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Demaryius Thomas, wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, was orphaned at 11 years old. But it's even more complicated than that.
He explains in a moving piece for The Players' Tribune that though both of his parents were still alive, his father was away in the military and his mother (and grandmother) had been hauled off to jail for running a drug operation in their rural Georgia town.
Not yet a football player, Thomas did what he could to take care of his sisters. He moved around, sleeping in different people's homes—aunts, pastors and eventually football coaches. He woke up early to pick corn and beans, to make money. He never stopped focusing on college: getting there, finishing. And most of all, he thought about his mother—away in prison and whom he wouldn't see for years and years.
It was her—no, her love, he says, that is the reason he survived and "got out." Love kept him on the path. Love.
"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," he writes.
Thomas has written the piece as an extension of having dedicated all of his November games—games which landed the Broncos in Sunday's playoffs—to I'm Me's November Campaign and the orphans of the world for Orphan Awareness Month.
"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," he says.
Thomas' story of his mother and her love gets better. From prison, she followed his rise, using a Sharpie to write his numbers on her prison uniform. Thomas says he didn't know if she'd ever get to watch him play, from the stands. Then he got the news:
"President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders," he writes. "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's restricted from travel, so the wait continues. But it's close. She's now free. Thomas, now a grown man, missed out growing up with his mom. But never her love, and that made all the difference.
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 DemaryiusThomasCampaign. Follow #RaiseYourVoice2015.
The Players' Tribune, founded in 2014 by former professional Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter, publishes first-person stories written by athletes. Content includes videos, podcasts, player polls and written pieces.
And look for Demaryius at the Superbowl in Santa Clara next month. The Broncos beat the Patriots yesterday 20 to 18. His mom would definitely be proud.