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Originally published Thursday, September 9, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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House is gone, but home will always be in Orange, Texas for Seahawks' Earl Thomas

Safety Earl Thomas grew up in Orange, Texas. Hurricane Rita wiped out the family home five years ago, but the area will always be home for the Seahawks rookie.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sunday

San Francisco @ Seattle, 1:15 p.m., Ch. 13

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ORANGE, Texas — The house stood here, right next to the church Earl Thomas' grandfather built.

A basketball hoop sits on the concrete pad, which is the only trace left of the house torn down after Hurricane Rita blew through Texas in September 2005.

"Everything was smashed in on the front," says his father, Earl Thomas Jr. "Like somebody had taken a piece of house and threw it like they throw a baseball."

The house was damaged beyond repair.

"But I tell my wife all the time, a house isn't a house unless it's a home," Dad says.

The house might be gone, but this is home for Thomas, the third Earl of Orange. Always will be, this little town with fewer than 20,000 residents so deep in Southeast Texas that you can see Louisiana. A home filled with laughter and love and the pride his parents share in the accomplishments of a son they were told they would never be able to have.

Earl Thomas III played the piano in the choir where his grandfather is the pastor, played the drums at halftime of his freshman football games and earned a scholarship to the biggest school in this state that puts so much stock in the size of things.

And back in April, a good chunk of town packed into the Sixth Street Community Church where his grandfather is pastor. Everyone from Thomas' parents to the oldest active high-school football coach in Texas crowded in to celebrate when Thomas became a first-round pick of the Seahawks.

Thomas has come a long way very quickly. Not quite as fast as he was on that 86-yard interception return two weeks ago in Minnesota, but quicker than anyone had a right to expect. He attended Texas for three years, played two seasons and entered the draft as a 5-foot-10 center fielder who can go from one sideline to the other as quickly as any safety in the NFL.

And now he's here in Seattle, living lakeside, the player the Seahawks picked to be the playmaker in a secondary that hasn't had a safety intercept more than three passes in a season since 2004.

But the player who very well might be this city's next star is known as Little Earl back home, the unmistakable product of a little town with a DuPont chemical plant, a paper mill and a lineage of football talent.

"It's like everybody is family there," he says of Orange. "It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody, and I think everybody has a little part in raising you out there."

Family first

The miracle baby.

That's what Mom calls him. Her miracle baby.

Doctors had told her she wouldn't be able to have children. Not after she was diagnosed with cervical cancer more than 20 years ago.

Debbie and Earl Thomas had been married about five years, and she was expecting when she received the grimmest news.

"I was told I wouldn't be able to have that baby nor any others," she says. "They gave me six months to live."

Sent from specialist to specialist, she was advised to undergo a hysterectomy. She held off, but the day that procedure was finally scheduled, another batch of tests found no residual malignancy. She had undergone no chemotherapy, no radiation, but the cancer was gone.

"I was blessed," she says.

A year later, she found out she was pregnant with the son that would carry his father's name.

"We were at our church when I told my husband," she said. "I remember big Earl just picking me up, swirling me around."

Little Earl was born on May 7, 1989. Four months later, Debbie was pregnant again. Seth was born 54 weeks after his older brother.

Separated by one year, each received a football scholarship. Little Earl went to Texas. Seth is at McNeese State.

Dad wears two college rings, one from each son.

"What I do is tell them about my boys," he says, wiggling his fingers to draw attention to the hardware on his left hand. "Not so much bragging, but thankful."

Mom has worked at the school district for going on 20 years, Dad works in collections for the city.

Little Earl is remarkable, that is already clear. In college, he played jazz piano some weekends in Austin, with a band called Bad Bones. His Daddy could sing, but Little Earl was a natural with instruments, playing drums practically since he could bang on a pot.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll required players to wear sports coats for the first exhibition road game. Little Earl wore a tux jacket, and since he forgot his sneakers, he ended up suiting up for every meeting that weekend. After his interception return, he did the same thing the following week.

Mom got her own ring this year on Mother's Day, a diamond set between two emeralds — one birthstone for each of her two boys. Seth's name is etched on one side, Earl III on the other. The invoice that came with it doesn't come close to measuring the value.

"Love it, love it, love it," she says. "This is like a million dollars to me."

The skills

The practice field at West Orange-Stark High School isn't much to look at. The goal posts aren't quite straight, the grass is taller toward the edge of the field than it is in the middle.

The stadium next door, though, features 25 rows of concrete bleachers on either side of a field that is named after the oldest active high-school coach in Texas.

"They named the stadium after me and I'm still alive, so that's pretty good," says Dan Hooks, 72. "Most of 'em are 'Memorial.' "

Thomas didn't start out here. As a freshman he played on the varsity at nearby Little Cypress. After the second quarter, he'd strip off his jersey so he could play with the band at halftime.

"He was doing all kinds of stuff," Hooks says. "Playing in the band, running the ball, playing defense. Whatever you wanted him to do."

Thomas played his final three seasons at West Orange-Stark.

Everything's supposed to be bigger in Texas, even the football. No, especially the football, and the truly remarkable thing is just how big a footprint this small part of Texas has left in the sport all the way to Seattle. Three of the 53 players on the Seahawks' roster lived within 100 miles of each other in this little corner of the country. Orange is about 20 miles north of Port Arthur, where safety Jordan Babineaux is from, and about 60 miles southeast of Jasper, where defensive tackle Red Bryant was born.

Thomas' senior year in high school, he was teammates with Jacoby Franks, now at Texas Tech. An older brother, Kerry Franks, was a receiver at Texas A&M and the youngest, Trey Franks, plays as a true freshman at Oklahoma.

"There's some dad-gum good DNA, some good genes in this part of the country," said Mark Foreman, an assistant coach at West Orange-Stark.

Kevin Smith, a former first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys, went to the same high school as Thomas, played for the same coaches. Foreman told Thomas about Smith early in his high-school career as they rode the bus back to Orange after a game in Newton was washed out by torrential rains.

"You can be the same way," Foreman said. "If you will focus on that goal, and don't let anything deter you from that goal, then great things are going to happen for you."

Thomas was talented. That was clear. This was a kid so fast that baseball coaches used him as a designated runner and whispered instructions to steal, knowing full well there was no way he would be caught. He lettered in baseball and track simultaneously as a sophomore and junior at West Orange-Stark, but when it came to his future, he focused on football, just like his coach hoped when they were riding the bus back on that rainy night.

"I've made the same speech to about eight or nine other kids," Foreman said, "and those guys are not playing pro football, and there's a reason.

"The reason (Thomas is) is that he believed in what we were telling him. And that comes from his heart, and that comes from that foundation."

It comes from his home.

End of the day

Dad stands at the boat dock in Orange on the first September evening of the year. The sun is setting, clouds tinged pink.

Some people are fishing, others cast lines for crab. The air remains thick like a woolen sweater, but the temperature has cooled. It is a pleasant night on the eve of football season.

The family has come a long way from the disaster of five years ago when Hurricane Rita came through and wrecked the family's home.

"People can adjust knowing something is going to happen," Dad says. "Not knowing, coming back to a surprise, that's pretty devastating. Something that you never would have imagined in a million years."

The family stayed in a hotel for a bit after that, then a mobile home. They rebuilt the church that stood next door, but not the house. Mom and Dad now live with his parents as Earl Sr. battles a blood disorder.

There are plans for a new house near Orange, that's a dream Little Earl had and a motivation he cited for leaving college early. He hopes to close on a house by the end of the month.

The house will be nice, beautiful even, but that's not what makes this home for the Seahawks' youngest player and perhaps its newest star.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

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