This story appears in the Jan. 19, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
"I believe in the warrior’s mentality. I love kung fu movies, hero stuff, the way that life is discipline. I can relate. I got that warrior blood, bro.”
The Seahawks’ locker room is almost empty as Earl Thomas III, Seattle’s resident free safety and free spirit, settles into a recliner. He says, “I might be the most interesting man in the world,” and then begins to talk about tattoos and Bruce Lee and something he told a reporter earlier this season about how “friction caused this blossom of love to happen”—the “blossom of love” being his defense’s midseason rejuvenation. Or something.
A conversation with Thomas meanders through time and place and various loosely related topics. It’s about football, mostly—well, sort of—and the Seahawks and their title defense, which they bolstered with a 31-17 victory over the Panthers last Saturday to again reach the NFC Championship Game.
This is the kind of stuff Earl Thomas says. On mowing the lawn at age six: “When I started cutting the grass, everything went silent, just like in a football game. You have the design, the lines, everything neat and crisp. That’s pride in your craft, Jack.”
On his love of football: “It always hits the most, bro, when we have a break. I come back and I just want to kiss the grass. I can be free.”
On his legacy: “My life is basically a big chunk of greatness.”
In the most sanitized of sports, where Bill Belichick can conduct an entire news conference with just the words “We’re on to Cincinnati” and where no one says anything that might harm the brand, it’s refreshing to hear Thomas analyze and philosophize and meditate and, well, say a whole bunch of metaphysical s---. That candidness, Thomas says, demonstrates his approach to life, an ethos centered on rhythm and flow and authenticity that extends from the grocery store into the film room and onto the football field. “Earl is unlike anyone I’ve ever met,” says Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, one of Thomas’s best friends. He means that in a good way. “He’s just ... different.”
Thomas’s rivers of consciousness always flow back to the sport that means so much to him that he had a tattoo of a bloody football inked onto his right biceps. An hour after starting, he’s still talking—about being perhaps the best player on the best defense in football and about Seattle’s playoff run and its potential to become the first team in a decade to repeat as Super Bowl champion. He’s all football. During the season Thomas will go out on the town maybe three times—and when he does, like on the Friday night before the wild-card round, during a bye week for Seattle, he talks to his brother only about practice. Or like the night last June when the Seahawks received their Super Bowl rings and Usher performed a private concert and Thomas left early to watch film.
“It’s that border between genius and madness,” says Kris Richard, the Seahawks’ secondary coach. Struggling for the right way to further explain Thomas, he asks, “What made Mozart Mozart?”
"Of course I’m going to learn from the greats—Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu. But there’s a lot of unfinished work they didn’t do. I want to be the standard. I want to redefine what it means to be a safety."
If such proclamations sound ambitious, consider the defensive backfield in which Thomas plays. In 2010, Seattle drafted Thomas in the first round and Kam Chancellor, a quarterback who’d converted to strong safety, in the fifth. The following year they selected Richard Sherman, a -receiver-turned-cornerback, also in the fifth, and signed another corner, Brandon Browner, from the CFL.
The collective more closely resembled a basketball team than a secondary. Everyone but Thomas stood at least 6-foot-3. (Too tall, according to conventional standards for D-backs.) At 5-foot-10, Thomas was the outlier—the shortest and the only early-round pick. One nickname for the group played on his stature: Three and a Half Men. They ended up being known as the Legion of Boom instead.
Four years later Thomas is the unit’s catalyst, a perennial All-Pro who signed a four-year extension this off-season worth more than $25 million guaranteed. Before practices he sits at his locker in a trance, ears covered by headphones, eyes focused straight ahead. “He’s going into his world,” says Chancellor. “You let him go. Then you meet him on the green.”
On the field Thomas doesn’t rest; he paces. He doesn’t slow; he speeds. In college, at Texas, defensive linemen complained about how he was always careering into their backs. In walkthroughs.
Thomas is the fastest and rangiest safety in pro football. His ability to cover wide swaths of turf is the cornerstone of a defensive scheme that has yielded the fewest points in the NFL in each of the past three seasons, a feat last accomplished by the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters, from 1969 to ’71.
In a nutshell, Thomas provides freedom. He allows the Seahawks to play more single-high coverage than most teams. To demonstrate, Richard asks that you picture an umbrella with its edges marked by the cornerbacks on the outside and Thomas sitting deep in the middle between them, leaving eight other defenders with far less ground to cover in front of him. The cornerbacks can be more aggressive with Thomas floating behind, ready to extinguish their mistakes. The rest of the defense can focus on stopping the run or double-teaming elite pass catchers. “I’ve never seen a guy cover the middle the way he does,” says Jeremy Lane, Seattle’s nickel corner.
