The bent soda cans were everywhere. That’s when I started to get a bad feeling. Every time I’d go outside to play in the yard, the cans were littered all over the grass. When I was really young, I used to think, “Why’s everybody drinking so much soda all the time?”
But where we lived, you grow up fast. It didn’t take long for me to put the pieces together. I noticed the chalky white powder, the little holes in the side of the cans. More than anything, I noticed the same familiar faces, and how their eyes looked.
They were using the cans to smoke crack.
There was a little trailer back behind where we lived where people would come and go. My mamma and grandma would go back there. They always told me to stay away from that trailer. I knew what was going on. I knew my grandma was running the operation. But I pretended that I didn’t. I just acted like nothing was happening.
But one night, when I was 11 years old, I had a really bad dream. I told my mamma, “I feel like something terrible is gonna happen.”
I was a mamma’s boy. She had me at 15, so we were close enough in age where we could play basketball against each other. We used to play one-on-one and race in the yard all the time. I’ll spare you the details about the environment we grew up in. You know the story. Drugs were just around. Dirt roads. Not much money to go around. My mom was doing what she thought she had to do to survive.
But I had this feeling.
“Mamma, something bad’s gonna happen.”
She told me everything would be OK.
A few months later … BOOM.
The loudest sound I ever heard. I was sleeping by the door when the men busted in. It was seven in the morning, right before school. The first thing I saw were the guns pointing at me. Big guns. Like in a movie. I didn’t know they were police. I just saw guns and red dots flashing. They told me to get down.
I laid on the floor and they went into my mom and stepdad’s room. They brought them out in handcuffs.
As they were walking my mamma to the police car, she said, “Can I please just take my kids to the school bus one last time?”
That’s when I knew. Hearing that, even at 11 years old, I realized that I wasn’t going to see my mom for a long, long time. It was real. She begged the police officers, and they agreed to let her walk us to the bus stop. When the bus pulled up, all the kids saw the police cars surrounding us. My mom kissed us on the cheek and waved goodbye.
The first thing the kids said when I got on the bus was, “Awwwww, ya’ll did something bad!” They started picking on me right away. You know how kids are. I looked out the window at my mom getting put into the police car.
I sat on that bus and told myself: Keep it inside. Don’t let them see it.
My father was in the military. My mother and stepfather and grandmother were locked up. From that day on, I was basically an orphan. I came home from school that day and I thought, Where do I go now? I was 11, so I couldn’t really work, but I still had to figure out a way to take care of my sisters. I told myself I was going to get a scholarship so I could get a degree and take care of my family. In the meantime, I had to do whatever I could. We were in rural Georgia. The good thing about rural Georgia is that you can always make some change working with your hands.
So I started pulling corn and pickin’ peas and butterbeans. Seriously, that was my job. I used to wake up at six in the morning and get to pullin’ before school. That’s hard work. Where I grew up, stupid situations were very easy to get into. I had a choice: the drug game, or the corn game. I kept thinking: just don’t screw up a chance to get to college. That was my light that I focused on.
My mom was eventually sent to prison in Tallahassee, Florida. I didn’t even get to visit her for years. The stability that I was used to was gone. I know that sounds crazy with the drugs all around me, but it was still a certain kind of stability. With my mom gone, my world was so empty. I stayed with whoever didn’t get mad at me that week. Aunties, my dad’s mother, whoever. I didn’t have much. If the house was burning down, I wouldn’t even have anything to grab. For real. Maybe a pair of shoes. That’s about it. I had three pairs of jeans I’d switch out.
It was lonely. I had no idea what I would do with my life. Or where I would be in a few years. At a certain point, I used to cry every night.
In fact, I’m gonna tell you this, just for all the kids out there reading this who are in a similar situation, who are holding it all inside. Even when I made it to the NFL, I’d cry some nights thinking about my mother, wondering if she would ever get out.
No amount of money, no amount of fame, no amount of anything in the world can replace your mother. I realized that holding it all in wasn’t good for me, and I reached out to a preacher who really helped me talk through it all. People think orphans are kids whose parents have died, but 80 percent of orphans in the world have at least one parent who is alive somewhere. There are millions of kids just like me all across the U.S., and hundreds of millions all over the world.
We rely on the kindness and the couches of others to get us through the day. I had multiple high school coaches who looked out for me. Multiple college coaches. Deacons. Pastors. Aunties. Uncles. Friends. If even one of those people had let me slip, would you even know my name? Maybe not.
I talk to a lot of kids who have parents in prison, or who left them when they were young for one reason or another. I know the anger. The pain. The fear. Especially the loneliness. They just want somebody to say, “I care about you.” But that doesn’t happen enough, so they get into trouble.
As men, as athletes especially, we don’t like to talk about love. We talk about brotherhood and all that, but not love. But it’s the most important thing in a child’s life. More important than the kind of school you go to, or what neighborhood you live in, or even if you grow up around drugs and violence. If you are loved, you’ll make it out.
For 15 years, my mamma was gone. She was in prison before I ever started playing football. She never got to see me take the field. Never got to see me graduate high school. Never got to see how I blocked my butt off at Georgia Tech running the triple-option and never complained, never quit. I didn’t have much to hold onto, except that I knew she was proud of me.
This summer, I was back home in Georgia when I got the news. President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. My mother was one of them. She was finally going to be free. She was going to get to see me play football. For the very first time. In the National Football League. She spent years making Thomas No. 88 jerseys with a Black Sharpie on her gray uniform. She watched me play in the Super Bowl on the prison TV. When I heard the news, I thought, Man, I’m finally gonna get to see her sitting in the stands in a real orange Broncos jersey.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I still can’t.
Recently, I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about my mother. It’s a little bit overwhelming. Her story is complicated. But this is what I want you to know about my mamma: She loved me. That’s the most important thing in the world.
My mother finally got her freedom last week. She’s restricted from traveling for 60 days, so I still have to wait a little bit to see her in the stands. But that’s not what matters. What really matters is that I’m going to get to hug my mother again. I can call her any time I want now. I don’t have to wait for her call. It’s a small thing, but it means so much. She got her little cell phone for the first time. We’ve been talking a lot. She says she wants to race me. She still thinks she can beat me.
The other day, we were talking about what she wants to do when she gets out, and it made me realize how much time we had lost. She said, “You know what I want? I want to get a Walkman.”
We got a lot of catching up to do, Mamma. I love you.
Demaryius is dedicating all of his November games to imME.org's November Campaign and the orphans of the world for Orphan Awareness Month.
To give to Demaryius’ campaign, or to find out how you can can save the lives of orphans in Haiti and around the world, visit bit.ly/DemaryiusThomasCampaign. #RaiseYourVoice2015