The people of the small Texas town of Orange knew they had a special talent in their midst when on January 23, 2007 — less than two years after the community was ravaged by Hurricane Rita — they came together to proclaim the date in honor of a native son, Earl Thomas III. In the years since that date, millions of others have come to see what the people of Orange knew all along.
Earl Thomas III signed a National Letter of Intent to the University of Texas that day, where he went on to become a freshman All-American, and helped lead the team to the Big 12 crown in his sophomore year. A two-year stint in Austin paved the way for Earl to the pros as a first round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks in 2010.
Now the leader of Seattle’s Legion of Boom, ET III, an All-Pro safety, is one of the most feared defensive backs in the NFL. But the humble beginnings he came from are always in the back of Earl’s mind even as he looks ahead:
“To be able to put the NFL helmet on, it’s just a crazy thing,” Earl said. “Sometimes when I walk out of the tunnel (at CenturyLink Field), I’m still in awe. Or even when I make a big play, I just never thought that it would happen for me this soon.
“You always dream about going to the League, but you never think it really could happen.”
SON OF ORANGE
ETIII topped NFL.com’s list of top-shelf safeties in November 2013, where he was praised for having the best range in the league.
The path to earning commendations like that one was paved with adversity and hard work, and it began long before his honorary day in 2007. Earl was born May 7, 1989 in Orange to Debbie and Earl Jr. His father would later describe, as soon as Earl was walking, he was playing football. The more he worked at the game he loved, the more his skills evolved.
“I was tossing the ball and exercising Earl from six months on,” his father said. “By the time he was eight years old, he was catching better than kids who were 15 and 16 years old.”
While his father looked back at the countless hours spent training that helped to galvanize Earl’s passion and aptitude for the game of football, his mother saw his success as serendipitous.
DEBBIE THOMAS /Earl’s Mother
“At his birth, I knew he was special because he’s my miracle son.”
Diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1987, doctors told Debbie that she would no longer be able to have children, and that she could have as little as six months left to live if she didn’t undergo a hysterectomy and the removal of lymph nodes. After taking opinions and running through tests from several specialists, she finally scheduled the procedure. But one last set of tests brought extraordinary news.
The cancer was gone.
Debbie never underwent surgery, chemotherapy or radiation, but she didn’t call her recovery “miraculous,” she simply knew she was “blessed.” What happened next was the miracle. A year later, she found out she was pregnant with a son to be named Earl, after his father. Over his career, Little Earl has earned several nicknames, but Debbie still calls him her “miracle baby.”
“At his birth I knew he was special because he’s my miracle son,” Debbie said of Earl. “I knew God had a special plan and purpose for him.”
Growing up, ETIII was always aware of his mom’s plight, and her influence was always present, always keeping him on the right path.
“It kind of followed me through my life,” ET said. “My mom always reminded me I was a miracle child. You can’t do what everyone else does and they kind of kept me out of trouble. I was always in church, except when I was at football practice.”
While also looking out for himself, Earl played the role of big brother to his mother’s second miracle child. Just one year after Earl was born, Debbie gave birth to Seth, giving ET a training partner, but more importantly, a lifelong friend.
Seth played safety in high school, while Earl played cornerback. While Earl went on to play safety at Texas, Seth moved down to cornerback and played at McNeese State.
“They have brotherly love between them. They are their brother’s keeper,” Debbie said. “I am really proud of my sons. Earl and Seth are my miracle sons. God blessed my husband and I with them, so we are really happy, proud parents. We just keep reminding our sons to stay focused, keep acknowledging God, make good intelligent choices, study hard and pursue their dreams.”
As Earl was pursuing his dream of playing big-time football, disaster struck on the Texas Gulf Coast.
During his junior year of high school, Hurricane Rita ripped through the Gulf region. Roughly 40 minutes away from Sabine Pass, Texas, where the violent Category 5 storm made landfall, Orange was one of several towns to be washed out in Rita’s wake. Earl and his family were able to escape the storm, but when they returned home, there was nothing left.
Earl recalled the tragedy, explaining how it provided a source of fellowship and fortitude for his family.
“When we left the house, we didn’t expect everything to be gone when we came back,” ET said. “We came back and our house was gone. The roof was gone. Debris was everywhere. It was a sad thing to see. But we got over it. You can’t control tough situations. It’s how you adapt to it. It just makes you stronger as a family.”