That was evident from the outset against the Panthers, as Thomas forced a fumble with a karate chop of Jonathan Stewart on Carolina’s first offensive play. He finished with a team-high 11 tackles and two passes defended, and he nearly hauled in an interception. And it was his play at backstop that allowed strong safety Kam Chancellor to be Kam Chancellor—to attack Cam Newton and nab a fourth-quarter interception that he returned 90 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
Thomas’s presence was equally notable in the throws Newton didn’t dare attempt. That’s normal. Opponents rarely try post and seam routes in the section of the field that the safety calls Area 29, after his jersey number. According to NFLsavant.com, teams have attempted a league-low 10 deep-middle passes against the Seahawks this season, or 1.87 percent of their total throws. They completed only four of those.
“He’s so vital,” says Richard. “He’s our eraser. Any big play, we count on him to eliminate it.”
That consistent dominance has teammates like defensive end Michael Bennett drawing comparisons between this Seahawks defense and the top D’s of all time. “It’s a fair comparison,” says Ed Reed, a future Hall of Famer who sat out this year yet hasn’t quite retired. But what separates it from all the others in the discussion is its youth. Thomas is 25. Sherman and Chancellor and Byron Maxwell (who replaced Browner when he departed after last season for the Patriots) are 26.
“Who says we have to be usual?” says Chancellor. “We’re in a league of our own.”
"I’ve been around a lot of great players, but they don’t love football the way people in Orange, Texas, love football. It’s pure. That’s why I’m a rebel: because I protect my inner kid, my passions. I’ll bump my head being me."
Debbie Thomas calls Earl her “miracle baby.” In 1987 doctors diagnosed her with cervical cancer. They gave her six months to live. She sought specialists for second and third and fourth opinions, and each one told her the same thing. Six months.
She put off a hysterectomy as long as she could, then drove to the hospital two months after her initial diagnosis. But after more tests doctors were perplexed. The cancer had vanished. Two years later, with a clean bill of health, she gave birth to a son, who her husband, Earl Jr., says was born to play defensive back. “His first crawl was backward,” he says. “I thought something was wrong with him.”
Orange is located deep in southeastern Texas, near the Louisiana border; it has a population around 19,000, a DuPont plant and a Walmart. “It’s still kind of hidden,” says Oscar Giles, who recruited the area for Texas before moving to Louisiana Tech. “And it’s all football—but football the way it was 40 years ago. It’s not glamorous.”
There the first Earl Thomas labored at the same grocery store for 50 years and still managed to start a ministry and open his own church. He passed that work ethic on to his son, who eventually passed it on to his own two children, Earl III and Seth. When Earl III was five, his father introduced a drill that he called “shotgun alley”: He lined up four trash cans in the garage and situated his boys opposite each other, one of them looking for a tackle. “That’s a crying shame,” one of their aunts would say. “They’re hitting like grown men.”
Earl played sports year-round, shifting from football to basketball to track to baseball. He won a drum set when he was four and learned to play. He also picked up saxophone, piano and the organ—all of which he would play (when he wasn’t singing) in front of the congregation at his grandfather’s Sixth Street Community Church. At halftime of his high school football games he drummed with the band; when he wasn’t playing a sport, he and his friends enjoyed marathon jam sessions that they called “shedding.” Even now, he says, he can learn songs by ear in two to three hours. “I’m all about rhythm and feel,” he says. “I love my creative nature. I love my imagination. That’s football and music. I just feel a lot of stuff.”
Eventually, Giles visited West Orange–Stark High to recruit a touted D-back named Deon Beasley, who later signed with Texas. As he watched Beasley, someone told him, “You need to keep an eye on that kid,” and pointed to Earl III.
That someone was his dad. The whole Thomas family talks big.
"I don’t live life like everybody else. I guess I just see differently. They found that out at Texas."
In September 2005, when Thomas was a high school junior, Hurricane Rita tore through Orange, ripping houses from their foundations and toppling trees. One of those trees landed on the Thomas house, which collapsed into a pile of bricks.
The family moved into a Motel 6 room with two beds: The parents shared one, the brothers shared the other. They ate most of their meals at the Waffle House across the street, the future All-Pro always ordering the All-Star Special, a gut-busting combo of waffles, scrambled eggs, grits and sausage. Eventually they upgraded to a FEMA trailer with bunk beds and a kitchen.
