Moments after a thrilling victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Earl Thomas III sought out his mother.
Debbie Thomas’ “miracle baby” had just clinched his first appearance in the Super Bowl and he had to share a special moment with the woman who brought him into the world against all odds. But the moment wasn’t the tearful production that might come at the end of a Hollywood drama.
“She chest-bumped me,” Earl said after the game, drawing a round laughter from the media room. “We’re short, so we don’t have that much vertical, but it was a great family moment.”
Though unorthodox, the celebrations between the two ecstatic Texans seemed fitting. Debbie went through a tumultuous journey to bring Earl into the world and always said that her son was destined to live a remarkable life. This Sunday, he will complete his fourth season in the National Football League by playing in the Super Bowl, a storybook chapter that 26 years ago seemed as though it would never be written.
That’s because back in March of 1987 — two years before Earl was born — Debbie Thomas was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Doctors told her then that the best chance of survival was a hysterectomy, which would leave her unable to have children. A physician for 52 years, Dr. Homer Stuntz, the man who diagnosed Debbie’s cancer, called the case an unforgettable one.
“You don’t forget a Debbie Thomas. There are things you don’t ever get to or expect to see as a doctor, and that was one I never thought I’d see,” Stuntz said. “Her biopsy was cancerous from one side all the way to the other. Not one piece of healthy tissue. I told her if she didn’t have surgery, she was going to die. I was certain of that.”
Despite the warnings of Stuntz and other doctors, Debbie refused to have the surgery that could simultaneously save her life and prevent her from bringing a new one into the world. Friends tried to convince her otherwise, but Debbie had made up her mind: she would put her trust in the Lord.
“I told God that I was putting my faith in him, and my husband, Earl Jr., stood by my side every step of the way,” Debbie said. “Every day, I thank (God) for answering my prayers.”
On May 13, 1987, Debbie went back to the doctor to find out that those prayers had been answered. Just two months after she was given six months to live, Debbie Thomas was cancer-free. She remained that way through multiple tests and two years after her initial diagnosis, Debbie gave berth to her “miracle baby,” Earl III.
From the day he was born Debbie held her eldest son to a higher standard because his life truly was a gift and one she knew could not be wasted.
“He never was supposed to be alive. I was told I would never have kids,” she said. “I’ve told Earl his entire life that ‘all those blessings, gifts and talents that God has bestowed upon you, you can’t take them lightly.’ With everything I went through bringing him into this world, he had to be better than that.”
That message was not lost on Earl. With his mother’s high hopes in the back of his mind and guidance from both Debbie and Earl Jr., he was able to keep himself in line, despite living in a neighborhood where trouble was waiting at every turn.
“It’s easy to get lost in Orange,” ET III said. “There’s a lot of ways you can end up in trouble, and a lot of great athletes end up not getting to play because that happens. I got lucky. My family kept me straight.”
That straight path led to a stellar two-year stint at the University of Texas, which earned him recognition from pro scouts and saw him become a first-round NFL Draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010. Four years later, he is a three-time All-Pro considered by many as the best safety in the NFL.
Along the way, ET III helped his mother retire from her job as a receptionist at the Little Cypress-Mauriceville school district, one of the most fulfilling moments in the life his mother dreamed for him.
“As soon as they called my name in the draft, I knew this day was going to come,” said Earl. “We didn’t have much and my mom and dad made it work. They’ve been changing my diapers, taking care of me all my life.”
Now, Earl is set for a Super Bowl XLVII showdown with the Denver Broncos and when he heads to MetLife Stadium for the biggest contest of his career this Sunday, there will be millions cheering him on—but none will be cheering louder than Debbie.
“No matter how old your kid gets, they’re still your baby,” Debbie said. “When I go there I’m like, ‘Go Earl.’ I’ve been his No. 1 cheerleader – one of them because he’s got a lot of them – since he started.”
For Earl, with his mother and the rest of the world looking on, it’ll be a lifelong dream coming true.
“I love this game so much. It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I always dreamed about this as a little boy. You can write your story. I’ve been keeping a journal since Week 2 and to see the words come to life, it shocks me. I’m just happy. It’s a great feeling. It’s been a good year. Somebody needs to pinch me or something. It just feels good.”
- DB Earl Thomas is a blessing—to his mother and Texas (The Dallas Morning News, Jan 6, 2010)
- ‘Miracle child’ Thomas has been a blessing for Horns (Austin American-Statesman, Jan 4, 2010)
- Serby’s Sunday Q&A with Earl Thomas (New York Post, Jan 18, 2014)
- Earl Thomas helps his mom retire early from LC-M (Beaumont Enterprise, Jan 29, 2012)
- Inspiration started early for Seahawks’ Earl Thomas (Q13 Fox, Jan 19, 2014)