The storm also demolished his grandfather’s church, leaving the Thomas family to share a single room in a local Super Eight motel while his grandparents stayed two doors down. That Super Eight stood across from a Waffle House, where ETIII chowed down on a lifetime’s worth of waffles in just a matter of months. Eventually, the family moved into a mobile home, then in with his grandfather, Earl Sr.
The home Little Earl lived in was never rebuilt, but soon after he was drafted by the Seahawks, he was able to help his family finally move past the disaster that disrupted his final year of high school.
In 2011, E.T. and his parents drove through their hometown and picked out a new home. A year later, he helped his mother to retire and bought his father a brand new Cadillac Escalade. After his mother’s retirement celebration, he was able to reflect on the situations he and his family had confronted together. Rather than looking back at the rough circumstances with gloom, he expressed nothing but pride for the family that made him into the man he is today.
“As soon as they called my name in the draft, I knew this day was going to come,” ETIII said. “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. It’s a great feeling when you can take your family out of their situation.”
A SOUGHT-AFTER RECRUIT
Countless young men in Texas grow up with the dream of donning the burnt orange and white and taking the field as a Longhorn at Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium—but that wasn’t the case for ETIII.
West Orange-Stark HIGH SCHOOL, TEXAS
Earl played four sports: basketball, baseball, track and football.
Thanks to his blazing speed, he drew attention from several top programs and was eyeing a trip to LSU at one time, but instead he took a trip to UT. He saw the Horns as “overrated,” but his fateful trip to Austin changed that perception.
“I was supposed to take an unofficial visit to LSU back in February, but I ended up going over to Austin to hang out with (former teammate) Deon Beasley,” ET said. “He was telling me how nice it was. I thought they were overrated, but I liked it a lot more than I thought I would. I ended up committing right after that.”
His senior season, while living in that cramped Super Eight, he finished off an outstanding high school career. Playing both ways as a cornerback, running back and wide receiver, Earl finished with 112 career tackles, 11 interceptions and four touchdowns returning punts and kicks. On offense, he tallied just shy of 4,000 all-purpose yards while leading his team to a 24-2 record in his final two seasons.
Those big numbers earned him a 4-star distinction by two recruiting services: Scout.com and Rivals.com.
It was unclear whether ETIII would project as a safety or corner in college, leading schools and recruiting services alike to question his future. At 5-10, 174 pounds, he was undersized to play safety. Nonetheless, Rivals tabbed him as the No. 12 overall safety, while Scout named him the No. 11 cornerback.
He was also given a modest ranking as the No. 19 player in the state of Texas—a ranking he would be forced to disprove.
FROM REDSHIRT TO STAR
Earl joined Texas as a 4-star recruit, still a bit undersized at 5-10, 174 pounds.
He spent his first year as a redshirt, physically developing and adapting to a full-time role as a defensive back. While it was disappointing to sit out a season, ET would later look back at his redshirt year, glad to have grown stronger through the experience.
After watching from the sideline in 2007, he battled his way into a starting role and took the field in Game 1 of Year 2. Two years later, he would leave for the NFL never having missed a start.
He had a breakthrough game midway through 2008, in which he pulled down two interceptions as the Longhorns dropped their rival Oklahoma 45-35 while the Sooners were ranked No. 1. UT carried on through a tough slate but lost its chance at the Big 12 and national titles in a heartbreaking, last-minute defeat to Texas Tech. The Horns still went on to finish 12-1 after a Fiesta Bowl victory over Ohio State.
ET was named first-team Freshman All-American, tallying 72 tackles with two interceptions and 17 pass breakups, which set the all-time Texas mark for freshmen.
The strong 2008 campaign sent the Horns into 2009 with national title aspirations, which they would nearly achieve.
Texas rolled through its 2009 season unscathed as the 13-0 Big 12 champion. Earl mounted an incredible season pulling down eight interceptions and 24 total pass breakups, which would earn him consensus first-team All-America honors.
ET paced one of the nation’s strongest defenses, which helped guide Texas to a national title berth and a date with No. 1 Alabama. All was going well for the Horns against the Crimson Tide, until quarterback Colt McCoy went down with an injury. From there, ‘Bama took over and rolled 37-21.
