Business is business. But brotherhood is forever.
That's why Eric Decker and the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas haven't given up hope of playing together again.
"We always joke that we'll partner up again on the same team," Decker, the Jets' No. 1 receiver, told Newsday.
And if all goes according to his plan, Thomas -- who is scheduled to become a free agent in 2015 -- will join him with the Jets.
"I'm always trying to recruit him here," Decker said, smiling.
As he sat in an empty fieldhouse at the Jets' practice facility Thursday afternoon, Decker opened up about the bond he shares with Thomas, a former Broncos teammate who he said quickly became his "brother."
Long before Decker ditched burnt orange for Jets green, he and Thomas, 26, had made a pact to become the biggest receiving tandem in Denver since Super Bowl champions Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. And before Decker, 27, became a husband to country-pop star Jessie James Decker in 2013 and a doting father to 7-month-old Vivianne Rose, he and Thomas were inseparable.
Now the pair -- separated by more than 1,700 miles -- settle for texting at least once a week. But their correspondence picked up a bit with the Broncos preparing to play the Jets Sunday at MetLife Stadium
"He's hounding me for tickets," Decker said half-jokingly.
The best friends, who just happen to be NFL stars, already had made plans to spend time together before the game.
Said Decker: "Uncle DT's got to see Little Vivi."
Brother from another mother
On the surface, the 6-3 receivers don't appear to have much in common. But Decker, the All-American kid from the nearly all-white town of Cold Spring, Minnesota, and Thomas, a native of Montrose, Georgia, a rural community made up mostly of dirt roads, share small-town roots and values.
"I just love Decker because he was always the same 'Deck.' He never changed," Thomas said by phone Thursday afternoon from the Broncos' team facility in Englewood, Colorado.
Both are quiet by nature, but they found comfort in the fact that they could trust one another and keep each other laughing.
Though Decker's parents divorced when he was a kid, they made a point to attend his games. But Thomas' upbringing was far less stable. His father, Bobby, served in the Army for much of his childhood and his mother and grandmother have been incarcerated on drug-trafficking charges for half of his life.
Thomas has said the two women -- who were arrested during a police raid of their Georgia home when Thomas was 11 years old-- have never seen him play football in person. Instead, they have watched his games from inside a federal prison since 2000.
"He's a good soul," Decker said of Thomas, who eventually moved in with his aunt. "He's a guy who really has been through a lot and is a natural role model based on where he is today. He's just a humble dude -- and I think that's probably the coolest thing. A guy that is probably one of the best receivers in the league can just be a normal guy and is good with kids, good with people, and, obviously, deserves everything he has."
Their shared circumstances -- star athletes who signed with the same agent (Todd France), suffered pre-draft injuries and were selected by the Broncos in 2010 -- only solidified their bond.
"And then I moved in with him," Decker, the 87th overall pick, said with a laugh. "And from that point, our relationship just grew fast and it became like a brotherhood, for sure."
Thomas, a former Georgia Tech product with a thick Southern accent, was happy to share the Denver home he purchased after being drafted 22nd overall. The two continued to train together every offseason and took trips and played golf together.
Race was never an issue. But Thomas laughed when he considered the possibility that he might have been the first close black friend Decker ever had.
"All the guys I've met that he went to college with are not [black]," Thomas said. "When I was hanging out with them all the time, I was the only one. And I was fine with it."
Years later, Thomas was a groomsman in Decker's wedding.
"He's definitely my brother from another mother," Decker said.
That's why playing on different teams feels so odd.
Said Thomas: "I'm used to seeing him every day. But we're still close. Of course I miss him. We were together for four years, and now that he's gone, it's a little different."
Salt and Pepper
In Thomas, Decker saw someone he wanted to spend his entire career with. And before long, the two rookies were determined to be the next Smith and McCaffrey -- dual-threat receivers who would bring another Lombardi Trophy to Denver.
Soon they devised the nickname "Salt and Pepper." Eventually, that moniker gave way to "Black and Decker" -- another play on words and their distinctive racial differences. But their end goal was always the same.
"Me and Decker always talked about being the next two best wide receivers to come through Denver,'' Thomas said. "And we were on the verge of doing that."
With Peyton Manning as their quarterback in 2012, the pair of pass-catchers totaled 179 receptions, 2,498 receiving yards and 23 touchdowns. Between them, they had 179 catches, 2,718 receiving yards and 25 TDs in the 2013 regular season.
And then the Broncos ran into a buzzsaw -- the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
"It didn't end right," Thomas said, referring to their 43-8 loss on the NFL's biggest stage.
Although Thomas wanted what was best for his buddy, he selfishly wanted Decker to stay, but both friends knew the free agent's run in Denver was over. Decker said, "I kind of assumed I wasn't going to be back,'' and the Broncos backed that up by not trying very hard to keep him.
"There are only a few teams, in my situation, that really came after me and really desired me to be in their organization. . . . And the Jets were the first team to really show me that," said Decker, who signed a five-year, $36.25-million free-agent deal in March.
While the Broncos (3-1) are cruising, Decker is focused on getting his new team, which is 1-4, back on track and his sore right hamstring ready for game day.
Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off his best performance of the season: eight catches and a franchise-record 226 receiving yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals. He was named the AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
"Friendship is before the first whistle and after the ballgame is done," Decker said of facing Thomas' team on Sunday. "In between the lines, it's all about winning."
The Broncos' No. 1 receiver agrees.
"I'm fine with him doing well on Sunday -- as long as my team wins," Thomas said.
But both friends still cling to the idea of reuniting one day.
Business is business. But brotherhood is forever.
"There's some years down the road," Decker said, smiling again. "You can't say never."
"Yeah, we talked about it," Thomas said with a chuckle. "It wouldn't be bad at all. To start and then retire together, or however it ends, that'll be a good story to tell our kids."