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ESPN's Rick Riley on Decker and Thomas: "Winning Together"

01/10/2013, 9:00am CST
By ESPN.com

The following column comes from the legendary Rick Reilly.  The story column focuses on former Gopher legend Eric Decker and his current Denver teammate Demaryius Thomas and their growth as teammates from a struggling AFC team to the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.

From ESPN.com...

They're the same size, same age and both went from Tim Tebow (F-150) to Peyton Manning (F18).

They're both country, both unmarried heartthrobs and both as quiet as a Las Vegas Sunday morning.

They became the youngest teammates in NFL history to go for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in the same season.

They have the same agent, same marketing guy and once lived together as rookies.

"They're the exact same guy," says Denver Broncos teammate Greg Orton, "just different colors."

Until game days, that is.

On most game days in Denver, Eric Decker’s mom flies in from Minnesota, sits in the stands and often has dinner afterward with Decker and his fiancée, country music singer Jessie James.

On most game days, Demaryius Thomas' mom puts on her white No. 88 T-shirts, along with 30 of her closest friends, and watches Demaryius play on one of the little TVs at the women's federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla. The T-shirts are white because colors aren't allowed in the prison.

They never miss his games, yet they've never seen one live, not in the NFL, not in college, not in high school.

His mom, Katina (Tina) Smith, had Demaryius when she was only 15, on Christmas Day, 1987. When he was 12, his grandmother, Minnie Thomas, was sentenced to two lifetime sentences for cocaine trafficking and his mother got 20 years for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine, after refusing to testify against Minnie.

Spending the last 13 years in jail has been hard on everybody, and that includes the child they always called Bey-Bey.

"I used to get angry about it," Demaryius says. "I'd get really, really angry. I wouldn't talk to nobody. But I've grown up."

Now he visits them when he can get to Florida, and talks and prays with his mother over the phone before and after every game, which isn't easy.

"I send my mom money so she can call me before and after every game," says Thomas, who wound up being raised by his uncle. "It's our tradition. Have to talk to my mom before the game."

There's been a lot to talk about. How Thomas went from 32 catches for 551 yards with Tebow (and Kyle Orton) at QB last year to 94 catches for 1,434 yards with Manning this year. How thrilled he is to finally make it through a regular season without getting hurt (he says it's the praying). And how a white teammate from the far north, Eric Decker, has become best friend to a black kid from Georgia. ("Black and Decker," they like to call themselves.)

You might become best friends, too, if you both had to deal with the joy and the hell of playing with a picky perfectionist like Manning every day.

"Our favorite," Decker says, "is when he comes to you on the sideline after you screw up and asks you a question he already knows the answer to. He'll be like, 'Now, on the down and in, are you supposed to cut that up at 5 yards or 7?' And you'll be like, 'Five,' even though you both know you were at 7. And he'll be like, 'Oh, OK. Thanks.'"

People think Manning has done for Decker and Thomas what Madonna did for bras. But they might try looking at it from the other end.

When Broncos boss John Elway was trying to convince Manning to sign with Denver, "my big selling point was those two receivers," Elway says. "He didn't know how good they were. I said, 'They're both 6-3, 225. One [Thomas] runs a 4.4 and the other runs a 4.5 40. And they're both young [25]. I sold him. I think those two guys get underplayed in all this."

Manning doesn't underplay them now. He's been amazed how fast they've checked off the boxes on his Manning Must-Do list.

"It's kind of been like cramming for a test and I think both of those guys have put in the time to cram," says Manning, who's 11 years older. "We've really worked in the short time that we've had together."

It's also helped that wherever Manning seems to throw it, Black and Decker find the tools to pull it in. In the final game against Kansas City, Thomas went up so high for a touchdown catch you'd think he was doing the Indian rope trick. And Decker performed a Greg Louganis swan dive to come up with another.

With Manning signed for four more years, and Decker and Thomas becoming one of the two best receiving tandems in the NFL (along with Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones), you'd think Thomas' goal would be Pro Bowls, Super Bowls or the Hall of Fame. But it's not. His goal is just to keep playing for at least five more years.

That's when he thinks his mom could be out.

She's not scheduled to be released until 2019, but Florida lawmakers are considering a law to ease prison overcrowding, releasing some nonviolent convicts who've served at least half of their terms. Depending on the final version of the bill, and whether it passes, Smith could be out by 2017.

He'd be in his eighth year then.

"That's my major goal," he says, "to still be playing when she gets out."

He's dreamed of that day: bringing her to the game, where she'll sit, how often he'll look at her, and she at her Bey-Bey.

"Both of them," he says, referring to his grandmother as well. "I'd love to get both of them to a game someday. That would be ... wow. That's going to be a happy day."

Some Christmas gifts you get a little late.

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