Some of the only silence around Earl Thomas these days comes at the end of practice. When he’s walking off, he drops his right knee to the ground a few yards before the sideline. His teammates chortle as they walk away in groups of chunky linemen or svelte receivers.
It’s a brief timeout, a pause in a burgeoning life, before Thomas is back up. He begins to talk again in his wheezy southeast Texas baritone, often capping sentences with “bro.”
Thomas has moved into the spotlight this year, emerging from his quieter days as a Seahawks rookie in 2010. He is arguably the best player on the best defense in the league. He’s no longer the mistake-prone loose-cannon safety that coach Pete Carroll thought of benching or the quiet guy in a vociferous secondary.
Thomas has been named to three consecutive Pro Bowls, plus three consecutive All-Pro teams as a free safety. He’s a dad. He might be the most amped member of the “Legion of Boom,” challenging the man next to him in the locker room, cornerback Richard Sherman, for that title.
He’s out there now. Thomas has launched a website, does formal media sessions each week and is open to talk to
anyone about anything this year. The public push is on as Thomas, 24, envisions what can come in his future.
“I want to take over,” he says.
‘TOTALLY COUNT ON HIM’
On the sideline because the starters are done practicing for the day, Thomas holds his helmet at his side. All the better to yell.
Wide receiver Ricardo Lockette runs a go route, and the play is broken up by the scout team defensive backs. Thomas reacts as if a touchdown was just scored.
He sprints onto the field, instantly yelling. He tracks down Lockette. At a supposed 5-foot-10, Thomas fits nicely just under the chin of the 6-2 Lockette. He begins to scream at him.
Two plays later, Lockette pulls in a long pass. Thomas is off again, like a cheetah tracking prey. This time, he can’t wait to tell Lockette what a good play that was.
“Let’s go! Let’s go! You could do that every play! Let’s turn it up! Do it again right now!” Thomas says.
“I like it,” Lockette says. “It pumps me up. It gives me an adrenaline rush. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re at practice, let’s go. It’s football, let’s get aggressive.’”
The verbose approach, at least in public, is new for Thomas, who was drafted 14th overall in 2010 out of the University of Texas. In some ways, he has settled since being a rookie. Then, he took a lot of chances. He also was not yet a dad — daughter Kaleigh was born Sept. 24, 2012 — and it’s a milestone he and teammates point to as a large influence on his maturity.
Just 20 years old as a rookie, Thomas’ speed and instincts were apparent. As was his preference to be unpredictable to the coaching staff.
“He won’t want to admit to this, but there was a time where I said, ‘You know what, Earl, I’m going to have to sit you down,’ ” Carroll says. “ ‘Because it’s getting to the point where we don’t know what you’re going to do next.’ ”
Thomas became ruthless in his studying. He was able to replace multiple in-game gambles with knowledge that helped him commit fewer errors. As the lid on a boiling pot at free safety, Thomas had to be secure.
“He used to jump all around and chase everything like his head was cut off at times, but he’s not like that anymore,” Carroll says. “He’s a very well-structured player now, and we can totally count on him in carrying out the schemes.”
‘BLOOD IN, BLOOD OUT’
Lockette isn’t the only recipient of Thomas’ in-practice bellowing. Even before practice, Thomas has yelled warnings across the locker room to Russell Wilson, informing the second-year quarterback not to throw any seam passes today.
One afternoon this fall, Thomas made an interception on a deep pass. With his back to the line of scrimmage while securing the ball and turning to run it back, he shouted, to no one and everyone at once, “I’m a (expletive) beast!”
Such expletives are a ways from his younger days of being ushered over to his grandfather’s church in Orange, Texas, by his mother, Debbie. She popped little Earl into the choir against his wishes when he was 6. Whenever sports weren’t being played, he was back in church.
“Tuesday, Wednesday, we were in that thing, bro,” Thomas says.
His father, Earl Thomas II, provided the wilder side that leads to his son’s exuberant practice proclamations. He was also the force in the family that helped the younger Earl fly straight.
The churchgoings provided Thomas with his love for music. He played alto and tenor saxophone, as well as keyboards and drums. As a high school freshman, he would be on the field at halftime with the rest of the varsity band.
He’s still enveloped in the spirit of the church. Several of his tattoos reference scripture. Thomas wears a black wristband with “John 3:16” imprinted on it in white letters.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Thomas wraps himself in athletic tape with scriptures printed on it made by a company in Beaumont, Texas.
Among his tattoos, there is only one deviation from religion.
“I got a football tattoo that says, ‘Blood in, blood out,’ ” Thomas says. “Because that’s me (in and out). Football.”
HIS PLAY SPEAKS FOR HIM
“He wasn’t talking when I first met him (in 2011),” Lockette says.
Thomas practices it now. He has taken to opening up the way he plays football, with the speed and ambition of a buzz saw. He sees it and goes.
Earlier this season, he took to a makeshift booth in Pike Place Market to take part in a corny video skit for Sports Illustrated called “Free safety advice.” Thomas advised strangers to watch their step and change email passwords.
It earned him a lot of furrowed brows on the street but was another step toward expanding his public persona.
“I know I’m going to have to have that right communication factor, that’s why I practice it so much,” Thomas says. “I know it’s going to be way bigger. I really don’t set limitations on myself. I just keep building it.
“Coach Carroll is a perfect example of that. Just his impact on the field and off the field. I’m going to have that same impact. You got celebrities that want to be around him. That’s the type of impact you want.”
Thomas is younger than Wilson and linebacker Bruce Irvin, despite being in the league longer. The fifth and final year of his first NFL contract comes next year, the same season Sherman becomes a free agent. He’s not concerned about it.
“Why stress it when you know it’s coming?” Thomas says. “You just focus on what’s in front of you right now. It’s already been taken care of. Your play is going to speak for itself. They already know how valuable you are to the team and what you bring. Those numbers don’t lie.”
RHYTHM IN HIS PLAY
He’s talking again. Some days, he’s spearheading a never-ending locker room debate about Kobe Bryant and LeBron James (Thomas emphatically has James). Or he’s crashing Kam Chancellor’s interviews, making the ferocious safety laugh.
Neon orange Beats by Dre headphones push pre-practice music into his ears. Thomas says the rhythm flows into his play.
At practice, he’s yelling. Music blares on the sideline. Finally, a third air horn signals the end of another workday.
Thomas takes a few steps toward the locker room and drops to a knee. It’s again quiet in his world. But just for a moment.