Mother, grandmother cheer for Broncos' Demaryius Thomas from behind bars

Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas answers a question during

Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas answers a question during media day for Super Bowl XLVIII in Newark, N.J. (Jan. 28, 2014) Photo Credit: AP

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Demaryius Thomas knows they'll be watching.

They have been all this time. And Sunday will be no different.

Thomas' mother, Katina Smith, and grandmother, Minnie Pearl Thomas, watched him grow up from afar, keeping tabs on his life and his four-year NFL career from inside Tallahassee's Correctional Facility. Now both women will watch him play in the biggest game of his career: Super Bowl XLVIII.

Smith, 41, and Minnie Thomas, 57, have been incarcerated on drug-trafficking charges for half of Demaryius Thomas' life. As a result, they've never seen him play football in person.

But both women tuned in to every Broncos game televised in the Florida correctional facility. And before every one of them, Smith constructed her own homemade "No. 88" jersey using tape to outline the numbers on the back of her T-shirt.

Thomas expects his mother to do the same on Sunday.

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"All of the ladies have the T-shirts and watch me, so that's special," said Thomas, the Broncos' No. 1 selection in the 2010 draft, who has tattoos that read "Family" and "First" on the inside of each biceps.

Before and after every game, Thomas waits for his phone to ring. Sometimes it's Minnie Pearl Thomas, inmate No. 89378-020. But most often he hears the voice of his mother -- inmate No. 89426-020.

Their conversations usually last no more than three minutes, but their talks sustain him until their next chat and his next game.

"I can never call them," said the Broncos' 26-year-old receiver. "They have to call me."

Thomas was 11 when police raided their Montrose, Ga., home just as he and his two younger sisters were about to start getting ready for school. His mother and grandmother were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine and cocaine base, and his mother was sentenced to 20 years. His grandmother -- who had two prior convictions for selling drugs -- received a life sentence. The two have been incarcerated at the minimum-security women's facility since 2000.

The bond between mother and son was especially tight, considering Demaryius Thomas' father, Bobby, served in the U.S. Army for much of his childhood. But after his mother and grandmother were sent to prison, Thomas lived with his aunt, Shirley Brown, and her husband, James, a preacher, who enrolled him in sports and raised him in the church.

And his mother and grandmother have been cheering him on the entire time. They watched from prison as he caught the game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to stun the Steelers in the playoffs in January 2012. And they've seen Thomas, a two-time Pro Bowler, emerge as one of Peyton Manning's most trusted weapons.

Thomas caught 92 passes for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns this season in the Broncos' record-setting offense.

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Linebacker Wesley Woodyard said the improvement in Thomas' game stems from his maturity.

"He's accepting that role of being a leader," Woodyard said. "When you're a first-round guy like that, people look up to you and you might question why. But now DT, he's the man. He comes to work every day, and it's amazing to see how mature he is. He's grown as a man."

Broncos coach John Fox repeatedly called Thomas "gifted" this past week, highlighting his height, athleticism and speed. And though Manning's arrival dramatically helped Thomas' statistics, Fox credited the wideout for putting in the work.

"He is one of the better athletes I've been blessed to be around," Fox said. "Ultimately, it goes back to the kind of person Demaryius is. He's definitely improved and become a much more polished receiver over the last couple of years, for sure. He gets all of the credit for that."

Thomas, meanwhile, credits his mother and grandmother for being his driving force.

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He longs for the day when his mother will be released, which, according to the Federal Correctional Institute's website, is June 25, 2017. Until that day, he plans to keep playing for them.

"You never know; one day you can be here and the next day you'll be gone," Thomas said. "So I take every day like it's my last, I play every football game like it's my last. I was brought up a Christian, I was raised around great people. They drive me more. To know that they're there and they're watching me, I try to go out there and play my best because they're going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse."

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