Thomas fractured his tibia during a Week 13 win over Carolina and, shockingly, pondered quitting football. But “I just felt like it wasn’t time” to walk away, he said Tuesday. “It was a lot of things that made me come back.”
Earl Thomas can’t pinpoint the exact moment he decided he wasn’t really going to quit football, as he genuinely contemplated in the painful, depressing aftermath of his season-ending leg injury last December.
But Thomas can vividly remember the mindset that led him to pose the possibility on Twitter. It was a reflection of the tumble of emotions that followed his fractured tibia during a Week 13 win over Carolina. Thomas was injured in a collision with teammate Kam Chancellor as he pursued an interception against Cam Newton.
“I think it was definitely the shock of the moment, especially when I think that was one of the best seasons I was having in my career,’’ he said. “I had the pick in my hand. Right then, it’s gone. This is my foundation, my legs. For my leg to be broken, I never went through anything like that. Of course, I had a shoulder, but that’s nothing like my speed.”
Few really expected that Thomas would hang it up — not the guy who has routinely rhapsodized about his pure love of the game, who once said that football is what kept his Texas hometown of Orange afloat, who seemed to have the sport embedded in his soul.
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But they knew there would have to be a healing process, and not just the one that allowed his leg to be knitted back together without surgery. And as Thomas addressed the media Tuesday following a lively day at minicamp, in which he was on the field with the first defensive unit during team drills, it has clearly taken place.
That might end up being the best news of the offseason for the Seahawks, considering how their defense wilted down the stretch without Thomas. Opponents’ passer rating rose from 77.9 to 105.0. Interceptions dwindled to none. Quarterbacks took liberties downfield that they wouldn’t have even attempted with Thomas deep, let alone completed. Fifty-five yards to Ted Ginn Jr., 66 yards to Davante Adams, 80 yards to J.J. Nelson.
Thomas said definitively he will be on the field for the season opener in Green Bay on Sept. 10. Both Chancellor and Pete Carroll marveled Tuesday about how Thomas was flying around the field. When Carroll heard that Thomas characterized his speed at 80 percent of normal, he could barely contain his glee.
“Isn’t that awesome?” he said. “If this is 80 percent, he’s going to be flying when we come back to camp.”
The road back for Thomas took him to Jamaica, for a family trip. It took him to a local bowling alley, where he threw a party to watch one of the games he missed. It took him inside his own head, where he renewed the vision that had driven him through the 2016 season until his injury.
“I just tried to maintain that vision in my head and unleash it when I get back out here,’’ he said.
Oh, there was one other factor, Thomas allowed, with just the hint of a glint in his eye. In February, Chiefs star safety Eric Berry reached agreement on a six-year, $78-million deal. It didn’t go unnoticed.
“There ain’t ever enough of that,’’ he said.
Ultimately, Thomas said, “I just felt like it wasn’t time” to walk away. “It was a lot of things that made me come back.”
Still, no one knew how his leg would respond. Having gone through shoulder surgery in 2015, Thomas was determined not to get cut on this time. Speed is such an essence of his game that Thomas didn’t want to risk an operation.
“I wasn’t getting surgery,’’ he said flatly. “When I got surgery on my shoulder, I mean, it feels good, but I don’t want nothing in my leg. When they told me it was like a50 percent chance that it can heal naturally, I said ‘I’m going to take the 50 percent chance.’ ”
The gamble paid off. Thomas feels he still has his old explosion. Throughout the offseason, he has been slowly increasing the amount of torque and stress he’s been putting on his leg. As with all rehabs, it has not been a straight line, all joy and light and unimpeded process. It doesn’t work that way.
“When I’m out there doing DB drills, it’s an up-and-down process,’’ he said. “Some days, I leave the facility pissed off, because when you don’t get any action, you think, damn, I feel like I’m slipping. But other days I leave here like a big kid.”
What drives Thomas the most, it appears, is the knowledge that the team needed him last season, which ended with a 36-20 playoff loss to Atlanta.
“It was very tough,’’ he said. “You’ve got your guys out there you work so hard with. When you see them not having success like that, you don’t want to say you feel sorry for them, but you just feel pissed off you can’t be out there to help out. I don’t know if I would have changed anything, but it just sucks.”
From despondency has come determination. After Tuesday’s workout, Chancellor had the happiest summation of the day: “He’s just looking like Earl.”