Thomas Rawls is almost all the way back from his latest challenge: a shattered ankle and torn ligaments.
Rawls was back in the starting offense Monday during the Seahawks’ latest training-camp practice. His dozen or so plays were his first on any field since he got hurt Dec. 13. It was the next milestone for Seattle’s lead runner as he works his way back to play in the season opener Sept. 11 against Miami.
Rawls caught a swing pass from Russell Wilson in team scrimmaging, six days after he came off the physically-unable-to-perform list. What he looked like — and what he said on the edge of the field afterward — suggest he will not only start the season’s first game but it may be tough to keep him out of one of the final two preseason games, Aug. 25 against Dallas and Sept. 1 at Oakland.
“Actually, I think I am ahead of schedule,” Rawls told The News Tribune.
“I’m feeling great. I’m feeling phenomenal. And just getting the energy back out here with the fellas is making me come alive even more.”
Rawls last season became the first undrafted rookie in NFL history to rush for 160-plus yards in multiple games. His recovery has gone on for more than nine months. He’s wowed his coaches and teammates with his fiendish dedication each day toward his rehab — coach Pete Carroll said Monday Rawls looked “terrific.”
He spent each day of a long, lonely offseason in the Seahawks’ training room at team headquarters grinding through scar tissue, doubt and what he admits were, yes, tears to make it this far.
Yet the first major injury of his football life has not been the biggest challenge Rawls has conquered in his 23 years.
Rawls was born, raised and is still beloved in an infamous city the dwindling, outsourcing automobile industry had left to rot when he was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A place where his mother Deadra Whitley, family members and friends close enough to call “brothers” still live.
“I’m from Flint, Michigan,” Rawls said, “where you’ve got to be tough.”
Flint is an hour’s drive north up Interstate 75 from Detroit. A 2015 U.S. Census survey listed the city’s population just over 102,000 with 56 percent of those residents African-American and 40 percent of all residents living in poverty.
As the engaging Rawls has said, he’s come from “the bottom.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Flint was a mecca of employment and productivity for General Motors. In 1978, the city had 80,000 GM employees.
As of last summer, it had 7,200, according to the Detroit News.
When the manufacturing jobs left Flint, so did the money. The city’s tax base plummeted. City officials saved by cutting the police and firefighting forces in half. Crime rates consequently doubled.
ABC News attempted to do a Nightline segment live from Flint detailing the closing of the auto plants. Their production van got stolen during the broadcast.
Rawls hasn’t returned to Flint since last summer; his ankle injury and rehabilitation kept him at Seahawks headquarters this past offseason. Yet the city never leaves his mind.
Or his soul. One can feel the pride in Rawls’ words as he talks about his hometown.
“In Flint, we’ve gone through different kinds of struggles. It’s a part of life, you know?” he said. “One thing about the people from Flint is, they know how to survive.
“They won’t back down. They won’t settle for anything. They just keep pushing.
“I just pray to God that at some point, they get a little bit more caring and just more blessing to come their way.”
After he rushed for 1,585 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a senior at Flint Northern High School, he left Flint to play football at Michigan.
While Rawls was in Ann Arbor, cash-strapped Flint officials sought ways to save money on its public water supply, much like it had decades earlier on the police and fire departments.
The results were similarly tragic.
As National Public Radio and others have reported, Flint decided in 2013 to leave its Detroit Water and Sewage Department supplier and join a new water authority. But the city needed to build a pipeline to connect to the new supplier. In the interim, they needed an available — and cheap — water source.
They decided on the Flint River. It was the city’s consumable water supply until the 1960s, so officials banked on it being usable again.
E. coli and other harmful bacteria were in the river. Its water also caused corrosion in the city’s pipes, causing lead to enter Flint’s homes and sinks.
“In college, I would go home every now and then and then I would have a real bad breakout (on his skin),” Rawls said. “I’m not sure it was because of the water, but … possibly, you know?”
After three years of mostly sitting on the Wolverines’ bench, he got his degree in communications and transferred to Central Michigan to play his final college football season.
His only season at CMU ended about the time residents, specifically children, were getting lead poisoning, some reportedly with lead levels in their bodies three times federal limits for safe exposure.
Last Dec. 14, the day after Rawls broke his ankle during a Seahawks win at Baltimore, Flint’s mayor declared a state of emergency over the water crisis. In January, Michigan’s governor and President Barack Obama issued their own states of emergency for Flint. The federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the city and the state have failed Flint’s residents because the city’s water remains contaminated.
