The rise and fall of Earl Thomas
- ESPN staff writer
- Previously a college football reporter for CBSSports.com
- University of Florida graduate
Earl Thomas wanted to show an old friend how far he had come.
It was 2013, and a then-24-year-old Thomas patrolled the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary. The franchise was just weeks from its first Super Bowl championship, and Thomas had flown his high school coach, Texas state Hall of Famer Dan Hooks, and his wife to see the Seahawks’ regular-season finale against the St. Louis Rams.
After the Seahawks breezed past the Rams, Hooks found himself at Thomas’ house for dinner, surrounded by luxury. He overlooked lake waters as Nina Thomas, Earl’s future wife, prepared a tender steak. After dinner, Thomas walked Hooks to his garage to check out the Lamborghini Murcielago. Hooks can’t remember if the car was blue or white, but he definitely remembers the scissor doors and hand-stitched leather seats, a rare glimpse into a player he always considered a bit of an introvert.
Thomas stressed he never drove it through rain or mud.
Seven years later, Hooks wonders how Thomas — a once-proud playmaker now unemployed after a rocky season with the Baltimore Ravens and well-publicized problems off the field — is navigating those same conditions in his life.
“I was really surprised when he got off track like that,” said Hooks, who coached Thomas at Orange-Stark High School. “As time went on, the image he represented became a little different. I don’t know what happened. But he’s a great kid and I wish him success.”
After nearly $90 million in career earnings, seven Pro Bowls and three All-Pro selections, Thomas has played deep safety on a likely route to the Hall of Fame. But a series of bizarre events on and off the field late in his career have raised questions about a legacy coming apart at the seams, including:
He ended his Seattle career by flashing a middle finger at Pete Carroll on Sept. 30, 2018, after a leg injury and an acrimonious contract dispute.
He ended his Baltimore career with a punch, with teammates fed up with his act well before he fought safety Chuck Clark during a training camp practice Aug. 21, 2020. Two days later, the Ravens cut him for conduct detrimental to the team.
In between, a well-publicized issue with his wife, Nina — who was arrested April 13, 2020, for allegedly pointing a gun at Thomas over cheating suspicions, according to court records — took the focus off football.
Now, Thomas is 31 and hopeful for one last chance to anchor a secondary. All season, the free agent has worked out five to six days per week with Jeremy Hills, a former University of Texas teammate who trains many NFL athletes out of Austin.
“He feels like he has so much more to prove,” Hills said. “He’ll show up ready whenever he gets the call.”
Blake Gideon, a former University of Texas safety who shared the defensive backfield with Thomas, backs up that claim, saying Thomas conveyed in recent text messages that he “understands the position he’s in and is eager” to correct it with another chance.
Many former teammates and coaches said the news stories about Thomas, who didn’t respond to multiple attempts by ESPN to reach him, don’t match the person they know: a quiet but loyal individual who doesn’t trust others easily but cares deeply once walls are broken, with a rare football focus that some mistake for iciness.
That last part complicated Thomas’ status in multiple locker rooms. His relentless pursuit of greatness could create a gulf that several former teammates didn’t want to discuss on the record out of respect for Thomas’ career.
As one longtime Seahawk put it, Thomas was “a lot like Kobe” in his competitive drive. Kobe Bryant evolved and was beloved when he retired in 2016. Will Thomas get his goodbye, or has the game said it for him?
Faith and family in Orange, Texas
Just about everything a young Thomas did felt ordained.
His interest in music became not just a hobby, but a vessel for an entire church body, playing the drums and organ in the Sunday service band in Orange, Texas.
A quiet boy with a matching tie and vest helped get the congregation at Sixth Street Community Church off their seats. Sixth Street, located in Orange’s east side — which the church’s Facebook page calls “devil’s territory” because of crime and drugs in the area — spread joy from a brown-brick building. Thomas’ grandfather, Earl V. Thomas Sr., was the founding pastor, and uncle Anthony D. Thomas has taken over.
Raymond Richard, Thomas’ teammate at Orange-Stark, said the boys were in church three nights per week, plus weekends. Services were “filled with the Holy Ghost — shouting and spirits moving,” he said, and though Thomas wasn’t the animated type, he took pride in helping others celebrate God through music.
“Every instrument, he could play. He was just gifted like that,” Richard said. “I think he just learned how to play by being around it.”
Growing up in Orange — nicknamed “Fruit City,” sitting on the border of Texas and Louisiana with a population of about 11,000 — Thomas cut grass with his dad on weekends. Locals knew Thomas as Debbie Thomas’ “miracle baby,” because doctors told her, a cancer survivor, she couldn’t have kids. Instead, “God blessed her with a millionaire,” Richard said.
Thomas became arguably Orange’s best player since former Dallas Cowboy All-Pro cornerback Kevin Smith in the ’80s. Thomas was a hybrid cornerback-running back who hated to come off the field. No tests, on the field or standardized, would stop his ascension.
High school teammate Depauldrick Garrett recalls Thomas’ struggling with his SAT scores to qualify for the University of Texas. Before his last attempt at qualifying, Thomas told him on site, “If I pass this score, ‘I’m going to the league.'”
“His focus level was just different,” Garrett said. “He wanted to make a name for Orange, and he learned the value of hard work from his family.”
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