Note: This is the first of a two-part story, the rest of which will appear later today at 3pm ET.
It’s a story that’s been seen in every city in America: Life becomes more and more difficult, and a family can’t manage the bills. In this family, as is far too common in black society here in the US, there was no husband; just two women - a mother and her daughter - and a young boy, living in Montrose, Georgia. That child, Demaryius Thomas, had been born on Christmas Eve 1987, one of three children. Demaryius also had two sisters, Tonecia and Tyeshia Smith. Like many people before them, they decided to accept values that were common in their own neighborhood. The older woman - grandmother to the child of the daughter that lived with her - began to sell drugs, starting with marijuana. It was illegal, dangerous for her, common in that strata of our society, and it made sure that food was on the table and a working roof was over their heads. She first sold marijuana, and was arrested and convicted for it within the first year that she began to sell it - in 1986.
Like most lower-level dealers, she also became attached to the ‘high’, the head rush, as well as the additional money. She moved up to crack cocaine, as a manufacturer, user and a dealer, and she was arrested on charges for that as well, after leaving prison with her cannabis conviction behind her. When she got out of prison, she relearned what she already knew - you can’t get a job if you’re a black woman in American society with two drug-related convictions on your record. She went back to selling crack cocaine, and producing it in her kitchen. She asked her daughter Katrina to hold the money for her on a small number of occasions, according to both women. And then the inevitable happened, and on the evening of March 15, 1999, the grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas had her house invaded by police officers in full SWAT gear for selling crack cocaine. With a third felony, she would be tried, convicted, and sentenced to two life sentences plus 40 years in jail. That was bad enough, but it didn’t stop there.
Feeling that their case was weaker than they wanted it to be, the authorities decided to lean on the daughter, Katrina Smith. They believed that she had been the ‘banker’, holding the money that her mother’s illegal activities brought in. The police saw an opportunity, took this information and insisted that she testify against her own mother. In a brutally difficult decision, knowing full well the possible consequences of the decision, Katrina refused. To apply more force to the issue, the district attorney gave her two options - spending 20 years in prison, or getting short punishment and a chance to be at home with her son, Demaryius, and her two girls as they grew up - if she only testified against her own mother. Katrina states that she had held money on less than a handful of occasions. I won’t take sides or make excuses for that, but I will say this - turning in someone in your family or being there to raise your son is an impossible choice. Making one of the hardest decisions of her life, Katrina Smith chose to refuse to do something that she saw as a betrayal of her own family and declined to cooperate with the police.
Whatever you may believe regarding crack cocaine - including the vast and inexplicable differences in the law between powder cocaine, a drug of choice among richer white users, and crack cocaine, which is predominantly a drug used by poorer people of color (There is a reverse urban rumor that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine, but medical research has long shown that this is untrue. They are of equal strength and equal harm) - there was a single reason why she would, knowing the consequences, choose to spend a long time in prison rather than testify in court. That reason can now be found tatooed on the inside right bicep of her son, Demaryius Thomas - the single word ‘Family’ - and on the inside of the left bicep - the sole word ‘First’. The young man has suffered greatly as a result of that decision, but whether or not he fully understands his mother’s actions, he obviously understands her reasoning and his love for her has in no way changed. The women have been in prison for 1/2 of Demaryius’ life. The fact that Demaryius has done as well in his life as he has is a testament to the will, maturity and strength of character of the young man. It’s also a testament to the man who became his mentor.
Demaryius was fortunate in the outcome of this situation - or, as fortunate as a young boy who just saw both his mother and grandmother going through the legal system and being sentenced to long terms in jail can ever be. Demaryius had an uncle who was willing to take him in, and to do a great deal more than that. Demaryius’ own father, Bobby Thomas, was in the military, and had been moved all over the globe. Thousands of our military have had to face this issue - the parents who have to leave behind spouses, lovers, children and aged parents, but who take on the brutally difficult job of the protection of their country. Given his deployments to Middle Eastern countries, he didn’t feel that he could provide a stable and safe home for his son. Demaryius had tried living with his mother’s sister, but it turned out that there were drugs in that house as well, and his aunt refused to let him participate in the one escape that had not let him down - sports. He had to move out, and did.
