The town of Orange, TX isn’t going to show up on most maps unless you know where to look. The 18,500 population town on the border of Louisiana and Texas is mostly a town you’d pass through getting in and out of either state. For Earl Thomas III, it means much more.
The Seattle Seahawks safety is from the rural town, and finds time to give back to it as much as possible. He holds a free football camp in the summers. He chartered busses for the town to attend the school’s third straight state championship appearance. He gives away winter coats and food during Thanksgiving. All of this is what we’re allowed to know about.
According to the ESPN story, the giving back and wanting to help the community goes back multiple generations.
That civic devotion began with his grandfather, the late Earl Thomas Sr., who built a church in Orange’s roughest section — the East Side — proclaiming it the “church where everybody is somebody.” A man of few words and endless drive, Earl Sr. had a ninth-grade education and worked at the same grocery for 50 years. He didn’t have much in his will to pass on to his six kids and their families. Instead, their inheritance was one of compassion for a place that can be as hard to live in as it is to love.
It’s why Thomas’ dad, Earl Jr., has spent weeks hanging drywall in homes battered by Harvey’s winds and 34 inches of rain. It’s why his mom, Debbie, is an unpaid church secretary after retiring from a local school district. And it’s why Earl III often spends time in the offseason with kids in neighborhoods that are otherwise forgotten.
“He’s always tried to help people,” says Essie Bellfield, an 85-year-old civil rights activist who helped integrate Orange and became the city’s first black mayor in 1997. “Which is the way he was raised up.”
Orange has the unfortunate distinction of been ravaged by Hurricanes Rita, Ike and Harvey in the last 12 years. The latest had devastating flood damage for many in the area. Football has been a distraction they can count on, with the West Orange-Stark high school team making the aforementioned three consecutive state championships, of which they won two. They also had an impressive 36-game winning streak.
In a town that still has some racial tension, football brings everyone together.
Rickie Harris, the school superintendent, says fans ask in September when he’ll schedule early releases so the kids won’t miss class for the title game. “It’s expected,” he says. “When we get in the playoffs, we play in the championship.”
The Mustangs (.805 through Nov. 15) will officially have the state’s top all-time winning percentage once they play 13 more times to hit the 500-game minimum. “It’s one of the reasons I’m still here,” says head coach Cornel Thompson, 68. “Nobody will have a chance to catch us in my lifetime.”
Harvey was one of the biggest storms in the history of this planet, let alone the region. It left many without homes and many others with homes still boarded up months after.
Orange has removed 200,000 cubic yards of debris, yet mounds of broken furniture and trash spill into the narrow streets. Sims suspects many residents and businesses have seen what awaits them and given up. “The thing that keeps me up at night: Where are the people?” he says. “It’s mind-boggling when I drive around. Ain’t nobody there.”
Like many natives, Earl Jr., now 60, has cleaned up after once-in-a-thousand-years storms more times than the odds would suggest. In 2005, Rita leveled his home and forced him, Debbie and teenage sons Earl III and Seth into a room at the Motel 6, then a FEMA trailer for nearly a year. Earl Jr. believes Rita readied him for Harvey, which left his new, sturdier brick home (a gift from Earl III) mostly undamaged and left him available to help others.
Thus it should come as little surprise that the Thomas family, with no prompting and little direction, seized leading roles in local recovery efforts. Earl Sr.’s old church served as a receiving station for 18-wheelers full of donated goods when the floodwaters finally receded. Earl III leveraged his connections to get help from the Seahawks, the [Texas] Longhorns and other VIPs.
“I got a call from Bun B. He said Earl had given him my number,” says his uncle and pastor Anthony Thomas about the famed rapper from nearby Port Arthur. “I couldn’t believe it. Earl gathered so many resources.”
Orange isn’t just where Earl III comes from; it is what he’s made from. That’s why you can find him in Orange on most mornings in the offseason. He works out in his school’s no-frills, no-AC weight room, then hits the field with his brother Seth, a wide receivers coach at West Orange-Stark, doing drills and conditioning with whoever can hang with him (and many who can’t).
Earl III is using his influence and popularity to make one of the best football camps in the area even better. Last summer, he brought teammates Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, and his camp had over 1,000 kids register.
“I wanted to bring the guys down here so the kids could touch them,” Thomas says. “I wanted to share it with them so they could see this is what got me out. When those kids see me, they can say, ‘Hey, he’s from Orange and he’s not the biggest or strongest. He just had that work ethic, that passion.'”
“It explains everything I need to know about Earl,” Sherman says. “I see where the chip on his shoulder came from. He came from a place not a lot of people get out of.”
Thomas plays in and owns a house outside of Seattle, but he’s kept his roots in Orange the entire time. He owns 12 acres which he bought after buying his parents a new house in the area. In a region where not a lot of people make it out to have the kind of success he has had, Earl Thomas III is a shining beacon of hope, especially for those who pick up a football.
Quotes and excerpts taken from ESPN.com article.