Federal aid has come — and stayed — in the form of bottled water and filters. Flint is trying to turn this crisis into a positive by employing its many unemployed as bottled-water distributors.
As an undrafted free agent, Rawls isn’t at all rich by NFL standards. He will earn $525,000 this season on the second year of his three-year rookie contract. Forty-seven other Seahawks will earn more than their lead running back this year.
Yet one of the first things Rawls did with his rookie cash last year was buy his mother a house just outside of Flint. Outside its contaminated water supply.
Her son gave her two of life’s fundamentals, safe shelter and clean water.
“Most of my family are still in the heart of it,” Rawls said of Flint’s ongoing water crisis. “They are still getting bottled water. Short showers. Things like that.
“Is it wrong? Yes. … It’s all been swept under the rug, basically.”
Rawls declined to point fingers at specifically who’s to blame.
“It’s kind of sad,” Rawls said, likening Flint’s situation to that in a Third World country. “They are humans. At the end of the day there is only one race, and that’s the human race. No one should have to go through those things.
“It’s just a messed-up situation that I can’t do anything about — except raise awareness, and just try to my job here, on and off the field. To make those people smile in some kind of way.
“Because they deserve to smile.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
Seahawks Camp at a Glance
WHAT WAS IT: A two-hour practice in warm sun before yet another hillside packed with a couple thousand fans was one of just three workouts before the second preseason game, Thursday’s exhibition against Minnesota at CenturyLink Field.
WHO SHINED: Lead running back Thomas Rawls returned to the starting offense for the first time since he broke his ankle and tore ligaments Dec. 13. He caught a swing pass from Russell Wilson and carried the ball while running about a dozen plays. He then declared “I think I am ahead of schedule” in his recovery. … Third-round pick C.J. Prosise and fellow rookie running back Zac Brooks, a seventh-round pick, both returned to practice after missing weeks with hamstring strains. Prosise did some work with the starting offense, including catching passes. That fits his expected role as a third-down back this season. He hadn’t practiced since the first 10 minutes of camp July 30. He said he didn’t feel any extra pressure to make up for lost time, but he missed a ton and coaches were frustrated by his extended absence. … Ex-UW Huskies wide receiver Kasen Williams returned to practice after missing more than a week with a hamstring strain. He made a nice leaping catch down the left sideline in tight coverage on a pass from Wilson. Williams, who started last year on the practice squad as an undrafted rookie then was on the active roster by late in the season, said his experience last year left a good impression with coaches but he is always motivating by not being secure in his place on the roster. “I always feel like I’m fighting and scrapping,” he said. … The team brought back defensive tackle Tony McDaniel 12 months after releasing him. The 31-year-old played in 14 games, with three starts, for Tampa Bay last season. His arrival means Sealver Siliga’s days on the team appear to be dwindling. Coach Pete Carroll said Siliga, who came back to practice last week briefly after a calf injury, now has another calf injury. … Rookie tight end Nick Vannett made a nifty touchdown catch down the middle seam of the defense on a red-zone pass from Wilson. … Coaches moved linebacker Kyle Coleman from linebacker into a blue jersey for offense to try fullback. By the end of team scrimmaging Coleman was also on defense, wearing a yellow bib. … Defensive back Jeremy Lane ran 50 yards step for step to break up Wilson’s pass to Antwan Goodley.
WHO SAT: Strong safety Kam Chancellor rested for the fifth time in six days because a groin injury. Carroll said Chancellor had been close to coming back last week, then the team decided to be surer. Expect him back next week, the coach said. … Mike Morgan, recently the No. 1 strong-side linebacker, was in Philadelphia seeing a specialist about an issue with his groin, Carroll said. The coach said Morgan will play Thursday. … Recently starting right tackle J’Marcus Webb again watched practice with a black brace on his right knee. No word how long he’ll be out, but Carroll said he doesn’t expect Webb to play against the Vikings. That means the starting line again will have Garry Gilliam at right tackle and Bradley Sowell at left tackle. .. . Four-year veteran Jordan Hill (groin) remained out, though Carroll said he’s close to returning. He absolutely needs to. Rookie Jarran Reed keeps putting more distance between him and Hill for the defensive-tackle job.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I feel like a king when I go home,” Rawls, talking about how proud he is of – and how beloved he is in – his battered hometown of Flint, Michigan.