ENGLEWOOD, Colo. - As soon as his teammates noticed him at the center of an impromptu media scrum after yesterday’s practice, the catcall chorus commenced.
“D.T. Big-time. Yeah!’’
“All the time, all of them,’’ Demaryius Thomas said in his soft-spoken way. “Make a big play and everybody’s on you.’’
Who ever made a bigger one in a playoff game than the Broncos wide receiver did last Sunday, grabbing Tim Tebow’s first overtime offering and busting it for 80 yards for the 29-23 victory that eliminated Pittsburgh and earned Denver a prime-time rematch with the Patriots in Saturday’s divisional game at Gillette Stadium?
After nearly two years of physical torments that might have tested even Job’s resilience and a family tragedy that he has been living with for more than two decades, it was 11 seconds of blissful release.
“Very satisfying,’’ Thomas proclaimed.
His life changed utterly at age 9 when police came into his Georgia home just before school and arrested his mother and, later, his grandmother on cocaine trafficking charges that resulted in heavy prison terms. His grandmother, Minnie Pearl, is serving two life sentences and mother Katina 20 years at the federal correctional facility in Tallahassee. And though Thomas and his mother talk by phone before each game, she never has seen him play.
“It’s not as difficult as it used to be because I don’t talk about it so much,’’ said Thomas, who was shepherded by uncle James Brown, a local Baptist minister and who has the words “family’’ and “first’’ tattooed on his biceps.
“Growing up, it was difficult, but I feel like I’m comfortable now. My mother’s fine, my grandmother’s fine, so it doesn’t bother me no more.’’
Football was his way up and out of a soul-searing background, and Thomas starred at Georgia Tech even though he was operating in a triple-option offense. The Broncos grabbed him 22d overall in the 2010 draft ahead of Dez Bryant and three spots ahead of Tebow.
But after he aggravated the foot he’d broken during a workout before the draft, he became a one-man casualty list. Concussion. High ankle sprain. Torn Achilles’ tendon. Fractured pinkie finger.
“I thought about it a lot, and I just kept saying to myself, ‘I’m always getting hurt.’ I’ve had three big injuries since getting into the league, and this is my second year. I just thought about it a lot.’’
The most serious injury was the Achilles’, which Thomas ripped in February while doing footwork and conditioning drills.
“I didn’t know it was serious because I walked off and went home,’’ he said. “I went to the doctor the next day and he told me it was ruptured and that it was like 8-12 months before I could get back. I asked him the fastest somebody’s ever been back. He said five months.’’
The NFL lockout only added to the uncertainty.
“There wasn’t contact allowed with our medical people and players, so we were a little bit in the dark as to how that rehab was going,’’ said Broncos coach John Fox. “Once we were able to have contact with the players, he was way ahead of schedule.
“There was discussion about him being on PUP [physically unable to perform list] to start the season, and as we got through training camp, we actually accelerated that and kept him on the 53-man roster.’’
As soon as Thomas came back, he was gone again after an untimely bit of hand-to-hand combat with cornerback Champ Bailey during a pass play.
“He hit my fingers and the ball just hit me right on top,’’ Thomas said. “I just thought it was jammed fingers so I kept practicing. Then another ball hit it again and I stopped moving and knew something was wrong.’’
Surgery deprived Thomas of the first five regular-season games, and when he returned to duty, he was predictably cautious.
“I already knew he was timid - not about playing football but about coming out there and making plays, just because of the injury situation,’’ said running back Willis McGahee. “Anybody would be the same way he was when he came back. I was like that. I didn’t want to go out there and do this and do that.’’
Thomas had talked to other players who tried to come back early from a torn Achilles’ and reinjured it, so he was pleasantly surprised when he found that he could run without soreness. Once the finger healed, he finally was free to be the man the Broncos drafted.
In his first game back, Thomas caught the touchdown pass from Tebow that sparked the historic rally from 15 points down in the final three minutes that produced the “Miracle in Miami,’’ the 18-15 overtime triumph that turned Denver’s season around.
So it seemed appropriate that Thomas also would be on the receiving end of the ball that would mark the longest and quickest overtime score in league history. The Broncos had noticed that the Steelers packed the box whenever receiver Eddie Royal went in motion before a running play, and at intermission, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy sketched a play designed to sucker Pittsburgh into bringing nine men up.
“How he drew it up is exactly how it happened,’’ Thomas said.
By the end of regulation, Thomas already had snagged three passes for 124 yards, including catches of 51 and 58 yards. When he lined up for the first play of the extra session, Thomas almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I saw the safety [backup Ryan Mundy] come down, and I was like, ‘This is going to be a big play,’ ’ he said. “The middle of the field was wide open. All I had to do was beat the corner. Once I beat him, there was nothing but green grass. Once I beat him, I knew I was going to score.’’
It may have been the most shocking one-punch knockout in NFL history, but Thomas’s highlight clip was nothing new to his teammates.
“We see it in practice, making amazing catches and running past people, but I don’t think a lot of you guys really got to see that from him,’’ said Royal. “But that game showed what he can do.’’
Apparently, everyone with a television set or a computer saw Thomas put a Heisman-quality stiff-arm on cornerback Ike Taylor on his way to glory, including his two biggest female fans.
“Me and the girls are watching you on TV,’’ his grandmother reported when Thomas spoke to her on Monday.
When the Brady Bunch meets Tebowmania Saturday, the ratings likely will shatter the record for a divisional game, and with starter Eric Decker injured, the man in the 88 jersey will get decidedly more attention from Patriot defenders than he did in last month’s 41-23 mile-high loss.
“I’m just looking forward to getting another chance to go play them at their house,’’ Thomas said. “It’s about now.’’