ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The catch, stiff-arm and sprint that extended the Broncos’ improbable season by at least six days was provided by a player whose body was finally primed for the rigors of the NFL after a series of injuries had defined most of his first two seasons.
Demaryius Thomas’s health woes was a foot injury suffered before the 2010 NFL Draft that wrecked his first offseason. The ankle injury suffered while catching a touchdown pass in an intra-squad scrimmage that hindered him throughout his rookie season. The torn Achilles tendon suffered in February 2011 that put his second season in doubt. Then, finally, the fractured pinkie finger that he suffered on the practice field during the week he returned from the Achilles injury.
The result was that Thomas missed 11 of the first 21 games of his career — and whispers among observers became groans as some began to saddle him with the loathed label of “first-round bust.”
“I thought about it a lot and I just kept saying to myself, ‘I’m always getting hurt,’” Thomas said.
But he never lost his belief that he could eventually flourish. His pre-ankle injury training-camp work in 2010 offered a tantalizing glimpse of what might be, as he repeatedly blistered defensive backs — yes, including the esteemed, Hall-of-Fame lock Champ Bailey — with an uncommon combination of speed, balletic airborne grace and power.
“I was never feeling like I couldn’t get healthy,” Thomas said. “It was just the freak accidents that were just happening. I knew once I got back on the field and got healthy, I can make some plays and help my team.”
Help he has, ever since returning to the lineup in Week 7 at Miami.
Many Broncos fans point to that game as the start of the team’s unfathomable transformation. That was Tim Tebow’s first 2011 start, and began an eight-game stretch in which the Broncos won as many times — seven — as they did in their previous 31.
But that was also the day that Thomas returned to the lineup, and for the first time as a professional, he’s been healthy for an extended stretch, playing in 12 consecutive games. In that run, he’s caught 36 passes for 755 yards — which would put him on a 1,000-yard pace for a 16-game schedule.
Not bad considering where he thought he would be after rupturing his Achilles tendon on a practice field at Georgia Tech, his alma mater, 11 months ago. Thomas was told that the recovery time would be eight to 12 months. The short end of that would have dragged his recovery into October; had it lingered on the long end, he would still be rehabilitating.
“I went to see my doctor. He told me I’d probably be out the whole year,” Thomas said. “That touched me a lot because I didn’t play much my first year and then he was telling me I was going to be out another year, that was my second year.”
No wonder he admits surprise at being where he is now.
“Because I talked to a couple of other players who had torn their Achilles and tried to come back early and messed it up again,” Thomas said. “And I came back and I was running, first day running routes, I wasn’t sore and I kept running and I never got sore. And it just got better and better every week.
“I asked (the doctor), ‘What’s the fastest somebody’s ever been back?’ He (said), ‘Five months.’ It maybe took me six months to get back to running.”
Thomas was ahead of schedule, but the Broncos didn’t know it because of the lockout.
“There wasn’t contact allowed with our medical people and players so we were a little bit in the dark as to how that rehab was going,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “Once we were able to have contact with the players he was way ahead of schedule.”
Thomas’s recovery was so rapid that the Broncos abandoned any thought of putting him on the physically-unable-to-perform list when the season began. That would have bought them two more months to decide whether he could be on the 53-man roster, but instead they committed to his place on that roster from the start of the season onward.
The fractured pinkie waylaid him, but the Broncos’ decision was soon rewarded — and on Sunday resulted in their most significant touchdown in 13 years. Thomas was strong enough to stiff-arm Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, fast enough to outrun everyone to the end zone and durable enough to carry the Broncos on his back all afternoon.
“Something my dad always tells me is that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” said defensive end Robert Ayers. “Not every guy who gets out the fastest in the 100-meter dash wins the race.
“You just have to keep working and keep fighting. He has been doing that.”