Demaryius Thomas diagnosed with CTE after death, but that's not the whole story

·4-min read

It's been nearly seven months since former Denver Broncos star Demariyus Thomas died at age 33, just a half year after retiring from the NFL. On Tuesday we found out more information about what may have contributed to his death, but we may never know the full story.

Boston University doctors announced on Tuesday via the New York Times that Thomas had been posthumously diagnosed with Stage 2 CTE, which had impacted the final year of his life. But his day-to-day life was complicated by seizures, which began affecting him following a car crash in 2019.

While CTE has increasingly devastating effects on those with the disease, it will probably never be known whether that or the seizures truly caused Thomas' death. The BU doctors told the Times that it's likely Thomas died following a seizure, but the official cause of death has not been announced by the coroner's office in Fulton County, Ga.

A career of hits, then a car accident

Thomas's mother, Katina Smith, has a memory from the night the Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 that stays with her. She recalls that Thomas, who had taken a major hit from a Panthers player earlier in the game, had a bad headache and didn't stay long at the victory celebration.

“He was like, ‘Hey, y’all, I need to leave and go by myself because I don’t feel too good,’” Smith recounted to the New York Times. “And so, you know, he left and didn’t even finish celebrating or anything like that.”

That was one rough hit in a career filled with them, and a car crash in 2019 would only complicate things further. Thomas rolled his car several times and cracked his head on the windshield after losing control while driving 70mph in a 30mph zone. The head injury he suffered eventually caused him to have seizures, often with no warning, that could cause him to fall down stairs or lose control of a car.

The seizures began in the fall of 2020 and stymied any hope Thomas had of returning to the NFL. When seizure medication didn't work, and neither did ozone therapy or a hyperbaric chamber, he began to isolate himself. He didn't return his parents' texts and was so paranoid that his father said he rarely left the house without a gun.

SANTA CLARA, CA - FEBRUARY 03:  Demaryius Thomas #88 of the Denver Broncos speaks to the media during the Broncos media availability for Super Bowl 50 at the Santa Clara Marriott on February 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. The Broncos will play the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 on February 7, 2016.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Demaryius Thomas, who helped the Broncos win Super Bowl 50, died in Dec. 2021 at age 33, and has been posthumously diagnosed with Stage 2 CTE. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Thomas' parents find relief in remembering their son

Thomas' parents, Katina Smith and Bobby Thomas, were understandably shocked and devastated by their son's death. Bobby Thomas and Smith, who had Demaryius when she was just 15, never married, and the elder Thomas was in the army and often away. When Demaryius Thomas was 11, Smith was sentenced to 20 years in prison after refusing to testify against her mother in drug ring court case. Thomas was taken in by relatives and found solace from his mother's incarceration in sports.

Thomas spent 17 years lobbying for his mother's release, even writing a letter to President Barack Obama. It was the president who commuted Smith's sentence, which allowed her to be with her son and his father at Super Bowl 50. Thomas was thrilled and proud to have both of them watching him in person, and a moment from after the win is immortalized in a painting in Smith's home. Bobby Thomas keeps the same picture on his phone.

Both Smith and Hughes told the Times that they've started to find some relief by talking about Thomas and finding out how much he meant to the people around him. Thomas' teammates and friends were also devastated by his sudden and unexpected death, and have shared stories about how much he was both respected and beloved as a player, teammate, friend, and member of the community. Peyton Manning started two scholarships in his name, and the Broncos paid tribute to him several times in the final weeks of the 2021 season.

Smith has been helping to plan Demaryius Thomas Day, which will take place on July 16 in Dublin, Ga. To celebrate him, 88 balloons will be released to commemorate his jersey number.