A letter from the president. So few are sent. Katrina Smith had to be special, and in a way she was, holding the letter from President Barack Obama that commuted an excessively severe prison sentence which had taken her away from society, away from a son who was to become a football star while she had become an inmate.
Demaryius Thomas was a sixth grader, 11 years old, when Smith and her own mother, Minnie Thomas, were convicted and incarcerated 16 years ago for making and selling crack cocaine in Georgia.
The women couldn’t pay bills. The only way they could make a dollar was illegally. That made no difference to authorities, intent on the letter of the law, not compassion. But last summer the White House sent pardons to 46 prisoners, including Smith, and issued a press release explaining “federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison.”
On Thursday, along with others in the Denver Broncos entourage, Smith, still a bit intimidated by a world outside prison bars, flew to the Bay Area where on Sunday Demaryius Thomas, now 27, now a star receiver, now with a five-year, $70-million contract, will be starting his second Super Bowl.
But only the first one Katrina Smith will see.
“She’ll basically be proud because of all the ups and downs we went through,” said Thomas. For Smith, more downs. For Thomas, a first-round pick from Georgia Tech in 2010 who holds the Broncos’ single season record for receiving yards (1,619 in 2014), more ups.
It’s been a strange, if wonderful, week for Thomas. One moment he was being asked how he’ll evade Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman who is to be matched against him—“He’s small, quick, moves very well,” Thomas said of Norman. The next moment Thomas is being about his mother, who has seen him play only once in his career, three weeks ago against Pittsburgh in the divisional championship. “It means a lot,” he insisted. “It’s her second time coming to see me play. It means the world.”
The world of Thomas’ teammate, defensive end Antonio Smith, was shattered when on Wednesday he received word that his father, Christopher Williams, had died. Williams, in an eerie parallel to Katrina Smith, was in an Oklahoma prison, sentenced in 1991 for a murder his family contended he didn’t commit.
Antonio Smith, upon hearing the news, thought of leaving camp but said he will play in the Super Bowl to salute the way his father lived his life after being sentenced.
“I would definitely say he was one of my biggest fans,” said Smith, “and he would have loved for me to play as best as I could for the glory of the Lord in the same way he lived his life,” Smith said. “So, I would say more of that.”
When Katrina Smith, now 47, went to prison, Thomas, not even in his teens, moved in with an aunt — who also was involved with drugs. “I didn’t want to be around that situation again because I saw what happened to my mom and granny,” he said. “I tried to put myself in a better situation. I had people talk to me, and I moved in with my daddy’s older sister.”
That would be Shirley Brown, along with her husband, James. They are the aunt and uncle who guided Demaryius toward a school with the academic reputation of the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I had to go to church,” Thomas said. “I had curfew. They kept me straight. I had the alarm clock set 7 o’clock every morning. Twelve o’clock, pick peas and cut grass. I was an usher in a church.
“If I wanted to go stay at somebody’s house I had to ask. Sometimes the answer was yes, sometimes it was no. And I hung around good guys.”
The word is he’s also one of the good guys. He’s handled himself with class this Super Bowl week. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has complained about the media demands—life is tough; players want to be in the spotlight of the Super Bowl, then when in the glare to slink away—but Thomas has dealt with a very difficult subject like a gentleman. Of course, with the Broncos having played in Super Bowl XLVIII, he knows the drill and the demands. If two years ago he could not have foreseen the current scenario.
“The main thing I’ve been thinking about,” he said in response to a question, “is having her out [of prison]. Hopefully not too many people bother her or say something to her.
“I don’t have to talk to her on the phone anymore. We can be in the same room, play together. It’s just special, and I know she’ll be sitting at the seat and know she’s there. It’s just like a dream come true.”