basketball player. As a wide receiver, he had the potential to be special.
Coaches at Georgia Tech, and now, the Broncos, agreed.
He averaged 25.1 yards per catch last fall as a junior and was first-team all- Atlantic Coast Conference, despite playing in a run-oriented triple-option offense. Thomas left school with one year of eligibility remaining.
The Broncos made him the first wide receiver selected in the 2010 draft, at No. 22 overall. The team is counting on Thomas to make an immediate impact as a replacement for Marshall, the talented but often troubled receiver the team traded to Miami in April.
In Thomas, the Broncos saw a similar physical specimen, but a player who Broncos officials believe will cause far fewer headaches off the field.
"In getting to know him the way that we did and spending time with him, we understood he had a number of things in his life that he had to overcome," Broncos coach Josh McDaniels said. "He didn't let those things and those conditions affect the type of person he became. He made the right decisions and ended up in the right place and created a bright future for himself. We're very fortunate to have him, and we think he's going to have a bright career."
"I never want to go to jail"
For years, Thomas rarely spoke about his mother. He didn't tell his aunt and uncle when he was sad, and he didn't open up to his father about his heartache.
On the outside, Thomas appeared to be a normal, well-adjusted teenager. He was the star athlete, on the homecoming court and had plenty of friends.
"He handled things very well," Bobby Thomas said. "He would never talk to me about it. The emotional side of it, it never comes out in front of anyone."
Thomas didn't let anyone know that he often cried himself to sleep.
"Every night," Thomas said. "I missed her."
It took until 2006, about the time he graduated from high school, to come to terms with the crimes his mother and grandmother committed. The memories of the drugs inside his grandmother's house, of the police raid at his mother's house and of his first visits to the prison had shaken him deeply, impacting the course of his high school and college life.
"I never want to go to jail," Thomas said. "Never, ever."
Now his past is no secret, and he is not ashamed of it.
Every NFL team he met with during the combine in February and in the months leading up to the draft asked him about his mother and grandmother.
Thomas was proud when he answered their questions. He had avoided all sorts of trouble: never tried drugs, never was suspended from school, never arrested. The worst thing he has ever done, it seems, was get a speeding ticket shortly after he turned 16.
"I really didn't put myself around the wrong crowds," Thomas said. "The only way you get in trouble around here is if you're dealing with drugs, because there's not much here in the country you can do besides drugs. You don't see kids with firearms or anything like that, just mostly drugs. There were a lot of people around here you could hang with that did drugs, so you had to pick the right crew."
If Aunt Shirley's rules weren't enough, Thomas would hear his mother's voice in his head. They speak multiple times a week on the telephone, each call lasting 15 minutes. Nearly every conversation includes some sort of motherly advice.
"I tell him to let me be the only example he needs of what can happen, and that he needs to obey the laws of the land, down to wearing your seat belt," Smith said. "Just look at me and my mom."
Countdown to Sept. 12The prison clock hit 3 p.m., and it was time for Demaryius to go.
Katina Smith told herself not to cry. Minnie Pearl Thomas began sobbing again, just as she had when Demaryius had arrived three hours earlier, and clutched on his arms. Finally, he had to walk away.
Thomas crossed the room and stepped across the yellow line painted on the floor — the line that inmates, like his mother and grandmother, are not allowed to cross.
As he turned to look back one more time, Smith could have sworn her son's eyes were filling with tears. "Don't cry," she called. "I love you!"
And then he was gone, hopping back into his large silver pickup to drive back to Georgia.
Katina Smith and Minnie Pearl Thomas were escorted back to their dormitories, where the countdown has begun to the next time they'll see him: Sept. 12, when the Broncos play at Jacksonville in the first game of the regular season.
They will paint their faces, use tape to make the No. 88 on their khaki prison T-shirts and get a front-row seat in the recreation room.
Thomas will be wearing the Broncos' white uniform and will write each of their names on the tape on his wrists.
"We've all been going through a lot," his grandmother said. "We're going through time, and he's going through time too."
Lindsay H. Jones: 303-954-1262 or firstname.lastname@example.org