Commentary

From prison, two fans root for No. 88

Demaryius Thomas' mother, grandmother can watch only from afar

Updated: January 28, 2014, 4:57 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

On the phone from Tallahassee, Fla., Katina Smith and Minnie Pearl Thomas made it clear they would do anything for the chance to confront some unforgiving New Jersey weather on Super Bowl Sunday. If they could, they would pay top dollar for the top row of MetLife Stadium to watch Smith's son and Thomas' grandson, Demaryius, catch passes from Peyton Manning while being covered by Richard Sherman.

But Smith, Inmate No. 89426-020, and Thomas, Inmate No. 89378-020, have no choice but to settle for their room-temperature seats in front of a community TV inside the low-security Federal Correctional Institution that houses them. They will watch the Denver Broncos play the Seattle Seahawks with dozens of fellow female inmates, many of them wearing T-shirts carrying Demaryius' number, 88, and some wearing his number and initials on their cheeks.

"It will be a bittersweet situation," Smith said Monday night. "Sweet that my son made it to this point, and bitter that I'm not there to celebrate this time in his life."

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyBroncos receiver Demaryius Thomas has always answered a call from his mother, Katina Smith, on game day; Super Bowl Sunday will be the same.

They are convicted drug traffickers, Katina and Minnie Pearl, and you'd never know it by talking to them and measuring their yes-sir, no-sir approach for close to an hour. Some 15 years after the cops stormed their Georgia home and busted their crack cocaine operation while 11-year-old Demaryius lay terrified in his bed, Katina and Minnie Pearl serve as mentors and role models among the 1,116 women incarcerated in the FCI. According to Edith Barefoot, the facility's public information officer, Demaryius' mother and grandmother are so respectful of staff and so committed to their jobs and classes, and to the betterment of younger inmates, that they've been granted preferred housing as a reward.

They bunk together, the grandmother rising early to work as a clerk, the mother to work in the commissary, from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week, before attending church or exercise class.

Demaryius visits when he can, and talks to them all of the time by phone. They already have called him this week, and plan to call again before kickoff Sunday.

The conversations help get the women through their day, and for Smith, so does the prospect of a release to a halfway house on Christmas 2016 -- Demaryius' 29th birthday. Minnie Pearl, 57, stands as a three-time drug offender and the chief maker and seller of the crack cocaine, leaving her with no such reprieve. On the FCI website, her listed release date reads:

LIFE.

"I had four kids and didn't have the means to make ends meet," Minnie Pearl said. "My husband and I were separated, and I just couldn't get the things that they needed, that I wanted them to have, like the other kids. I know I shouldn't have done it, but I did it anyway.

"That was an entirely different person. That person was mean, hateful, she didn't care, she was boastful, but she's none of that anymore. She's a totally different person."

The kind of person, and grandmother, worthy of the forgiveness Demaryius ultimately granted Minnie Pearl and her daughter.

"I am a woman of integrity," Minnie Pearl said. She explained that she has a rock-solid reputation among the officers and inmates alike, that she was entrusted to serve as a companion on another woman's suicide watch, and that her daughter joined her in the cause of making Demaryius proud.

"We don't want his peers to see us acting out of order in no kind of way," Minnie Pearl said. "We want to uphold a certain standard."

The Demaryius Thomas standard. Raised by an aunt and uncle after his mother's arrest, and after his father realized his life in the Army made full-time parenting impossible, Demaryius grew into a world-class wide receiver who doesn't believe in trash talk, and who has never put himself on the wrong side of the law.

"It's been a blessing to watch him evolve," Smith said. "I don't want to sound too boastful, but I'm a very proud mother. He had the choice of taking the wrong path or the right path, and he chose the right path even though he had all those negative situations around him."

In the wake of her February 2000 conviction, Smith could tell through her son's body language on visits, and through his lack of engagement on the phone, that he felt betrayed by her. Young Demaryius had asked her to stop dealing drugs, had shared a nightmare he'd had of her being hauled off to jail, and she didn't heed his warnings.

As the cops broke through her door in the early morning hours of March 15, 1999, Smith was jolted from her sleep by what she called "a big boom." Demaryius and his two sisters were in their bedrooms, and Minnie Pearl said it was "very scary waking up to infrared lights and screaming."

Smith asked the police if she could at least walk her children to their school bus, free of handcuffs, and the police obliged. She kissed her kids on their foreheads, assured them she loved them, and told them to look out for each other.

Smith would reject the prosecution's offer of a reduced sentence in exchange for her testimony against Minnie Pearl, and ended up with 20 years. "I couldn't live with myself if I was the reason my mom was in prison," Smith said. "At the same time I let my kids get raised by someone else. It was a no-win situation for me."

And one Minnie Pearl tried to manage for her.

"She's very loyal," she said of her daughter. "But I told her many times that she could talk, that she could testify."

All these years later, Smith doesn't regret her decision. She only regrets the fact that her son -- the child she gave birth to as a 16-year-old child herself -- grew up without her, and that she never saw him play high school, college or professional football.

Except on the prison TV. When Tim Tebow threw that touchdown pass to Demaryius to beat Pittsburgh in a playoff game, Smith said she was screaming so loudly that other inmates had to calm her down. Denver's AFC Championship Game victory over New England was met with a similar response.

Smith expects as many as 50 women to gather around their dormitory TV to watch Demaryius play in the Super Bowl, with at least a few carrying pompoms. Of course Minnie Pearl will be there, too. She still believes that somehow, some way, she'll be paroled out of her life sentence in time to see Demaryius play in the NFL. But just in case, she'll find a way to will herself into the MetLife stands.

"It's like I'm in the stadium when I'm watching," Minnie Pearl said. "I go there. I'm not there, but I take myself there. I visualize. ... I don't have the words to explain it."

Just knowing that his mother and grandmother will be watching, Demaryius said Monday, inspires him to "try to go out and play my best because I always know they can talk about it to the people in the jailhouse." Smith said she had called him while he was attending Georgia Tech for the purpose of explaining everything that had gone down, for the purpose of apologizing and reconnecting and asking for forgiveness. This is why the good son now wants to play what he called "the game of his life."

But before he gets the chance to play his inspired brand of football against Sherman's Seahawks, Demaryius will get a phone call from his mother. She always calls on the morning of game day. She always tells him to find a way to stay healthy, and to not be too hard on himself if he makes a mistake. She always prays with him, too, sometimes quoting from Scripture.

The call this Sunday likely will be more emotional than most. It's the Super Bowl, after all, an event tailor-made for a loving parent.

"I won't be there in the stands," Smith said. "I won't be able to look at his face, to kiss him, to tell him how proud I am."

She'll stay warm on Super Bowl Sunday at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee instead, and it's a damn shame. Like her own mom, Katina Smith would much rather freeze on February's answer to Mother's Day at MetLife.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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