'He had the biggest heart': How Emmanuel Sanders honors Demaryius Thomas' legacy of helping children

Autopsy report: Demaryius Thomas died of seizure disorder complications (0:36)

Demaryius Thomas died from "complications of a seizure disorder," according to an autopsy report from the Fulton County (Ga.) Medical Examiner's office. (0:36)


"You got the duo up here," Emmanuel Sanders said with a smile as he and Demaryius Thomas stood at a podium inside Paul Brown Stadium in 2016. "The one-two punch."

The two wide receivers had just put up 217 yards and three touchdowns in a 29-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals -- one of many impressive performances they had as Denver Broncos teammates from 2014 to 2018.

They became the seventh pair of wide receivers to each have three straight 1,000-yard seasons and won Super Bowl 50 with quarterback Peyton Manning. Sanders and Thomas also built an uncommonly close relationship for receivers competing for targets.

"They were so happy for one another, when one other guy had success, they celebrated one another," former Broncos and current Chicago Bears wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said. "They were such great friends. ... DT was a laid back guy, didn't say a whole lot, but on the flip side of that, Emmanuel -- he would speak his mind, whether it was good or bad."

Like many, Sanders was rocked by the news of Thomas' sudden death last December. The 10-year veteran, who played for the Broncos, Texans and Jets, was found dead at age 33 in his Roswell, Georgia, home -- six months after retiring from the NFL -- due to complications of a seizure disorder. Thomas also had the degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to an announcement by doctors from Boston University, who had been studying Thomas' brain through the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Sanders said he contemplated retirement after Thomas died, citing CTE concerns. But he knew his Buffalo Bills teammates were counting on him and he returned to the field the same week.

Sanders, who has played for five NFL teams over 12 seasons but is now a free agent, remembers his friend's positive energy.

"You go and find me a picture of [Thomas] when he's not smiling and you send it to me," Sanders said. "[It would] probably [be from] the fourth quarter of the game, but a majority of the time he's smiling, he's laughing. He had the biggest smile. If you don't know much about him, Google a picture of him and watch him when he smiles and that'll tell you about the person that he was."

Sanders also remembers Thomas for his generous spirit. Thomas worked closely with the Boys & Girls Club and other organizations, impacting the lives of children -- including some who grew up under difficult circumstances like he did. Sanders and others have kept Thomas' memory and legacy alive by keeping that work going.

"He was one of those kinds of guys," Sanders said of Thomas. "He did everything, took the shirt off his back for anybody.

"He had the biggest heart, and I feel like I got a big heart. I feel like his could possibly be bigger than mine, and I think that's why we got along so well. ... I tell people all the time, [if] more people were like Demaryius, the world would be a better place. I genuinely mean that."

THOMAS' MOM, Katina Smith, can remember only one time she had to reprimand Thomas when he was little.

He went to a friend's house two doors down from where he grew up in Montrose, Georgia. Thomas noticed his friend needed some clothes, so he went into his own closet and gave him some.

"I said, "Where are your clothes," Smith recalled. "'And he was like, 'Oh, I gave them to a friend of mine.'

"I was like, 'What?' And then my first thought was to be mad, but then I was like, 'OK, they must need them,' so I didn't make him go get the clothes or anything like that."

Growing up wasn't easy for Thomas or his two sisters. When he was 11 years old, their home was raided by police. Smith and her mother, Minnie Pearl, were arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. They were found guilty with Pearl receiving two life terms in prison and Smith being sentenced to more than 24 years. (Smith's and Thomas' sentences were commuted by former president Barack Obama.)

After his mother went to jail, Thomas lived with different family members. He didn't go live with his father, Bobby Thomas, who was in the military. Demaryius eventually found a home with his aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown, who lived outside Montrose.

Thomas found success in a stable home and then on the football field, making his way to Georgia Tech, where he impressed teams enough to become the first wide receiver taken in his draft class. After he was drafted by the Broncos in 2010, Thomas carved out a presence in the Denver community -- working with kids through youth football camps, local hospitals and at the Boys & Girls Club of Denver, which opened in 2003 and is fully funded by the Broncos. He visited the club about once a month.