While the season didn’t bring the storybook ending UT had hoped for, it was still an incredible campaign for ETIII and Co.
As a result, the redshirt sophomore star was deemed NFL-ready and left Austin, onto the next challenge.
FROM ALL-AMERICAN TO THE NFL
Earl excelled at Texas and the NFL Combine, becoming a first-round draft pick.
ONTO THE LEAGUE
Teams knew what they were adding when they looked to draft Earl: an instinctive safety with elite speed and quickness, remarkable playmaking ability and a profound level of toughness, despite being a bit undersized. That’s why Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks jumped on ETIII in the first round with the No. 14 overall pick. Earl and fellow Big 12 prospect Russell Okung (No. 6 overall) of Oklahoma State were the first two players taken by the newly hired Carroll as he sought to rebuild the Seahawks.
ET showed off his outstanding range and athletic ability early in his rookie season and Week 3 of the 2010 season was his first launching point. Earl notched two interceptions, including the game-ending pick in the end zone as the Seahawks dropped the San Diego Chargers 27-20. The picks against the Chargers were two of five INTs notched by ET in his rookie year to go with 76 combined tackles and seven pass deflections.
Seattle finished 7-9 in 2010 but won the division and took to the playoffs. In the postseason, the Hawks knocked out the New Orleans Saints in a huge Wild Card round upset, but couldn’t do the same to to the Chicago Bears in the Divisional round.
Year 2 brought continued improvement for the Seahawks, particularly in the secondary. As more pieces were added around Earl, Seattle improved and ETIII began to find his groove.
The young Seahawks squad matched its 7-9 record from a year prior, but with many new pieces still in place, they showed promise for the future. ET lead the way for the improved defense, notching 98 combined tackles and two interceptions. He was named second-team All-Pro and earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl.
In Year 3, the improvements continued in Seattle. With their defense beginning to shine, the Seahawks upgraded their offense by drafting quarterback Russell Wilson, who shined as a rookie and shored up the quarterback issues that limited the Seattle the prior season.
With a revamped offense and the No. 4 total defense in the league, the Seahawks finished the regular season 11-5, including win in seven of their final eight regular season games.
ET once again was a focal point of that highly ranked defense, earning him another All-Pro distinction.
Seattle topped Washington in the Wild Card round of the 2012 playoffs but fell in a thriller against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round.
As the Seahawks continue to improve, so do their expectations and Earl can see Seattle’s vision come together.
“Even the new pieces that we have, everybody’s bought in already,” he said. “Coach Carroll is doing a great job of teaching us the central theme is competition. Everybody’s buying in, and when you get that, the team is going to go far.”
SUPER BOWL CHAMPS
After an impressive performance in the 2012 season, Earl and the Seahawks shared the same expectation for 2013: It was time to take the next step and attain that ultimate goal.
It wasn’t so much a dream as an objective, and the Hawks, with Earl leading a suffocating defense, set out to attain that goal.
Seattle showed right away that it was a serious Super Bowl contender, silencing two playoff-caliber foes—Carolina and San Francisco—to start the season. ET III came through with a huge fumble recovery against the Panthers in Week 1 that sparked a narrow 12-7 victory.
The following week, against their rivals and defending conference champion 49ers, the Hawks stated their claim as the NFC favorite. ET pulled down one of three interceptions of SF’s Colin Kaepernick, as the Seattle defense yielded just 207 total yards in a 29-3 drubbing.
Afterward, Earl said that, while others might have been surprised by the lopsided outcome, he wasn’t.
“Every game we feel like we should dominate, and we did,” ET said of Seattle’s blowout Week 2 win over San Francisco.
That win would prove to be a springboard for the rest of the Seattle season. While the Hawks marched to an 11-1 start, teams seemed intent on venturing into Area 29 early in the year. As a result, Earl tallied four picks in the first seven games.
The 11th win of the year was another dominating performance against a vaunted, playoff- caliber New Orleans Saints offense. ET III and Co. held the Saints to 188 yards in what would be a preview of a later playoff matchup.
The following week brought another playoff preview, but it also brought Seattle’s second loss of the season. The Hawks traveled to the Bay Area to take on their rival Niners, who were bent on exacting revenge.
