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Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas answers a question during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Newark, N.J. His mother and grandmother are in prison.
Demaryius Thomas' mother and grandmother will cheer for the Broncos receiver around the prison TV Sunday, both wearing No. 88 jerseys they crafted with strips of tape.
The two women have never seen Thomas play in person. He was 11 when police burst through the door of their home in Montrose, Ga., and arrested both on drug charges in 1999. Police allowed Katina Smith to walk her son and his two younger sisters to the school bus one last time.
Now she's at a minimum-security prison in Florida, sentenced to 20 years. Her mother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, who had two previous drug convictions, received two life sentences with the possibility for parole after 40 years.
Smith could have gotten a lighter sentence by testifying against her mother, but she refused.
They'll watch Thomas play in his first Super Bowl Sunday, when he will be matched against Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman for much of the game.
"I think that drives me more to know that they're there and they're watching me," Thomas said. "I try to go out there and play my best because they're going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse."
Thomas' father was serving in the Army and stationed in Kuwait when his mother and grandmother were arrested. He went to live with an aunt and uncle, Shirley and James Brown, a Baptist minister who lived six miles away.
Thomas, called "Bay-Bay" by his family, started working as an usher at the church and attending Bible study after track and basketball practices.
"Once I moved in with him, I told him I wanted to do something to stay off the streets and stay out of trouble, so I tried football," Thomas said. "And it worked out for me."
Thomas played at Georgia Tech and was a first-round pick by Denver in 2010. Injuries slowed him down until his 80-yard catch from Tim Tebow in overtime beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
Two months later, Peyton Manning came to Denver and Thomas has flourished ever since, catching 204 passes for 3,089 yards and 27 touchdowns over the last two years.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound deep threat has an uncanny mix of size, speed and strength — Wes Welker laughed about his "Triple-XL gloves." Dominique Rodgers Cromartie said he lost a bet when he challenged Thomas to throw a ball 60 yards from his knees "and he just flicked it!"
Yet, Thomas is the antithesis of the prima donna wide receiver who demands passes and attention. He never says a thing to the cornerback covering him, much less talk trash.
It goes back to the values instilled in him by his aunt and uncle, Thomas said.
"It made me a stronger man and a better man just being in that atmosphere, working harder, knowing that nothing's going to be easy."
Brown said it wasn't easy taking in another child with three kids of his own and just one paycheck, but he found ways to make it all work. He also found the money to keep Thomas involved in sports.
"I truly believe his Christian upbringing and sports, playing basketball and football, contributed to him releasing a lot of the anger and anxiety that he had in him," Brown said. "He left it on the basketball court, on the football field so it didn't get bottled up in him."
Thomas led all NFL receivers in TD receptions (14) and yards after the catch (718) this season while grabbing 92 passes for 1,430 yards. In the playoffs, he has 15 receptions for 188 yards and TDs in both of Denver's wins.
"Watching him mature as a football player and as a person has been tremendous," teammate Eric Decker said. "The guy has so much talent."
Brown says he just wanted Thomas to grow up to be a good man, never thinking he would become a star.
"The blessing has been just seeing the product of how we took this young man who was lost — well, trying to find his way — and we were able to nurture him and give him what he needed," said Brown, who will be in the stands Sunday. "When Demaryius was staying with us, I never dreamed that he would be in the Super Bowl. I just wanted to make sure the anger in him didn't send him down the wrong path like his mama and grand-mama had gone down."