Eleven seconds and 80 yards later, a perfectly threaded pass from Tim Tebow completed the shortest OT period in National Football League history. It also thrust 24-year-old Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas into the sporting spotlight with his swift sprint to the orange- and blue-shaded end zone.
He hails from the minute town of Montrose, Ga., where there were “maybe 100 people—maybe.” It took some adjustment to transition from rural southern sensibility to mile-high theater. “You can't really find good sweet tea,” soft-spoken Thomas says, “but I find McDonald's has the best.”
Thomas visited the University of New Mexico on Tuesday, April 3. He spoke in the Student Union Building with UNM wide receivers' coach Taylor Stubblefield about the NFL and growing up in small-town Georgia.
Though he's shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career, no one could have predicted such an authoritative dispatch of one of the most prolific defenses in the league. The first thought just before January's record-shattering reception? “Don't drop it,” Thomas says. “When I came out of the huddle, I was going to line up and saw the safety. We brought somebody in motion, and once I saw [the safety] come down it was like, This was going to be a big play.”
A stiff arm to Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Ike Taylor, and it was a dead heat to victory. “I knew if I had a couple steps on them, they weren't going to catch me.”
Thomas' speed combined with his height and large frame became a determining factor in how quickly he was selected during the 2010 NFL draft. He was the 22nd player taken overall and the first wide receiver picked.
Going in, he says he would have never suspected he’d get drafted in the first round. "I played in the triple option in college. You had people saying I couldn't run routes, I'm big and I can't run.” He broke his foot just a week before the combine where all of the league's scouts gather watch the highest-rated recruits compete. “To get drafted with the 22nd pick, I didn't know what to do. ... I didn't know what to say. I was just shocked, and I was happy.”
He went to Denver, and his first order of business was adjusting to the thinner air. Altitude sickness has long been considered the Broncos' 12th man. It's a real threat, and medical warnings are issued to visiting clubs. “When I first got drafted, and I first went up there, I actually walked up stairs and was like, What's wrong? and coach was like, It's the high altitude.”
“Nothing against Tim, but we've got a quarterback that's going to put more points up on the board than we did this past year."
When Thomas arrives in Denver to prepare for the new season, he has to allow at least three weeks to acclimate. “It's tough for other teams to come in, and it's a big advantage for us.”
During his interview, Thomas favors his pinky on his left hand. Stitches run the length of the finger. A plate and three screws were removed less than a week ago. “First day back at practice, I actually got hit on it. A Tebow ball right here"—a souvenir from the departing quarterback.
The famed Tebow and the media circus surrounding him were traded to the New York Jets during the off-season. The Denver Broncos will feature a drastically different style of play at the quarterback position with the arrival of former Indianapolis Colt Peyton Manning.
With a new QB comes a new collection of challenges for Thomas, including an audible-driven offense that's a staple of Manning's style. Manning is one of the most respected quarterbacks in the league because of his ability to read opposing defensive formations. When he surveys the field before the snap, he will "audible," or call out to his offensive teammates to modify a play and exploit the weaknesses of the defense.
“Tebow, we'd audible from a run to a pass. But now, from watching Peyton over the years, you can see him go from one play to another, back to the same and then to another one. I think that's going to be kind of tough,” Thomas says. “We just have to get in film, stay in the film room and know the same page he's on.”
Though Thomas plays offense, he says the QB change will help to improve the Broncos' much-maligned defense. “Nothing against Tim, but we've got a quarterback that's going to put more points up on the board than we did this past year."
Thomas' rise has not been without hurdles. In his short pro career, he’s battled through a handful of severe injuries that sapped a sizable amount of his playing time. An Achilles tear threatened to derail his entire 2011 season after injuries reduced his rookie season by six games.
Injuries are part of football, but Thomas encountered another sort of obstacle, too: He had to testify against former teammate Perrish Cox in February. Allegations of sexual assault arose after a night in 2010 when the two were hanging out in a Denver night club. A woman told police she was drugged and raped.
The experience left Thomas cautious. “I learned that I need to know who's in my surroundings and know where I need to be at the right time,” he says. “Always remember where you are and where you come from, and know who you're around.”
So who's on Thomas’ fantasy football team? He smiles and elects to play it safe in keeping most of his Denver Broncos cast fresh off of a rare postseason win. Two players are an exception: First, Chicago Bears linebacker and UNM alum Brian Urlacher because of his aggressive style of defense and leadership capability. “He could help us out, help the younger guys out that we have.” Urlacher is responsible for one of the hardest hits Thomas has received to date, he says.
His second outsider pick? Detroit Lions wide receiver and fellow Georgia Tech alum Calvin Johnson, nicknamed “Megatron” by fans due to his imposing frame.
Thomas favors his more common handle “Bay-Bay” as a nod to his father's nickname “Boo-Boo." But he's down to jump on the Transformers trend. “I'd be cool with Optimus Prime,” Thomas says. “I beat Megatron.”