NEW ORLEANS — Earl Thomas grew up less than 250 miles west of the site of Sunday's Seahawks game against the Saints, and as such, the Seattle free safety "had about 40 people" in attendance to watch his team play in Week 8 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Thomas, a native of nearby Orange, Texas, provided entertainment for his friends and family early on in the Seahawks' eventual 25-20 defeat, when he corralled a first-quarter fumble from Saints running back Mark Ingram and used his breakaway speed — on top of a "good block" from Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner — to race 34 yards for the end zone, marking Thomas' third career score in a Seattle uniform that staked his club a 7-0 lead with just over eight minutes to play in the opening quarter.
"It just came right to me," Thomas said postgame of the Ingram fumble that Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril was credited with forcing. "I was running to the ball trying to clean up on the trash and it just came right to me and I took off."
After the play was over and Thomas' teammates were done congratulating him on the touchdown, Thomas made a point to hug one of the game's officials — side judge Alex Kemp — on his way back to the Seattle sideline.
"Having fun, bro," Thomas said of the embrace. "Just excited about the moment. I only live like three hours away from here. I'm just thinking like, 'Man, everybody back home just saw me score.' You never know what happens when you go into these games, then the ball kind of goes your way.
"Just an exciting moment. That's just how I celebrated."
But as it turns out, hugging an individual in pinstripes is a penalty in the NFL, even if the hug carries good intentions like Thomas' did. After the touchdown, Thomas was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, which came as news to him in the Seattle locker room.
"It was just spur of the moment," Thomas said. "He laughed, but I didn't even know he threw the flag."
Added Avril, who finished Sunday's game with four tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and the forced fumble that led to Thomas' score: "I've seen [Thomas] try to [fist] pound the ref before, I've seen him try to get a high five, he's just into the game. I didn't even know that was a penalty, honestly. But that's just Earl. He's so passionate about the game, he's not thinking."
The penalty, which was enforced on Seattle's ensuing kickoff, was one of a season-high 11 flags the Seahawks recorded on the day. Yet despite all the dirty laundry, the team had a chance to win the game at the end, thanks to a number of goal-line stands on the part of Seattle's defense and a Seahawks offense that started to find its rhythm in the second half, particularly on the potential game-winning final drive, after it ran just 19 plays through the first two quarters.
"I was just happy that we had a chance at the end," Thomas said. "I believe in [Russell Wilson], I understand what he's capable of. He's done it so many times and I was just believing that we were going to pull it out. We almost did."
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Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas recovers a Mark Ingram fumble and returns it 34 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter of a Week 8 game against the New Orleans Saints.