The NFL world is reeling after the sudden death of former Pro Bowl receiver Demaryius Thomas at age 33 late Thursday night, including in the New York Jets locker room where Thomas spent the final days of his remarkable career.
Thomas was found dead in his home in Roswell, Georgia, on Thursday night. Police said that preliminary reports show Thomas might have died from a medical issue.
Thomas was traded to the Jets from the Patriots after Week 1 of the 2019 season and played only one year with the team. But he made a huge impact in the locker room.
MORE REACTION:NFL world left “devastated” by death of Demaryius Thomas
WHAT WE KNOW:No cause of death released, autopsy to be performed
“This one hurts,” Jets receiver Braxton Berrios tweeted Friday. “DT was one of the most genuine, kind-hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Taken way too soon..Rest easy DT.”
“I thank you for all our talks!!” Safety Marcus Maye wrote on Twitter. “You touched so many people! You will be missed by us all.”
Jets coach Robert Saleh never worked directly with Thomas. But Saleh said it was well known around the league the kind of player and person Thomas was.
“Just an absolute tragedy,” Saleh said Friday morning, adding that it was always a challenge preparing to face him when he was an assistant coach with the Seahawks. “I’ve heard he’s an unbelievable pro. They produced a lot when he was at Denver. A lot of wars in Seattle too, a lot of playing those guys. Just a shame. And I’m sure there are a lot of hurt hearts in the football community for sure.”
The Jets posted a photo of Thomas in his Jets uniform on social media with an accompanying statement.
“A brilliant career on the field with a light that always shone brighter off it,” the statement read. “Gone way too soon. But your impact remains. Rest in Peace, Demaryius.”
Thomas’ accomplishments alone would have given him instant credibility with his teammates. The 2010 first-round pick had a quiet start to his career, until a flash of brilliance late in his second season: in the 2011 Wild Card round Thomas caught a Tim Tebow pass on the first play of overtime and took it 80 yards to win the game and send the Broncos to the Divisional round.
The next year, Peyton Manning arrived in Denver and Thomas quickly became one of the best receivers in the NFL. Thomas earned Pro Bowl selections in four of the next five seasons. He led the Broncos in receiving yards and touchdowns in 2013, when Denver set the NFL records for touchdowns and points scored in a single season and Manning set the all-time marks for passing touchdowns and passing yardage.
When the Broncos won the Super Bowl after the 2015 season, Thomas was again their leading receiver. During that remarkable stretch, he became one of only four receivers in NFL history with at least 90 catches and 1,300 yards in four straight seasons.
But that’s not what stood out to those who had the chance to work closely with Thomas, like Giants coach Joe Judge who was the Patriots special teams coordinator for Thomas’ five-month stay in New England before the Jets trade.
“You can take all his athletic accomplishments and they don’t hold a candle to the kind of person he was,” Judge said Friday. “Just character, and just quality human being. Look, I got to coach him for a brief period of time. But I’d say the impact he had on me as a coach and some of my approach to the game with a lot of the players was profound.”
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Thomas was recovering from an injury for most of his time with the Patriots. But Judge said he still managed to become a respected and active leader in the locker room. Judge said Thomas spent hours in his office sharing wisdom from his perspective as a player and talking through techniques and game plans.
“It was tremendous,” Judge said. “But all the football stuff aside, like, none of that holds a candle to what kind of person this guy was. I think everybody he interacted with he impacted. And there’s a lot of guys in our building, a lot of guys throughout the league that are affected by this.”
The current Jets have fewer than 15 players remaining on the roster who shared the locker room with Thomas two years ago, as they continue to rebuild. But in that 2019 locker room, he had exactly the kind of impact that Judge saw in New England.
He was kind and approachable to reporters who visited his locker seeking insight. He was willing to listen to young teammates and eager to pass on the lessons he learned, both on and off the field. It’s what made him beloved among his peers in that locker room.
Two months after Thomas was traded to the Jets, his teammates made him a captain for the final half of the season.
“It means a lot,” Thomas said then. “I’m going to try to help the lead the team and teach them some of the stuff I learned in my career being around Tom (Brady), Peyton Manning, Brian Dawkins, Champ Bailey … and just try to adapt it here
“I think that’s one of the reasons why they voted me in. I appreciate it. I respect it. It meant a lot.”