RENTON — Earl Thomas was in the fourth grade when he began to understand the competitive fire that burns inside of him — his “madness” he sometimes calls it.
That madness helped him become the best safety in the NFL.
Fourth-grade Earl was running a relay race and, well, let’s let him tell it: “I get the baton and we’re in first place, and I turn the corner — we didn’t have any cleats or any traction — and I slip, and as I tried to get up I keep slipping, and somebody passed me, and we ended up coming in second place. I boo-hooed, I cried.”
Back then, Thomas didn’t fully grasp why finishing second affected him so much. Now it all makes sense.
“I wanted it so bad, and I didn’t understand it at an early age, but now that I’m coming into my own, I understand stuff,” Thomas said. “… I’m a warrior. I’ve always felt those type of feelings, even when I didn’t understand it.”
A decade later, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knew exactly what kind of athlete he was getting when Seattle made Thomas the 14th overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft. Carroll didn’t know what kind of competitor he had just acquired, however.
“He was more fiercely competitive than I could have anticipated,” Carroll said. “Just extremely competitive, high-strung personality, just driven. … Honestly, I wish I was as competitive as him.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Carroll, the coach whose entire philosophy is based on competition, heck, the coach who is the subject of a book entitled “Always Compete” wishes he was as competitive as Thomas.
That competitive fire wasn’t always productive for Thomas. He wanted to be a playmaker, and at times during his rookie season that came at the expense of being in the right place. Carroll even sat Thomas down as a rookie and told him things had to change or he would end up on the bench. Since then, Thomas has evolved significantly both on and off the field. And he wasn’t content just to become a more complete safety. He wanted to be a more complete person.
“I think the biggest change is me knowing myself, or getting back to who I am,” Thomas said. “Coming out of college, 19, 20 years old, I get to the league, and stuff is different. It was like a haze, like a long dream I didn’t wake up from until recently. You can lose yourself so quickly and go mute, shut the whole world out and kind of lose out because you’re not exploring, not keeping it interesting. But now I understand what’s going on inside, I stay in the present, I just absorb everything. … That’s why I love Coach Carroll so much, he’s a mentor. I don’t even look at him like a football coach, because football is always going to take care of itself, I’m a great football player, but what I lack, my weaknesses is what he can help me with. I never wanted to read, I never wanted to ask questions, I never wanted to worry about talking correctly, all these adventures you just embark on, it’s crazy, because it just kind of happens, you’re just flowing.”
Ah, yes, the flow. Thomas loves talking about his flow. When you watch Thomas play football, whether it’s Super Bowl Sunday or a June minicamp, he is always the most intense, locked-in player on the field. While fellow All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman mixes in laughter and dancing with his brilliant play, Thomas is all business, all the time.
That’s his flow.
And like the competitiveness that showed itself on the track in fourth grade, the flow was cultivated in Texas at an early age. Thomas’s father, Earl Thomas II, owned a lawn-mowing company when Thomas was a kid. In the summer that meant being up at 6 a.m. to get to work. Part of that work for Thomas and his younger brother involved picking garbage out of ditches. And in a town like Orange where, “everybody knows everybody,” that meant friends pointing and laughing. But it didn’t take long before Thomas learned to tune that out and focus on the task at hand, in other words, to get in his flow.
“Now that I think about it, as far as the way I flow and the way I can focus, even those moments of me being in a ditch, I wasn’t worried about who was around, I was so focused on getting this work done,” Thomas said. “I take that to now, when I’m at work, I enjoy it so much I lose track of time. That always keeps me in my flow state.”
For Thomas, another part of knowing himself has been a willingness to embrace his desire for greatness. As safety Kam Chancellor, Thomas’ partner on the back end of Seattle’s defense, puts it, he and Thomas believe in “speaking things into existence.” And, man, can Thomas speak. But here’s the odd thing: Thomas has become a master of being supremely confident without coming across as arrogant.
He somehow manages to call himself a miracle child — a phrase he got from his mother, Debbie, who wasn’t expected to survive cancer at 25, let alone have Thomas — and not sound cocky.
He says he wants to be the best ever — that’s athlete, not safety — and it doesn’t sound outlandish.
He can tell you, “Nobody looks at the game like me. I can just tell, I can be in meetings and I’m answering every question, I can see it before anybody in the room, and obviously I play faster than anybody,” and it comes across as a statement of fact, not the ramblings of a 25-year-old with delusions of grandeur.
“That’s what’s wrong today: Nobody wants to be themselves, everybody wants to follow the crowd,” Thomas says. “That’s why there’s only a couple of people out there who are being true to who they are, and that’s why people will be like, ‘Oh, they’re weird.’ No, you just don’t understand them because you need to take a look at yourself.”
Not long ago Thomas thought he had to come across as humble, but then he realized that, “You can’t let your perception of humble get in the way and handicap you. I had to learn that too.”
If you’re gong to speak greatness into existence, there’s no room for false humility in Thomas’ world.
“People know how humble you are when you have great character,” Thomas said. “Give a man power, give him money, you’ll see that character. That’s what I love about my success, I’m going to stay true, but at the same time, I’m attacking because I’m elevating my understanding. Knowledge is power.”
For Thomas, an elevated understanding has meant discovering himself, which in turn has turned a talented young player into a great one. For the Seahawks, Thomas’ development into a complete player — and person — was one of the keys to a Super Bowl title.
“It’s a crucial aspect,” Carroll said of Thomas’ play. “He plays a lot of deep-middle responsibility, and people don’t appreciate that (opponents) don’t throw post routes for touchdowns on us, and how many times they don’t throw seam routes for touchdowns on us. That happens all the time every single day in football, and we’re great at taking care of that.”
For the all the big plays Thomas makes and the accolades he has earned, perhaps nothing is more telling about the kind of player he is than this: Carroll, a former defensive back himself and one of the great defensive minds in football, at times finds himself living through Earl Thomas.
“I watch this game and live this game through his eyes often,” Carroll said. “It’s something that’s dear to my heart. We share experiences all the time trying to get to a deeper understanding of it, and it’s really awesome because I can watch it all happen through him and his play.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.