The Orange Leader
His upbringing has certainly brought him here.
Orange native and former West Orange-Stark standout and University of Texas All-American Earl Thomas will be staring down Denver Bronco quarterback and shoo-in Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl in frigid New Jersey Sunday.
The 24-year-old Seattle Seahawks free safety will have Orange County standing at attention when he lines up Sunday in trying to land that elusive ring and Lombardi Trophy.
Thomas, who was selected to the Pro Bowl yet again this year, became the first NFL player in a decade to record at least 100 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in a season.
The sky is the limit for the young man.
Two excellent football coaches that led him in high school knew that first-hand when Thomas lined up for the Mustangs, which just seemed like yesterday in the forms of legendary WO-S head coach Dan Hooks and current head coach and former longtime defensive coordinator Cornel Thompson.
“We knew when he came in here as a sophomore, that he was going to be something special,” said Hooks. “When he was a freshman at LC-M, he ran for about 100 yards on us and we were wondering, ‘Who is this guy.’ Well, we found out and it was a blessing coaching him and watching him reach where he is at today.”
Thompson knew the Mustangs had a gem immediately.
“Earl got things done every day, the right way,” said Thompson. “His love of the game was always there, whether it was practice or in a game. His commitment to the game and his work ethic was incredible. He strived to get better at the game and he took that on with him to Texas and now Seattle. He’s one of those kids that you knew was going to go on and do amazing things.”
Thomas, who also played point guard on the WO-S basketball team that went to state in 2006 and who was also a All-District outfielder on the baseball team and a track star, used his athletic skills to the max too.
“We’ve had some good ones here over the years but no one flew from sideline to sideline like Earl Thomas,” said Thompson. “No matter what kind of head start someone had, Earl was going to catch him. He could hit maximum speed on about his third step and run you down. He may be small as far as size goes, but he’ll stick his head down and mix it up. He’s one of the most fierce competitors I’ve ever seen.”
Hooks echoed those sentiments.
“Earl had a motor on him like I never seen,” said Hooks. “He did it all for us. He would’ve kicked if we told him too. He was a kid that was allergic to the sidelines. He would come out for a play or two and stand right next to me. He’d ask me, “Can I get back in Coach?’ And I would say, ‘Heck yes, Earl, why in the world are you standing next to me, of course, get back in there.’ He is a competitor through and through.”
Now the two historic coaches get to watch one of their ‘boys’ go for the ultimate achievement, winning a Super Bowl ring.
They both have watched his progress through the University of Texas to now being one of the leaders of the best defense in the NFL and the “Legion of Boom” secondary.
“I tell you, I get fired up when the Seahawks come on and I don’t miss them,” said Hooks. “Earl has had an amazing run so far and to think he is still just 24 is just crazy. He’s so fun to watch. Seattle’s secondary ranks as one of the best the NFL has ever seen. It’s funny, everybody in the secondary is tall and has the size and there’s little old Earl, leading the secondary in tackles and calling out formations. He’s the ‘quarterback’ back there.”
Thompson feels that size never mattered with Earl because he knew he was always going to “bring it.”
“Dynamite in a small package may be an overused term but it fits Earl perfectly,” said Thompson. “It’s been great to watch him turn into the tackler and hitter that he is today. To watch him mature into one of the NFL’s best has put a gleam into an old coach’s eyes. The way he’s playing now, he looks like a linebacker playing 10 yards off the ball. His athletic ability is superb but his attention to detail is what has turned him into an All-Pro.”
Both think Thomas’ future will just continue to get brighter.
“Earl has always done it the right way and that’s a credit to his family,” said Hooks. “They keep him humble and they’ve handled all of the things that the NFL throws their way as far as dealing with money and keeping him on an even keel. He’s got a tremendous head on his shoulders and is just a class act.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of what Earl has accomplished,” said Thompson. “He has such a great family atmosphere around him that has helped pave the way. He’s very cerebral and knows how to handle the success. Nothing goes to his head, he’s always humble in the way he approaches life.”
Thomas will try to join another WO-S standout in picking up some Super Bowl hardware.
Kevin Smith, who played on the WO-S state championship teams in the 1980s and became an All-American cornerback at Texas A&M, captured three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990s in which he was also an All-Pro.
“Both Kevin and Earl bring a lot to the table but their positions are totally different,” said Thompson. “Earl is the better tackler and has better speed. Kevin was a tremendous athlete too and he was amazing out there all alone on an island playing the cornerback position. You couldn’t get much past Kevin, he was on folks like glue. A lot of good NFL receivers could tell you that.”
“You can’t compare them because they play different positions,” said Hooks. “But you can compare their attitudes, their will to win and their mental makeups. They are both so sound on and off the field. We saw that at West Orange-Stark. We saw it at Texas and Texas A&M and we seen it and seeing it again in the NFL.”
So who will Thompson and Hooks be rooting for in the Super Bowl?
“Are you seriously asking me that,” said Thompson. “Seattle and No. 29 of course. It’s going to be Seattle Seahawks Day in the Thompson household. I couldn’t be prouder of that young man. If Seattle can get their running game going and Earl and that Seattle defense can keep Peyton Manning off the field, I really like the Seahawks’ chances. Go Earl, Go!”
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” said Hooks. “It’s scary when Peyton Manning is on the other sideline because he might be the best ever. Hopefully Earl and the defense can keep Peyton over there on the sideline most of the night and make him cold. It’s Earl all the way at the Hooks’ house. You just don’t know how proud I am of that young man. Hopefully this will be the first of several rings to come. He deserves it.”
Seething inside Thomas is a ferocious drive to not only be accepted as one of the game’s best players, but also redefine his position.
That’s Thomas’ pursuit. He wants his name to ring out. He wants to stand as the elite of his profession. He wants his highlights to flash on NFL Network long after he’s done playing.
For folks in Orange County, we’ve seen this coming for quite some time now.