This story originally appeared in the September 7 edition of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
Earl Thomas stood in the Seahawks locker room and knew he was home. In that same place eight months earlier, with his leg broken, Thomas had contemplated retirement, even tweeting about it while the game was still going. But as the Seahawks prepared for their first home game of the 2017 preseason, Thomas was reminded of how connected he is to the game of football.
"Just walking into the locker room and seeing the big Seahawks emblem in the middle of the floor, the smell of the locker room, I was like, 'Man, this just feels good,'" Thomas said. "I missed it. Just being away from it, at the time, I was just a spectator, a fan. I had the thought of retirement in my head. It wasn't until I got back, especially the first game we played against the Chargers, I was like, 'Dang!' When you're actually back in that situation when you're coming down the tunnel with your teammates, when you actually take the field for the first time, it's just appreciation for what was lost. I missed it."
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2017 Seahawks, ranging from a healthy, dialed-in Russell Wilson to an offense loaded with weapons to what should be an improved offensive line to a defense full of Pro Bowlers, but at or near the top of that list for Seattle heading into the season is the return of Thomas.
For six-plus seasons, Thomas was the constant in Seattle's defense, playing a key role in that unit's growth as it became one of the best defenses in league history. But when he collided with fellow safety Kam Chancellor while attempting to intercept a pass last December, Thomas fractured a leg, causing him to miss the final four games of the regular season, as well as Seattle's two playoff games.
Thomas had also missed Seattle's Week 12 game with a hamstring injury, but prior to that, he had never missed a game in his NFL career. And sustaining such a significant injury, especially one to his legs—"my foundation," he called it—rattled Thomas. Eventually those feelings of doubt and thoughts of retirement were replaced by a drive to return to the game that has meant so much to him since he began playing it as a child in Orange, Texas.
And not only did Thomas get back from the injury ahead of schedule, taking part in a significant portion of Seattle's offseason workout program, he came back looking like he might be even better—if that's possible for a player who has already been named first-team All-Pro three times and earned Pro Bowl honors five times.
"It's a revived Earl Thomas," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "It's not as if he's ever taken this game for granted, but you could just see a guy relieved to be back out there, playing football again, doing what he loves to do."
Early in training camp, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Thomas was "flying" and that he "looks in better condition and faster than I've ever seen him since year one or two or something like that. The last three or four years, this is the best he has ever been."
A month of practice and Thomas' play in preseason games has only added to Carroll's belief that Thomas is headed for a big 2017 season.
"I don't even want to say anything," Carroll said. "It's like he's like pitching a no-hitter. He's doing great. He's doing great and I'm just thrilled for him. The comeback that he has made because of the way he's approached his offseason had to be just impeccable. He just looks great, so he's made great hits, great tackles. He's ready to go. He showed the sparks of that way back in the OTA part when he first got some reps, that he was further ahead than we thought he would be, and shoot he has just had a great camp and he's played really well. He's ready to go."
Thomas has always been not only one of the team's most talented players, but one of its most driven. Few players, if any, are as football-obsessed and competitive as Thomas, who does things like wear cleats and a mouth guard during walk-thru practices, or who once got into it with teammates because he didn't like that one of them was eating sunflower seeds during a walk-thru.
Carroll, whose coaching philosophy centers on competition, once said of Thomas, "He was more fiercely competitive than I could have anticipated. Just extremely competitive, high-strung personality, just driven. … Honestly, I wish I was as competitive as him."
So just getting back the old version of Thomas would have been great news for Seattle's defense, but because of an injury that helped Thomas appreciate the game even more, the Seahawks might be getting an even better version of Thomas in 2017.
"I think it captured the best of him," Carroll said. "I think it challenged him. There was a time when he wasn't sure—he was a little broken when it all happened and he didn't know how he was going to handle things. But once he got his feet on the ground, got his vision clear, he has gone for it, and I think it's brought out his best and the great competitive nature, the great fire that burns in him, it's extraordinary. It just drove him to the point that we're talking about it like we are, he's ready to go and there's no doubt about it and he's done it quietly, just put together a great preseason."
Yet in some ways, Thomas hasn't changed. Internally he may appreciate the game a little more having had it taken away for part of last season, and as Carroll notes, he is moving as well as he ever has, but when it comes to the things that have made Thomas one of the best defensive players in the game, those traits remain intact.
"I just see a focused, driven Earl," Chancellor said. "He's just dialed in. He's still the same person he has always been. He's just dialed in on plays, on watching film, on the opponent we're playing, on everything he has to do to stay at the top of his game. That's the Earl I'm seeing right now.
"What I see on the field, what I see with him watching film, what I see in the way he interacts with his teammates, you can tell he really missed his teammates, really missed playing out there with the defense and just contributing his part."
Not having Thomas on the field was unusual for everyone, but especially for Chancellor, who came into the league with Thomas as a 2010 draft pick, and who has started alongside him since 2011.
"Just not seeing him there, it felt weird, it felt odd," Chancellor said. "It felt like something was wrong, something was missing not being able to feel his impact out there."
Thomas' absence was noticeable on the field as he missed playing time for the first time in his career—losing an All-Pro free safety will hurt any defense, even one as talented as Seattle's. But as much as it could be seen in the moment that Thomas was missed, it took getting him back this summer to really appreciate what he has meant to the defense and the entire team.
"He affects us," Carroll said. "When he was gone for a while and he first came back to full speed, he shocked me a little bit in that I had forgotten what an impact player he is and how he's affected our program. The two young safeties (Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson) and new guys coming into the program, they see a guy like that practice like he does and a guy like (Richard) Sherman, who practices so hard and diligently in camp. Those guys all made a pact a long time ago that when they practice, they were going to give it up and show that these opportunities are precious to them. And they passed that along and I think that's part of the makeup of our club that's really allowed them to be out there because of their leadership. That's one of the great ways to lead, by showing it and doing it."
After breaking his leg and spending the final six games of last season as a spectator, and after briefly questioning if he would ever return to the sport, Thomas appreciates these precious opportunities now more than ever. And that's very good news for the 2017 Seahawks.
"I got my full love back," Thomas said. "I love it even more. It's hard to find words for it."