After another successful season — his third consecutive as a First Team All-Pro — which culminated in a second straight trip to the Super Bowl, Earl Thomas III faces one of the stiffest tests in his still budding career this offseason.
Earl has been nearly indestructible throughout his football career, having never missed a game and only missing a handful of plays in five NFL seasons. But at the end of the 2014-15 season, No. 29 suffered his first major injury: a torn labrum in his left shoulder during the Seattle Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game victory over the Green Bay Packers.
The injury only forced Earl to miss a few plays on defense in the Seattle’s second consecutive NFC title win, and he went on to play for the Hawks in Super Bowl XLIX. But it was also severe enough that on Tuesday, just 23 days after Seattle’s dreams of a Super Bowl repeat were dashed, and with swelling in the area having sufficiently subsided, No. 29 underwent surgery to repair the injury.
The surgery was deemed a success, but now 25-year-old Earl, a man always up for a challenge will face one of the biggest ones he ever has professionally, as for the first time he’ll spend his offseason in rehab.
The typical recovery time for a surgically repaired torn labrum is six to eight months, leaving Earl’s status in doubt for the offseason—but No. 29 and the Seahawks brass are confident that he’ll be ready to go for Week 1 of 2015. Both head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider said at the NFL combine that they expect their star safety to be ready to suit up for the start of the season.
“It’s a normal procedure, so he should do well,’’ Schneider said. “We are going to monitor him and make sure we do what’s best for the long term. He is going to be fighting and scratching to be out there as soon as he can, but we just don’t know where we will be.’’
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN
Earl suffered the injury while making a tackle on one of Green Bay’s top playmakers, Randall Cobb, during the second quarter of the NFC Championship game.
Just a few days afterward, he shared the experience of his first major bout with injury in a blog post. Therein, ET III explained that, in the immediate aftermath of the injury, the Seattle training staff initially told him his day would be done. But instead, the three-time All-Pro safety went to the locker room and had his shoulder reset. Trainers then snapped a harness on the injured area and No. 29 returned to the game after missing just one series.
“Back in the locker room, they reset my shoulder. I felt it pop into place, and that was it. I felt much better immediately. I felt like I could go play. They did some X-rays, and while I waited, I kept telling myself, “Just finish the game.” I had to go out there and finish. That would have been the regret of my life if I didn’t finish that game. And to the training staff’s credit, they got me fixed up and ready to go really fast.”
Once back on the field, ET III made several key tackles, including one bone-jarring hit on Green Bay’s power running back, Eddie Lacy. With No. 29 holding down the fort on the backend, dishing out punishment as if he was unfazed by the injury, the Seahawks shut down the Packers offense in the second half, setting the stage for a miraculous comeback to a 28-22 victory.
Though he was still injured, No. 29 went forth and played in Super Bowl XLIX, putting together a gutsy nine-tackle performance—though the Hawks came up just short of their second straight NFL championship in a 28-24 defeat.
But once the season came to a close, Earl knew it was time to address the injured shoulder head on.
The labrum is thick tissue that connects to the rim of the socket of the shoulder joint, which forms a bumper, deepens the socket and helps to keep the ball of the humerus bone in place.
When it tears, the ball can pop out of place, dislocating the shoulder. Earl described that “pop” in his blog entry after suffering the injury.
“As I was going to the ground…I felt something pop,” he wrote. “I got up and knew right away it was my shoulder. I went to the sideline. The coaches saw it, and then the trainers were talking to me…they saw it was separated, and told me to go to the locker room. That was going to be it for the day.”
Seattle team doctors were able to reset Earl’s shoulder and pop the ball of the humerus bone back into place, then put a harness on the injured shoulder to keep everything in place. It wasn’t until after the game, during a MRI exam, that the labral tear was discovered.
Despite the severity of the injury, Earl was determined to play in the Super Bowl and with the help of equipment, medication and tireless work by the Seahawks medical staff, he was able to get through one more game with the bum shoulder.
But at the conclusion season, a more permanent solution was sought. While some labral tears are treated non-surgically — through the use of cortisone, other anti inflammatories, rest and physical therapy — in Earl’s case it was determined that surgery was the best course of action to treat the injury. All that was left was to wait a few weeks to allow the swelling in the injured shoulder to subside.
Surgery on a torn labrum is done arthroscopically (also known as “keyhole surgery”) in the interest of being as minimally invasive as possible. The surgeon creates a small incision in the joint, through which he sends a scope with a small camera to see into the joint.
Once inside the shoulder, the surgeon will choose to treat a labral tear either via debridement, a procedure during which the surgeon removes any frayed edges and other loose parts of the labrum, or if the shoulder is too unstable, with a total repair, which involves drilling anchors into the bone around the joint and then reattaching the labrum using the arthroscope.
The arthroscopic procedure allows the patient to spend just one day in the hospital following surgery and also expedites the healing process.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Earl bided the time in between season and surgery by surrounding himself with family.
First he returned to his hometown of Orange, Texas, where he spent several days with his father, mother, brother and closest family and friends. After Orange, Earl took his daughter on a trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, which he documented on his Instagram account.
Then on Tuesday, Earl Thomas went under the knife for the first time in his career.
In the immediate aftermath of the surgery, Earl won’t be able to do much activity. But in the weeks to come he will start his rehab via physical therapy. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, explained the path to recovery from labral surgery in an interview with Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times.
ElAttrache made it clear that though ET III faces a long road ahead, a return for the season opener in September, just over six months from now, is more than a possibility.
“I think it would be reasonable to think he would be ready by the beginning of the season,’’ ElAttrache told the Seattle Times. “Usually with a typical labrum repair, especially for a football player, a contact-collision sport, generally we like to wait at least six months. Sometimes they try to come back a little sooner, and some guys can come back a little sooner. But about six months is what we aim for. We’ve had a lot of guys in the NBA go back much sooner. But football, especially at that position, is a little different. You probably want as much healing as you can get.’’
Though the test No. 29 faces this offseason is new, Earl’s track record as a healthy NFL players is phenomenal. Over the course of his five-year career, Earl has never missed a game—appearing in 90 consecutive contests between the regular season and the playoffs for Seattle.
In fact, the series he missed against Green Bay in the NFC Championship was just the second he sat out of his career. The first came in Week 2 of the 2014 season when dehydration forced him to miss one series against the San Diego Chargers.
Barring any unforeseen setbacks with the shoulder injury this summer, ET III and the Hawks expect that he’ll be able to return to action in time for the start of the 2015 campaign and be ready to extend his consecutive games streak to 91 when Seattle takes the field in Week 1 on September 13th against a yet to be named opponent.
- What is a labrum tear? (Johns Hopkins Sports Medicine)
- A patient’s guide to labral tears (Houston Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine)
- Seahawks expect Thomas ready for season after shoulder surgery (Seattle Times, Feb. 24, 2015)
- Seattle safety Earl Thomas undergoes shoulder surgery (Football Insiders, Feb. 25, 2015)
- Earl Thomas has surgery on shoulder labrum (Field Gulls, Feb. 24, 2015)
- Earl Thomas posts picture of his shoulder surgery (CBS Sports, Feb. 24, 2015)
- Earl Thomas expected to be ready for Week 1 (NFL.com, Feb. 24, 2015)
- Earl Thomas has surgery, could miss eight month (Tacoma News Tribune, Feb. 24, 2015)