My enduring memory of former Denver Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas is watching him streak across the middle of the field, catching a slant route from Tim Tebow on the first play of overtime, stiff-arming one defender, and out-running the rest to win a playoff game in 2012.
What Thomas could not outrun were the effects caused by multiple head traumas.
His reception against the Pittsburgh Steelers made him an NFL star and jumped started an extraordinary half-decade of excellence for the four-time Pro Bowler. It was also one of the first highlights post-mortem tributes showed when the 33-year-old Thomas died last December.
Just this past week, Boston University’s CTE Center confirmed that Thomas suffered from stage 2 chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The condition causes brain degeneration due to repeated head trauma.
Thomas’ death was not directly caused by CTE, but it certainly contributed to his pre-death mental decline. The player many in Broncos Country remember for his megawatt smile spent his final years struggling with paranoia, memory loss, painful headaches and seizures.
The seizures began not long after a 2019 car crash that caused his vehicle to roll multiple times just beyond Ball Arena. At the time, The Denver Post headline declared “Thomas suffers minor injuries after rollover crash.”
That is the pervasive problem with CTE and football players. It is the repetitive, “minor” injuries that ruin lives.
Years ago, in the late 1980s and early 90s, I had a boyhood friend who was the best athlete I knew. I once watched him strike out 20 batters in a Little League game, and he would be named Mr. Colorado Basketball during high school.
Tall, strong, smart and gifted with a cannon for an arm, he had the prototypical makeup of an NFL quarterback. But his dad was a doctor and adamantly refused to let him play football. He would not jeopardize his son’s long-term future for glory and riches earned on the gridiron. The son ended up becoming a physician himself.
Every time I see a story like Thomas’, I wonder how many parents would make a similar choice in retrospect.
It is a question that continues to haunt Thomas’ parents. His father has fallen into depression since his death and his mother — whose freedom is likely due to Thomas’ success, wealth and fame — seems torn between the “once-in-a-lifetime dream” her son experienced and the unbearable toll it exacted upon him and his family.
It is also a question that threatens America’s most popular sport.
Directly and indirectly responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs, tens of billions of dollars in revenue and the joy of fans across the country each fall, football is deeply ingrained in our society. Personally, I will watch most of the games played by the CU Buffs and Alabama Crimson Tide this year and I cannot wait to watch Russell Wilson take snaps for the Broncos.
It is also a path toward character building, college and future success for its players, even those who will never play at a collegiate or professional level. It certainly was an outlet from a troubled life for a young Thomas.
Despite its benefits, though, the costs continue to mount. NFL rule changes meant to increase player safety — changes forced by people like Dr. Bennet Omalu, the pathologist portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 movie “Concussion” — have made some impact, but not changed the underlying problem.
The human body was not meant to endure violent collisions, repeated over and over, tens of thousands of times. The problem is only exacerbated as players grow bigger, strong, faster, more explosive and more likely to produce hits that lead to injury.
My stepdaughter, who once suffered a scary sports-related concussion, once met Thomas in a Starbucks. She said he was kind and generous and humble. It is a shame we lost all of that even before Thomas lost his life.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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