RENTON I could go on more about how Thomas Rawls looked today practicing with the starting offense for the first time since he broke his ankle and tore ligaments eight months ago. How he told me “I think I am ahead of schedule” in his recovery and prospects of playing in next month’s Seahawks season opener.
But I get the feeling he’d rather you know about how much pride he has in his hometown, an infamous, half-abandoned and now-poisoned city.
"I’m from Flint, Michigan," Rawls says, "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.
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Rawls was born, raised and is still beloved in the city the dwindling, outsourcing automobile industry had left to rot when he was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A city whose leaders and that of his own state have essentially poisoned over the last few years. A place his mother Deadra Whitley, family members and friends so close the Seahawks’ running back calls them "brothers" still live.
“I feel like a king when I go home,” he said.
Yet 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 fire-fighting forces by half. Crime rates consequently doubled.
There’s an infamous story of an ABC News attempt to do a Nightline segment live from Flint on all the auto plants closing. Their TV-production van got stolen during the broadcast.
Flint native Michael Moore made a documentary in 1989, the acclaimed Roger & Me, about the devastating impact GM moving out of Flint had on his city.
Rawls was last in Flint 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 as much as hear 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."
Flint and much of our nation’s formerly flourishing manufacturing hubs were trying to redefine itself economically while Rawls was attending Flint Northern High School. After he rushed for 1,585 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a senior, he left Flint to play football at Michigan.
While Rawls was down the road 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. That corrosion caused 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 break out (of his skin)," Rawls said. "I’m not sure it was because of the water, but … possibly, you know?"
After three years of mostly sitting the Wolverines’ bench, he got his degree in communications and transferred to Central Michigan back upstate 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. High levels of exposure to lead are known to cause mental and physical impairment, especially in young children.
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. This past January, Michigan’s governor and then President Barack Obama issue 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 bought with his rookie cash last year was his mom 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, in a nation with the world’s largest economy.
"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."
Indeed, amid evidence of cover-ups and dropping test results that showed the extent of the lead problem from official reports, state officials have resigned over the handling of Flint’s water. Monday, Michigan Democrats renewed a push to hold the state’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, accountable for the crisis.
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."