Demaryius had another aunt and uncle - his Aunt Shirley and his uncle, James Brown. They had a family of their own, with a younger boy named Ben and two older daughters, Angela and LaTonya. It took a lot of discussion and negotiation, but soon Demaryius had a stable home. And it was not just any home. Uncle James was a preacher, and he required that Demaryius live by the kind of standards that the other three children had learned to honor. It was not easy, but for a child with the kind of background that he had experienced, it was probably the best thing that could happen.
The family rose before dawn, and Bay Bay, as Demaryius was nicknamed as a child, would mow grass and pick peas by the bushel. The peas could be cooked or sold to augment a preacher’s meager salary. Demaryius became an usher, having been baptized by his uncle. His day ended with a no-discussion curfew of 11:30. Demaryius started to play point guard on a traveling basketball team. It was his first real taste of sports. When Bay Bay and his uncle decided that the boy needed more things to keep him occupied - he already carried a 3.5 GPA - Demaryius was permitted to go out for football. They didn’t know it at that time, but the life of Demaryius had just begun to change. It was a change that would take him down a very different road.
Thomas talked to his mother several times a week, usually for 15 minutes a phone call. He couldn’t handle visiting his mother and grandmother at the prison, emotionally, but he and his mother in particular were close, and she wasn’t shy about giving him advice. She wanted him to learn from her mistakes - he wasn’t ever going to repeat them. Thomas took her advice to heart - “I am NOT going to jail,” he said firmly.
DT had started playing football in middle school, finding that he had more free time than he wanted. he was instantly good at it. When he arrived at high school, the football coach’s eyes widened when he saw DT walking down the hall.
Thomas had played basketball all his life and didn’t start competing in organized football until the spring of his freshman year at West Laurens High School in Montrose, Ga. John Kenny still remembers crossing paths with Thomas shortly after he took over as the football coach at West Laurens.
“Who’s that kid?” Kenny asked the principal.
“Demaryius Thomas,” the principal answered.
“He wasn’t in my football meeting,’’ Kenny said. “I don’t remember him.’‘
“No, coach, he’s a basketball and track guy,” the principal said.
“Well, he’s a football guy now,” Kenny replied.
Sure enough, Kenny talked Thomas into participating in spring football his freshman year. Thomas would go on to play football at West Laurens for three more seasons and developed into a three-star prospect.
But he also continued to play basketball and filled a key role on West Laurens’ state championship team his sophomore year in high school. Former West Laurens basketball coach Paul Williams cites one play as evidence of Thomas’ extraordinary athleticism. Thomas threw the ball inbounds from under the opposing team’s basket. When the guy who caught the pass missed a 3-point shot, Thomas took one step inbounds and made a one-handed dunk.
“I think he could have played Division I basketball,” said Williams, now the coach at Camden County High School in Kingsland, Ga. “I called him ‘The Future.’ That was his nickname because I knew he was going to really good. He was something else. He was a hard worker. He had all the tools.”
DT found that he liked football and moved from position to position until he started a game his sophomore year - cornerback, that day - and settled at wide receiver in his junior year of high school. By his senior year, he was already 6’3” and 210 lb. Also in high school, he was a first-team all-state selection in Class AA by the AJC and a PrepStar All-Region selection. Demaryius was also a two-time all-region and All-Heart of Georgia choice. He was selected for the GACA North-South All-Star game, and as a senior, he had 56 catches for 756 yards and seven touchdowns, following 32 receptions for 330 yards and three scores as a junior. In HS, he was coached in football by John Kenny. But Bay Bay also played on a state championship basketball team, and he knew in his heart that he could be a professional in either sport. He had a decision to make.