As Earl Thomas was growing up on the eastern edge of Texas, his father taught his son form tackling.
Before he entered grade school.
Earl Thomas Jr. lined up barrels in the backyard in Orange, Texas, to teach Earl Thomas III to run with the football in relentless, punishing straight lines.
In the 1990s, Dad bought his boy an instructional cassette video tape. It featured Dallas Cowboys superstars Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders going through position drills.
“Back in the days of Daisy Duke shorts, real small, like the coaching shorts back in the day,” the youngest Earl says now.
So as Earl III prepares to return to Texas as the All-Pro safety for the Seahawks (3-4) to play his beloved Cowboys (2-4) Sunday in Arlington, is the most unique star of Seattle’s defense still a Dallas fan?
“Of course, yeah,” the ultra-intense Thomas said at the start of his weekly media meeting Thursday.
Thomas idolized Smith, the Hall of Fame running back, because the 5-foot-10 Thomas was also a shorter, rugged running back growing up.
“Athlete,” Thomas corrected.
Yet he never made the 4 1/2-hour trip northwest from Orange, against the Louisiana border, to old Texas Stadium to watch Smith, Aikman, Sanders and those Super Bowl-champion Cowboys of the 1990s.
“We couldn’t afford it,” Thomas said.
Now he can afford to have just about the whole town of Orange (population 18,000) there to see him play Sunday inside palatial AT&T Stadium. It’s his second game as a Seahawk on his favorite team’s newer home field — he also played there for the University of Texas in the 2009 Big 12 championship game. The 26-year-old Thomas is a three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowl selection. The consensus best free safety in football is earning a guaranteed $5.5 million this season. It’s the first year of the $40 million, four-year contract extension he signed in April 2014 with the Seahawks, who drafted him 14th overall in 2010.
How he got those riches, spawned from all those days in his backyard in Orange running like Emmitt Smith, is why he remains a Cowboys fan.
“It’s just a part of my dream,” he said. “It doesn’t feel real. But it’s real. It’s happening.”
Yet despite the money, the Seahawks marvel at how passionate Thomas remains for the game. Every practice — in helmets and pads, ball caps or T-shirts — is a chance for him to school teammates, younger and older, on details that can keep plays to 3-yard gains instead of 8.
Asked if he’s ever coached or been around a player as driven and dedicated as Thomas, Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said: “No. He’s one of a kind.
“And really that’s what makes him a special player, is the fact that he can lock in and have intensity and that focus each and every single play and bring the energy.”
Last season Seattle was slogging to a 6-4 start — which actually would look darn good this even more uneven season. Thomas berated defensive line teammates for passing around sunflower seeds during a routine walkthrough. Thomas saw a lack of focus. The huge linemen saw Thomas as out of line. That sparked an argument on the field — then a détente and new unity.
A few days later the Seahawks gave first-place Arizona its second loss in 11 games. It was the first of eight consecutive victories. Seattle soared past the Cardinals to another NFC West title and into its second consecutive Super Bowl.
Fellow All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman has played next to Thomas in the Seahawks secondary for every game since 2011; Sunday will be Thomas’ 98th consecutive regular-season and postseason start to begin his career. Sherman was asked Wednesday to measure Thomas’ passion for football.
“Between one to 10,” Sherman said, “he’d be a 97.
“That guy, he comes with it. He comes to play every game. He brings it every play, regardless of if he has won or lost a match. In terms of contact, being aggressive, being physical with ball carriers, he’s going to get up and he’s going to tell them about it. He’s been that way since I’ve ever met him. He’s passionate about how he plays, how he approaches the game. And every game, every play, you can depend on him.”
And Thomas depends on Sherman. Especially this season.
The Seahawks have been moving Sherman more around the field to cover opponents’ top wide receivers instead of anchoring him on the left side. It seems likely Sherman will continue that trend Sunday with the probable return of Dallas’ All-Pro Dez Bryant from a broken bone in his foot that has cost him the last five games.
“It’s a clear conscience for me, when he’s moving around and he’s following the No. 1 guy,” Thomas said of Sherman. “I don’t have to worry about the No. 1 guy.”
So Thomas is in favor of Sherman going man-up on Bryant?
“Of course,” he said. “Both hands up.”
Yet want to know why the Seahawks have had the league’s top-ranked defense the previous three seasons? Why, after a miscommunicating start to this one, the Seahawks’ defense has grown to No. 3 overall after dominating San Francisco last week?
Start not with where Sherman plays but with Thomas and his unmatched dedication.
He played the NFC championship game and Super Bowl two weeks later with a separated shoulder that needed offseason surgery. Initial estimates from the procedure to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder said he could be out until about now.
He was in the lineup as he always is for the opener at St. Louis.
To say Thomas is intense is like saying Seattle is wet.
Questions to him precede a subsequent bracing and discomfort. He stares back, silently and weirdly, without expression, for what seems like far longer than it actually is. It’s as if he’s sizing up his verbal prey.
“I think it’s definitely contagious,” Sherman said. “He has an infectious personality, despite what you guys may think. He’s a really fun guy to play with. He wants everybody to feel his energy and feed off of his energy, and he also feeds off of the energy of others. It’s always really cool to play with a guy like that.”
Thomas admits he’s so intense he’s not cool, at least not to anyone outside an NFL locker room.
“I’m a real, live football player. I don’t really have good social skills,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“I’m just a football player that loves the game. When I am out there (on the field), that’s when I can really socialize. … It’s the way I was brought up. My dad loved the game, and he passed it on to me.”
So what would Thomas be doing if he wasn’t a professional football player?
“I’d be playing football,” he said, his face straight — again.
“I’ve been riding this wave since I was a little kid, so I’m just going to keep on riding it.”
DE Michael Bennett, the NFC’s defensive player of last week, rested and did not practice. … LT Russell Okung was limited in practice by a toe injury. … Reserve RB Thomas Rawls practiced for the first time this week, on a limited basis. He’s had a calf injury. … Defensive coordinator Kris Richard said the Seahawks hope Dallas WR Dez Bryant, who has returned to practice this week, plays Sunday because the defense always wants the challenge of playing the best. The All-Pro has missed the past five games with a broken bone in his foot. Richard didn’t dispel the though Sherman will shadow Bryant, calling the strategy “good coaching … your best against their best.”
SUNDAY: Seattle (3-4) at Dallas (2-4), 1:25 p.m., Ch. 13, 710-AM, 97.3-FM