At 11-1, Seattle was looking like a Super Bowl favorite at this point in the season, but SF had other thoughts. Earl and the LOB harassed Kapernick yet again, but this time the Niners D had the last laugh in a 19-17 victory.
The Hawks quickly bounced back the following week against the New York Giants, as No. 29 pulled down his fifth pick of the year, one of five for his team on the day. Seattle left MetLife Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVIII, dreaming of what they might do the next time they played in the East Rutherford, N.J. venue.
Unfortunately, that didn’t serve them well the next week. When they hosted the Arizona Cardinals, they fell flat in a 17-10 loss—their first home defeat in the last 15 games in front of the 12th Man.
However, as Earl would later explain, that bitter defeat at home ended up as a learning experience.
“I’m kind of glad it happened,” ET III said of Seattle’s home defeat to Arizona. “Because you have tough learning lessons, even though you don’t want it to happen. But we learned from that experience and applied it to this experience and it paid off for us.”
After that loss, it was all smooth sailing as the Seahawks closed the regular season and locked up the NFC’s No. 1 seed with a win over the St. Louis Rams. However, Seattle was not satisfied with just an NFC West crown.
Following a first-round bye, Seattle had a rematch with Drew Brees and New Orleans in the divisional round of the playoffs. The LOB withstood an onslaught from Brees, who threw 43 passes in the game but just one touchdown. Though they yielded yardage, they locked down when it counted. ET III played a major role in shutting down the Saints’ star tight end, Jimmy Graham, and the Hawks also received some help from running back Marshawn Lynch’s 140 yards and two touchdowns.
Seattle survived and advanced with a 23-15 victory and moved on to Round 3 with their most heated rival: San Francisco.
The rubber match with a trip the Super Bowl on the line was the best contest yet in the series and came down to the final seconds. It was a defensive slugfest, and the two evenly matched squads ended up with identical offensive outputs at 308 total yards.
The tilt came down to the 22-second mark, when Seattle clung to a 23-17 lead and San Francisco was just 18 yards from a game-tying touchdown. And like it had so many times, the LOB came through. Kapernick’s touchdown pass attempt to Michael Crabtree was tipped by All-Pro Richard Sherman and hauled in by Malcolm Smith, effectively giving the Hawks the NFC title.
As ET III, who was named first-team All-Pro for the third time just two weeks earlier, said afterward, Seattle was right were it expected to be.
“I’ve been saying since Day 1, when you enjoy the journey, the destination is always going to take care of itself,” Earl said. “That’s what happened in this situation. The destination is New York and we’re there.”
When ET the Hawks arrived at their destination and looked across the field, it was something like looking in the mirror. In the reflection, they saw the Denver Broncos: the 13-3 No. 1 seed from the AFC. But while Seattle was guided by an elite secondary and the No. 1 defense in the NFL, Denver boasted MVP quarterback Peyton Manning and the league’s No. 1 offense.
The game was billed just as that: The suffocating Seattle defense against a devastating Denver offense. But when the festivities were over and the ball was kicked off at MetLife Stadium, Seattle supplied the fireworks on both sides of the ball.
After a strange start, with the Hawks scoring on a safety on the game’s first play, they never trailed, and it was never close. Earl and the Seattle D tormented Manning and Co., forcing four turnovers. Meanwhile, Russell Wilson and the offense were on point, rattling off 36 points before Denver scored its first and only touchdown at the end of the third quarter.
In the third-most lopsided result in Super Bowl history, the Hawks walked away World Champions with a 43-8 victory.
While the world was shocked by Seattle’s domination, Earl was once again on the short list of those not surprised, lauding the hard work and incredible innate ability of himself and his teammates.
“We have great guys that God gave them so much athletic ability,” Earl said. “When you take advantage of that and you really practice your butt off, no matter if it’s walkthroughs or in practice, you come with the same energy every day, it’s going to pay off for you.”
ET was thrilled that his dedication paid off in the biggest way possible, but more than anything, the Super Bowl XLVIII victory just energized No. 29 to keep working to stay at the pinnacle of the sport.
“We’re just excited for the opportunity. That’s all you can ask for in life is the opportunity to do something. Obviously, we’ve done something great, but this is not the end of it. We’re going to keep striving to get better and try to stay on top as long as possible.”