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Earl Thomas deep in the heart of Orange, Texas
To celebrate this now annual occasion, we merge the galaxies of Star Wars with our newest stars, the 2016 #SeahawksDraft class. And as you'll discover, the parallels between our two universes go far far beyond simple name-play. Happy Star Wars Day and #MayThe4thBeWithYou always! View
"PAYS OFF!" roar 850 young voices, each proudly wearing a t-shirt bearing Thomas' number 29 on the back.
"HARD WORK?" returns the call.
"PAYS OFF!" roars the response, louder than before.
Then, in unison,
"CAMP ET! CAMP ET! CAMP ET!!!
"All day, every day. All right!," barks Scott, as he scatters the campers to various football skills stations around the stadium and adjoining fields.
It's here, at West Orange-Stark High School, on the field at Dan R. Scott Stadium, that the legend of Earl Thomas began, and where he returned, for the third-straight year, to provide a free football camp for the kids of his small home town in southeast Texas.
Orange, Texas, a town of 19,000, is not even a third as big as the capacity of CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Thomas's Sunday home away from home in the fall.
Thomas' camp is truly a family affair. First, there is his "real" family - his father, Earl Thomas, Jr., the proud papa making the rounds at camp, shaking hands, making small talk. There's also Earl's mother, Debbie, a small tornado of a woman who's making the entire camp run smoothly despite inclement conditions including thunder, lightning, heavy rains and 1,000 people packed into the small West Orange-Stark school gym to escape the passing weather storms. Read
"Ms. Debbie", as she is known to the campers, has spent countless hours in the past week with her tight group of friends, finalizing signups, organizing registrations and making sure everything from t-shirts to meals to gift bags are ready to go.
"I'm so excited that Earl comes back and brings back such excitement to this community," said Earl's mom.
"A lot of these kids would never have the opportunity to go to a camp like this because of the cost. Earl wants to give back to the community and he doesn't charge and never will."
Earl's "other family", of course is his football family, and he's brought out fellow members of the "Legion of Boom" with him for the weekend. Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and former Seahawk cornerback Brandon Browner made the rounds with Thomas, getting wet and muddy with the campers, teaching the finer points of defensive back play to the young corners and safeties, and teaching proper route running to the receivers.
"We didn't come all the way out here to be standing off to the side," said Sherman. "We're not here just to be faces. We came out here be a positive influence to these kids, to show them the way, to show them we're human beings, we're regular people."
Sherman paused to look around at the youngsters scattered across the fields.
"We came from the same places these kids came from, we had the same dreams they have. We're here to show them it's possible and get them to understand they can achieve the same dreams."
Then he was off, in typical Sherman fashion, loudly instructing, correcting, encouraging and occasionally raising his voice at various campers around him. Joining the L.O.B. were fellow Seahawks Bobby Wagner, Akeem Auguste, and Tharold Simon.
The campers were sorted by age and designated across four football fields. Thomas made his way to each of them.Not surprisingly, there is a lot of focus on defense - with Thomas, Sherman and Browner taking a special interest in the defensive backs and man-to-man coverage. Chancellor, a former high school quarterback, found his way over to the QB's.
On the final day of camp, there was a highly competitive 7-on7 tournament featuring former high school and college players. Many of the young campers stuck around to watch and before they knew it, Thomas, Sherman and Browner were in the thick of the competition. This was in sorts, a return for Thomas to his high school field of dreams.
Off to the side, Cornel Thompson - West Orange-Stark's coach for the past 38 years - stands along a fence, taking it all in.
"This camp is really a big deal," he said.
"We had 850 little kids sign up. Another 150 call after the signup date. I've had calls from Mississippi, Louisiana, and all over Texas about this camp."
Looking at all the muddy white t-shirts bearing the familiar "29" on the back, he adds, "You'll see Earl Thomas t-shirts all over town for the rest of the year now, understand?
"These kids will wear nothing but Earl Thomas the rest of the summer. During football season you come to a game here and our stadium will packed on game night. Every little kid will be wearing a 29 shirt.
"Nobody wanted to wear number 29 before Earl Thomas became a Seattle Seahawk. Now everyone wants that number. I assign the numbers, you know, and everyone is battling for 29. Number 29 is a big big deal. He has a tremendous impact on this community here."
The camp is undoubtedly the highlight of the summer in Orange, Texas.
"A lot of the kids here are being raised by single parents and they are not able to go to a lot of different places. The kids really look up to Earl because he's like their hero," said Debbie Thomas.
"Because he comes from this little town of Orange and he's doing big things. He encourages them about staying on the right track, having a good attitude and handling your business in the classroom."
Coach Anderson chimes in with, "Everybody in this community loves Earl Thomas. I've yet to see him not stop to sign an autograph. Everybody knows him.The fact that he comes back to where he came from is a big deal. He is Orange, Texas. He put it on the map."
Bryson Strauss, 11, years old from Lake Charles, LA , perhaps sums up the weekend best when asked what he would say to Earl if he had the chance.
With a big smile crosses his face, he reaches his hands out wide, and said, "Thank you, Earl, I'll be back next year!"Read