"DT was one of the most remarkable individuals that I got to work with and then know on a personal level," Broncos director of community development Liz Jeralds said. "He had a larger than life presence and it really showed when he was around kids."

During his visits, Thomas played sports in the gym and helped mentor kids, reminding them to focus on education. He once got an explosive reaction when he FaceTimed basketball star Jimmy Butler and introduced him to the kids.

"He just had this energy about him, sometimes you could go up there and you can smile and try to play with kids and it just don't come across," Von Miller, a former Broncos teammate of Thomas', told ESPN. "The energy's just not right. And DT, that was his life."

His outreach ramped up after he met then-14-year-old Jayden Tolson on a rainy day in November 2016.

"[He'd] check up on me to make sure I was doing OK, like, 'How's everything going?' said Tolson, now 20. "Make sure I'm keeping up with my grades, make sure I wasn't falling behind. He was like a big brother to me."

Thomas gave Tolson, whose father is in prison, advice on how to cope with having a parent in jail and the importance of staying focused. Thomas taking the time to simply be there meant a lot to Tolson.

"I had other people show me the ropes," Tolson said. "I know how to be a good role model in the community or how to show young people that don't have a father figure. You always don't need a father figure, you just need somebody that's going to be a role model to you, that's gonna show you the way."

SANDERS OFFICIALLY MISSED Bills practice on Dec. 10, 2021, for personal reasons. The NFL injury report didn't go into details of Thomas' death and how that affected his close friend.

"I'm one to get the emotions out right then and there, and then once I get them out, it's in the back," Sanders said. "And that's not saying that I'm not able to mourn my friend, but at the same time I'm a believer in God. Sometimes I get mad at the big man upstairs, like, 'Why, why [does] this [have] to happen?'"

Former Broncos honored Thomas in their own ways. Miller wore a T-shirt with Thomas' face on it prior to a the Rams' wild-card playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals. Manning created a new scholarship at Georgia Tech for students from the county where Thomas was from and another scholarship for Denver high school athletes.

"An important part of Demaryius' legacy was the way he inspired the next generation to pursue their dreams with the same perseverance and determination that defined him," Manning said in a statement in April.

As Sanders returned to the field last season to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a few days after Thomas' passing, Bills fans Andrew Genco and Victoria Pascuzzi started a donation drive to the Emmanuel Sanders Foundation in increments of $10.88 -- a combination of Sanders' No. 10 jersey and Thomas' No. 88 -- which raised about $6,000.

"[Thomas' death] is something I don't think I'll ever recover from," Sanders said. "It's impacted me greatly. It's little things like this, well actually, big things like this [donation drive] that actually make me feel good that people care, Bills Mafia cares. ... I used to always tell [Thomas] , 88 plus 10 is the closest thing to perfection."

Those funds went to the organization that had meant so much to Thomas: the Boys & Girls Club in Buffalo, which got a new game room with a mural of Sanders and Thomas. Sanders spent an evening in early February dedicating the room -- decorated with balloons and plenty of Bills colors -- and playing with kids from the club.

"[Thomas] was probably the most active in terms of Boys & Girls Club, showing up for the kids always," Sanders said. "The kids knew his truck when it pulled up, they'd run out there, because he was there all the time."

In May, Sanders visited the Denver Boys & Girls Club to make a donation. He brought his daughter and son, who Thomas would sit with during the Broncos' Saturday morning breakfasts. Part of Sanders' donation paid for jerseys for the club's football team, which will feature a No. 88 patch. Thomas was honored at the event and other Broncos came to hang out with and play with the children.

Sanders wants to ensure Thomas' legacy lives on. He believes Thomas would have done the same if the situation had been reversed. "I know that he would continue to leave a legacy, leave my legacy," Sanders said.

Smith was trying not cry on the video message she recorded for Sanders' February event in Buffalo, but as she spoke about her son's memory living on and what Sanders meant to their family, the emotions came pouring out. "Thank you for allowing your game room to be named after my son, in memory of him to continue his legacy so other kids in this world will know who is 88 and what 88 has done.

"... Thank you for loving him, thank you for respecting him, but most importantly, thank you for honoring him and being in his life and being by his side. You saved him. A lot of times you didn't even know it, but you saved him."