DENVER — Demaryius Thomas has never seen his favorite rooting section in action.
Visiting hours clash with Broncos games.
"From 9 to 3," he says. "That's when I can see them."
DT saw them a month ago, when the star wide receiver traveled to a federal prison in Florida. It was Mother's Day. Where else would he be? He played cards with his mom, Katina Smith, the woman who gave him the birthday present he'll never forget. "My first pair of Jordans," he says. He played board games with his grandma, Minnie Pearl Thomas, whom he calls "My Granny."
He cried when he left. A month later, he tears up just talking about it.
"I'm not ashamed to get emotional," Thomas says in a quiet hallway at the Broncos headquarters at Dove Valley. "She's my mama."
The folks with Broncos season tickets have a gift. On Sundays at Sports Authority Field, they watch a special athlete, one who combines track speed with 226 pounds of power, catch touchdown passes at a rate that would shatter Broncos records.
It's a gift his own mother has never known.
Roughly 15 years ago, Katina Smith was arrested and imprisoned on drug charges. Her son was 11 or 12.
"At first it was hard to forgive her," he says, and DT avoided the subject during his college career at Georgia Tech. As a kid he bounced between four houses in Georgia.
"She knows they made bad decisions. Now they're paying for it," DT says. "But that love never goes away; I don't care how old you get it."
His mom is why DT dreamed of playing at Florida State. "It was her favorite team, so I wanted to go there," he says, but a scholarship offer never came. She's why his favorite trip this offseason wasn't in Las Vegas or Cabo, but a prison in Tallahassee.
She's why the most important moment of DT's career, at least to him, wasn't the 80-yard playoff-winner from Tim Tebow, or the AFC championship game, or playing in the Super Bowl. His most important game hasn't happened yet.
"My mama has never seen me play a live football game," he says. "When that day comes..."
It will be a happy day.
"Honestly, it's hard. It's hard to go there, to prison, and see my mama and my granny locked up like that," he says. "When you meet her, you'll understand. I got what I have from her. Everybody says we looked alike, when I was a kid. She's got this big voice; she'll talk to anybody. She just talks. If she was here right now, she'd be out there talking to the media, up on that stage."
Um, DT, you're the quietest guy in the Broncos locker room. You avoid TV cameras as if they were cornerbacks.
"Yeah, I don't talk like that. But she was a basketball player. I got my athleticism from her. Those are the first memories I have, playing basketball with her, walking the streets with her. We did everything together."
You've all heard his story before. You know about DT's situation, how his father, an Army man, wasn't usually around, how his mother messed up, so she wasn't, either.
So why write about it now? Well, DT's next contract is coming, and, unless something weird happens, the Broncos will pay him the kind of money they've never paid a receiver.
And I expect DT will cry. Now you'll know why.
Lots of athletes say pro sports is a business, a means to take care of their family. It seems a tired refrain, a cliche that makes you wonder how much money they really need to take care of their family. It often makes you wonder where their heart is.
But when DT signs that next contract, you'll know where his heart is.
"I don't care when that (contract) gets done. I really don't," says Thomas, who would become an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season. "What I have now, I'm fine. Just as long as it's done by the time my mama gets out, that's all that matters to me."
He's not sure when that will be. DT says his mom could be released soon, into a halfway house, or "it could be a couple more years."
"We took some pictures when I was out there," he says, "So I could bring them home."
DT's star is rising: second-team All-Pro; 14 touchdowns seasons in 2013, tying a club record; featured playmaker in the most prolific offense in NFL history. All by age 26.
He prefers to stay in Colorado.
"I want to play here forever. I like Denver. It's a great organization. It's a great city. I love the fans. It is the best place I've played ball in. I'd like to play here forever."
He prefers, one day, to buy a house for his mom and two half-sisters. One will be a freshman basketball player at Darton State College in Georgia, one works as a correctional officer, he says.
"I want to bring the family back together," he says. "I want to make sure everything's OK for my mama, so she never has to worry about anything. We've got a lot of time to make up for."
Until then, his favorite rooting section will be a thousand miles away. He's met the women who, on Broncos Sundays, gather around a TV inside a Tallahassee prison. They root like crazy for Katina's son. They wear homemade T-shirts with the No. 88.