ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Early after the Broncos‘ season ended without a trip to the playoffs for a second consecutive year, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas found himself in his home, doing what he does quite often: sitting in his family room in silence, with the TV off, reading. On any given day, Thomas could be reading about any given topic, but on that day, Thomas was perusing something that, he now believes, changed his life, his body and, in turn, his career.
More on that in a bit, though. First, let’s backtrack to how Thomas reached the point, following the first season in which he’d failed to top 1,000 receiving yards since the 2011 campaign, of seriously contemplating the day he’d retire.
Thomas has a belief that if you can play on Sunday, you don’t talk about your injuries. While fans and analysts have criticized his production, inability to create separation and streaky play in recent years, Thomas, without saying a word, has limped onto the field for all 16 games in each of the last six seasons. He says the labrum in his hip is partially torn, and that his hip has bothered him for years, going beyond an issue that cropped up at the beginning of the 2016 season. The past couple of seasons have been the most painful.
"For, like, the past two years, for real, it’s been my neck and my hip," Thomas told me last week as the two of us stood alone in an end zone on the Broncos‘ practice field. "It was just times I couldn’t compete my best. And you know, sometimes, I remember one game we were playing the Patriots, and the corner (Logan Ryan) called it out. He said, ‘You’re not yourself.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I’m doing whatever I can to try to get attention.’ "
His hip was so bad at times that Thomas literally couldn’t do the one simple task that’s required to play his position.
"Like, for real, with all the problems with my hip, especially with my hip, it was like, sometimes I couldn’t even stop," Thomas told me.
But Thomas felt that if he could line up every week and create the perception that nothing was physically wrong with him, the attention he drew from opposing defenders would allow fellow receiver Emmanuel Sanders or the running back coming out of the backfield a chance to find themselves with a favorable matchup.
"He played through a lot of injuries last year," second-year head coach Vance Joseph told me. "He’s had some wear and tear."
Thomas, who will turn 31 on Christmas, still works out from time to time with Peyton Manning, his former quarterback, but now their conversations are more about kids than route trees. He’s in his ninth NFL season and is the only offensive starter remaining on the 2018 Broncos who was teammates in Denver with a current baseball player named Tim Tebow.
Thomas is on the back nine of his career — but last season, he thought he was on the 18th green. Because of the intense pain he had played through in 2016 and ’17, Thomas honestly believed that either this upcoming campaign or the 2019 season (the last of his current contract) would mark the end of his playing days in the NFL.
He has said previously, including last offseason, that his hips were better. But now, after an offseason unlike any other in the past, Thomas has a new mindset and a body that feels exponentially improved.
"Now I’m thinking, 15 or 16 (years)," Thomas said with a smile, when discussing how long he thinks he’ll play. "Like, for real, I’m going to be like Larry Fitzgerald. Maybe even more. It just depends, you know? I mean, s—, tomorrow I could finish my career off of one crazy injury. But yeah, my mindset has changed."
What, precisely, sparked that change stems back to that day on the couch after last season’s 5-11 finish. Thomas, who tries to keep up with health and fitness magazines, was reading something — he doesn’t remember exactly what — about the relationship between inflammation and diet that opened his eyes to the notion of having his blood tested. While training in Arizona later in the offseason with Ian Danney at Performance Enhancement Professionals (PEP) (which is described on its website as a "state of the art wholly integrated sports performance center for the elite athlete"), Thomas was put in contact with doctors who would conduct the tests and evaluate the results.
A week later, he had what looked like a sheet of rules to follow from there on out.
You’re lacking in vitamin D.
You have had too much mercury.
Don’t eat these breads.
It clearly broke down everything his body was sensitive to, what inflamed his body and his hip. It also listed supplements that were lacking or needed. Changing what he drank was tough, but cutting out dairy was tougher.
For two weeks, under the guidance of Danney, Thomas continued to work out at PEP and consume his new diet and supplements at the gym. In 14 days, the 6-foot-3 Thomas went from 228 to 212 pounds. The idea of dropping below his playing weight was hard to swallow, but he felt great, physically. Putting the weight back on wasn’t an issue, either, once they figured out a new workout program.
The results of the new diet and an outside-of-the-box workout — much of his offseason training didn’t involve weights — are showcased each day of training camp. Thomas is lean, strong and motivated. He continues to follow the strict diet, using an in-home personal chef, and is having one of his best camps in years, according to multiple people around the Broncos.
Another motivating factor is the Broncos‘ selection in the 2018 NFL Draft of receivers Courtland Sutton (a second-round pick) and DaeSean Hamilton (a fourth-rounder). When you watch the two rookies in practice, you get the impression the Broncos drafted younger clones of their two-headed monster the last five years in Thomas and Sanders (who turned 31 in March). Denver believes both rookies will make an immediate impact, and Thomas agrees. He’s extremely complimentary of both. But at times, he questions where his relationship with the Broncos faithful stands.
"It be hurting me sometimes man," Thomas said of the fans’ opinion of him over the years. "I love my young guys … but they putting my young guys over me already, and they ain’t even played a down. I be like, alright, cool. It’s whatever. Everybody got their own opinion. I let it slide. I used to not let it slide. It used to, like, bother my game. So now it’s like, it is what it is. It’s like, (I have) no cares about it. I’m going to go out every week, I’m going to go out every day and I’m going to work my ass off every day to be the best I’m going to be. If my best ain’t good enough for here, then you never know."
Cornerback Chris Harris, a teammate of Thomas’ since 2011, says Thomas has a chance to be called the greatest receiver in Broncos history and will certainly be in the Broncos‘ Ring of Fame. Thomas wants to remain a Bronco for life, but the reality for a receiver in his 30s making his type of money is, this could be his final season in Denver, and he knows it. If this is indeed it, No. 88 doesn’t know exactly what his legacy will be, but he has thought about it.
"I do be thinking that," Thomas said in his soft Southern accent. "And sometimes, I’ll let the little stuff get in my head. Because there’s some fans here that don’t like me. I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I don’t cheer, I’ve had my drops here and there, but I don’t know why. But I’m going to keep playing for the organization, my teammates and myself. All the other people, I don’t got to worry about right now. I do it for the fans for sure; they ain’t got to do what we do from 6 to 8 o’clock. They ain’t got to go out there on the field and do what we do. I love the city, and I’ve been loving them since I got here. Since Day 1. Since me and Tebow. Since those days."
If he’s nearing the end in Denver, it looks as though Thomas is set up for a swan song. This offseason, the Broncos aggressively pursued Case Keenum, freeing Thomas from receiver purgatory and giving him a talented quarterback for the first time since he was racking up monster seasons with Manning. Combine that with his offseason transformation and the addition of young weapons to the offense, and Thomas could see this season be exactly what he envisioned it to be: pain-free, productive — and without too much free time for reading in January.
Follow James Palmer on Twitter @JamesPalmerTV.