It has been quite a week for Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls. Not long ago, Rawls was an undrafted rookie living in relative anonymity as Marshawn Lynch's backup, but after another big game filling in for an injured Lynch, this one a Seahawks rookie record 209-yard performance in a win over the San Francisco 49ers, things have changed for Rawls.
There have been plenty more media requests this week, songs being written about him and performed on 710 ESPN Seattle, his head coach comparing him to Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, and most significantly, the news that Rawls will continue to carry the load at running back moving forward while Lynch recovers from surgery.
Enough has been going on for Rawls this week that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll made a point of sitting down with his young running back to make sure Rawls' head was in the right place, but Carroll came away pleased with what he heard.
"I visited with him about it," Carroll said. "He seemed very squared away, not wanting to change anything about how he prepares and his habits and things like that. I thought it was worth talking to him about since it was such a shift. That's hard on anybody."
Rawls acknowledged that this week, "has been a lot," but he says, "I don't get distracted. I stay away from a lot of stuff with the media and things like that. Just try to stay to myself and the people that are priorities."
When it was decided on Sunday that Lynch was not going to be able to play last week, the Pro Bowl running back told Rawls, "Look, youngin', I'm passing you the torch for the day." As it turns out, Rawls will have to carry the torch for longer than that, because after Lynch went to Philadelphia to see a specialist about his abdominal injury, it was determined he needed surgery, which will keep him out for at least a few weeks.
Playing without one of the best running backs in the league is never ideal, but the Seahawks at least can go forward without Lynch knowing they have in Rawls a player who can keep the running game going. Rawls, who also has a 169-yard game this season, has rushed for a team-high 604 yards and averages a gaudy 6.0 yards per carry this season. While the Seahawks never expected they would need so much out of a rookie back this season, they always had high hopes for Rawls, whose acquisition was a top priority for Carroll after the draft.
"I told him that I'd personally watched him, and he was my favorite guy to get because of his style of running," Carroll said of his recruiting pitch to Rawls. "We talked a little bit about Marshawn and his style. He knew of us and watched us play a little bit… I went back to my recruiting days, I was working hard."
What Carroll likes in Rawls—what made him reluctantly compare an undrafted rookie to an all-time great like Campbell—is the combination of elusiveness, speed and power that allows him to both avoid and run over would-be tacklers, as well as the mentality it takes to succeed at one of the more physically demanding positions in football.
"He's got a unique body," Carroll said. "He's not real tall. He's got great strength in his lower body and he can put his foot in the ground and just bang those cuts. You see him sometimes it's almost like he surprises himself with the cuts that he makes. He's got really good strength. And then also, when he goes, he's fast. He's got good speed. He's a 4.4 (40-yard dash) guy. So you put that all together. He suddenly heads off in a different direction, and he's still looking to hit somebody though. He makes somebody miss to find somebody to hit, I think. That's kind of how he's doing it."
That "make somebody miss to find somebody to hit" mentality was on full display against San Francisco last week as Rawls made the cuts necessary to find daylight, then emphatically finished runs, often at the expense of 49ers defensive backs.
"I've never ran out of bounds," Rawls said after the game. "It's just my makeup, it's just my mentality, I think I would feel less of a person to just run out of bounds instead of just being physical and showing toughness and a different mentality at the running back position."
That mentality is what comes with being an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan, but more significantly, Rawls says, it comes from his upbringing in Flint, Michigan, where toughness is required in every-day life.
"It's in my DNA," Rawls said of his hometown. "It's just in me, it's hard to explain. I think I show it a little bit out on the field. That's where I'm free."
Flint, a city that fell on hard times in the 1980s when General Motors closed several factories that had been the lifeblood of the city's economy, is "a little rough," Rawls said, but it is also home, and the town that shaped him into the person and player he is today.
"There's some good things in Flint," he said. "There may not be a lot, but there's some good things in Flint. I'm just trying to carry it over and try to build up on it. Try to encourage the young ones, the young boys and young girls. Even adults back home, if I can get a call or a message saying you give me so much hope, I think I've done my job. And I'll continue to do it… I get (those messages) a lot. They keep me going. It motivates me and makes me go harder, makes me go stronger. And it's always in the back of my mind of why I do things and the reason why I'm doing it."
Those messages from back home are already finding their way to Rawls with regularity, but if he continues to play like he has so far this season, Rawls will only become more popular, both back in Flint and also in Seattle.
"Thomas is doing a tremendous job," running back Fred Jackson said. "He's running angry. He's hungry. He's doing everything that you can ask a young back to do. So you're extremely excited about that and now it's just on him to continue to build on everything that he's put on the ground and continue to be that guy that we can consistently count on when he's out there on the field."