Thomas’s recruitment took place amid this turmoil, but if it bothered him, he never let on. Back then he didn’t talk much anyway. “Earl’s from small-town Texas, population you and me,” says Blake Gideon, a college teammate. “That was reflected in how shy he was. He wasn’t soft-spoken; he just didn’t have much to say. We found out more about him on the football field.”
Thomas arrived at Texas as a two-way star (receiver-running back and cornerback) but asked to redshirt his first season because he was so far down the corner depth chart. He believes that because he was so quiet, he was mistaken for arrogant. “Mack Brown was judging me too much at first,” he says of Texas’s then coach. “He didn’t know me. I really wanted to transfer. I was pissed.”
Thomas moved to safety for his redshirt freshman season, and as he grew comfortable he started to talk more, to lead by words as much as by example. Part of that was simple maturation, but it was as much about learning the impact he could make on the field, where his nation-high 24 passes defended earned him All-America accolades in 2009. He finally felt worthy of voicing the opinions he once kept inside.
Brown says Thomas became one of his favorite players. He jumped so many routes in practice that receivers complained that he knew the plays. One day during his third season in Austin he overslept and missed a team meeting in which the Longhorns were installing their defense for that week’s game. A week later, on installation day, his position coach arrived at 4 a.m. and found Thomas asleep in front of his locker. He did that on installation day for months.
Thomas entered the draft following his redshirt sophomore season. He needed to provide for his family. That, and “it was definitely time,” he says. “I had to take my talents to South Beach.”
"If you look at this Seahawks secondary, and you look at the Texas secondary, it’s the same thing. You see greatness. I’m always talking about greatness. I’m always around greatness. That’s it, bro. Greatness."
Thomas says he completed the transformation from silent college freshman to loquacious free spirit about two seasons ago. He believes the change was sparked by being away from home, where his parents emphasized discipline, and by time he spent alone, thinking about his personality, his goals and something football players rarely talk about: his emotions. “I just started feeling like I really know how to feel,” he says. “I found my inner peace. I’m in touch with my warrior spirit.”
Thomas recently took up reading. He devoured the Bible and motivational books and started to write in a journal. After football, he wants to go back to school—he says he’ll major in psychology. After that he imagines a career as a life coach. “He’s a whole different guy now,” says Seth. "I’m like, 'Man, where is all this coming from?'"
Thomas’s off-field growth was accompanied by on-field maturation. He admits he was too pushy with teammates early in his career, and because of his vast range he often sped out of position, which led to missed tackles. Pete Carroll, the Seahawks’ coach, considered benching him during his rookie season.
Eventually Richard helped Thomas focus on his responsibilities, cut down on the freelancing and let his natural ability take over. As Thomas spoke more freely off the field, he played with more discipline on it. He still pushes buttons when necessary; earlier this season, with the Seahawks slumping, he chastised defensive ends for eating sunflower seeds in practice. (He thought it was disrespectful.) But he has a better sense of when to pick battles in the locker room and where his responsibilities lie in Seattle’s scheme.
As Thomas drew more attention this season, Sherman became something of his publicist. He suggests Thomas should be looked at the same way people see J.J. Watt, as one of the NFL’s elite defensive forces. Thomas doesn’t disagree. In fact, he’s started to sound like Sherman, one of the great talkers in all of sports. “With my mind right now, with my eyes, the game is slow,” Thomas says. “I’m on. I know what’s coming.”
Reed is on the same bandwagon. He sees a bit of himself in Thomas: their shared tenacity, range and vicious hits. “I can appreciate a guy like Earl Thomas,” he says.
Thomas spends his off-seasons back home in Orange, where he bought his parents a house and a boat, and where he’s building a learning center, a band hall, a computer lab and a library at the family’s church, in honor of Earl I, who died in 2010. He hands out turkeys on Thanksgiving and coats and bicycles around Christmas, and he holds free football camps for local children.
After the Seahawks finished off the Panthers last Saturday, Debbie Thomas clutched a team blanket and waited for her son in the players’ parking lot at CenturyLink Field. Teammates filed outside, into the night, but before they reached their cars they stopped to hug and talk with a woman who’s as gifted as her son in the art of gab. Debbie chatted with security guards and police officers and player agents.
After nearly an hour Earl emerged. Everyone else was gone, even the cops. The miracle baby embraced his mom, then they walked off. Nobody said anything.
Earl Thomas is one win away from a return trip to the Super Bowl and, for a moment at least, he is silent.