The dream began 310 miles southeast of where Earl Thomas will play Sunday's game. Before he was the Seattle Seahawks' All-Pro free safety, Thomas was a big Dallas Cowboys fan growing up in Orange, Texas. Several years, a Super Bowl Ring, millions of dollars and multiple All-Pro and Pro-Bowl honors later, Thomas still calls himself a Cowboys fan, even as he prepares to face that team Sunday.
"It's just a part of my dream," Thomas said. "It doesn't feel real but it's here, it's real, it's happening."
Of course, playing his favorite team is only a small piece of the puzzle for one of the Seahawks' biggest dreamers. Thomas has been known to talk about being not just the best at his position, but one of the greatest athletes ever, which might sound arrogant if not for everything he has accomplished in his first five NFL seasons.
And at the heart of Thomas' desire to be great—and ability to back it up on the field—is a passion for the game that borders on maniacal.
Asked what he would be doing with his life if he weren't a professional football player, and Thomas answers, "I'd be playing football." It's an answer that makes sense in its own weird way if you've spent enough time around Thomas.
Listen to one Earl Thomas interview, and you might come away thinking he's just a little weird. But watch the consistency and intensity in his actions both on and off the field, and it all makes perfect sense.
"That's what's wrong today—nobody wants to be themselves, everybody wants to follow the crowd," Thomas said last year. "That's why there's only a couple of people out there who are being true to who they are, and that's why people will be like, 'Oh, they're weird.' No, you just don't understand them because you need to take a look at yourself."
Or as cornerback Richard Sherman explained it on "The Huddle" on 710 ESPN Seattle, "He's one of those guys who 10 years from now, we're going to grasp everything he said and be like, 'Oh my god, he was a prophet.'"
After quickly establishing himself as one league's most promising rookies in 2010, Thomas went on to earn first-team All-Pro honors three times and earn Pro Bowl honors four times in the next four years, winning one Super Bowl and playing in another while anchoring the best defense in the NFL. In other words, there have been a lot more ups than downs in Thomas' career, but this season has presented a few tough moments for him dating back to offseason shoulder surgery. Thomas said the rehab process and being away from the game during offseason workouts made him question his love for football, something that seems unfathomable for a player as passionate as Thomas. Then when the season opened, Thomas was playing without Kam Chancellor for the first two games, his partner in the back end of Seattle's defense for the previous four seasons. And after a loss to Cincinnati, Thomas said he felt like he played timid in that game.
Thomas has been himself in the past two weeks, however, first playing very well in a loss to the Panthers, then being a part of a dominant defensive effort against the 49ers in which the team was able to “get that passion back," according to Thomas.
"Growth," Thomas said when asked to assess his 2015 season. That's basically it, just growth. I'm glad it happened that way."
Why would Thomas be glad it happened this way?
"You would never get over your fears," he said. "You would still be the same."
That passion he and the Seahawks found, perhaps even more than his unusual athletic ability, is what makes Thomas such a special player.
"Between 1 and 10, he'd be a 97," Sherman said when asked to rank Thomas' level of passion. "That guy, he comes with it. He comes to play every game, he brings it every play, regardless of if he has won or lost a match. In terms of contact, being aggressive, being physical with ball carriers, he's going to get up and he's going to tell them about it. He's been that way since I've ever met him. He's passionate about how he plays, how he approaches the game, and every game, every play, you can depend on him."
That passion doesn't just fuel Thomas' game, it helps raise the level of play for the whole defense.
"It's definitely contagious," Sherman said. "He has an infectious personality, despite what you guys may think. He's a really fun guy to play with, he wants everybody to feel his energy and feed off of his energy, and he also feeds off of the energy of others. It's always really cool to play with a guy like that."
Even Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, someone who built his entire coaching philosophy on competition, was surprised by what he saw out of Thomas when he arrived in 2010, saying last year, "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."
Thomas doesn't really have an explanation for his intensity and passion for football other than to say it's how he grew up, inheriting a love of the game from his dad, Earl Thomas, Jr.
"I couldn't really tell you that," Thomas said when asked the origins of his passion. "I just believe this game is – I'm a real live football player. I don't really have good social skills. I'm just a football player that loves the game, and when I'm out there that's when I can really socialize."
That passion for football elevated Thomas to incredible heights over the past few years, and on Sunday it will take him home—or at least a few hours away from home—to continue his dream by facing the team he grew up cheering for before he was a first-team All-American at Texas or an NFL star with the Seahawks.
Of course, even if Thomas weren't returning to his home state this weekend as an NFL player, he'd still "be playing football." That might sounds strange coming from a lot of people, but somehow when the Seahawks' free safety/"prophet" says it, it all makes perfect sense.
"I love Earl, because of the way that he plays the game," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "He's genuinely happy when he's out there. This is what he loves to do, and you have to love it, for how much success he's had, you have to love it like that. The amount of time that he's put in, the type of things that he's done, he's just a great player. His passion is what drives the team."