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February 23, 2006
Starting all over
Earl Thomas couldn't believe that it was his house on television.
As he and his mother watched after evacuating from the path of Hurricane Rita, both could have sworn that it was their heavily damaged house on the screen. When they returned, the Orange (Texas) West Orange Stark athlete and his mother saw firsthand what had really happened.
It was their home.
"I guess my heart dropped when I saw my house," Thomas said upon arrival back in Orange. "It wasn't a pretty sight. To be honest, we didn't really think the hurricane was going to affect us but we left anyway."
Thomas, a 5-foot-10, 174-pound speedster who has made his mark on the football field and in the classroom, is one of the state's top recruiting targets for the class of 2007. However, things have changed since last fall when he put up big stats and collected big honors.
Now, he and several others are starting over.
"Our church has been doing a rebuilding process," Thomas said. "They tore my old house down; they're going to add on to a new church. Right now, we're living in a trailer with my mother, my brother and my father.
"Life has changed big-time. I really don't have any personal space because it's so crowded here."
Nonetheless, Thomas doesn't look at that horrific day as a negative one. He says getting back on the football field has helped him realize what's important.
"Football takes my mind off of everything," Thomas said. "To be honest, I think it's made me a stronger person. I feel like I can do a lot of things with a lot less than I had before."
His junior year included 892 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns and 18.2 yards per reception through the air. If that wasn't enough, Thomas racked up four interceptions on defense that season.
The versatile player says with this all behind him, he has just one goal.
"I'm working hard everyday because this is the year," he said. "I want to guide my team to state. Everybody is preparing themselves and we're pushing ourselves like we've never pushed before. You go through this situation and you have to understand it's not always going to be bad, and we're going to make it good.
"You've got to think positive and that's what we're doing."
Though don't confuse Earl with a player that is just built around athletics. Thomas' mother, Debbie Thomas, says that her son has many talents. He plays saxophone, organ, guitar, and plays drums at his church. When he's not on the football field, he's in the school band.
Football, though, was never far away. When he was a child, his father had him carrying around a football for hours to work on his hand skills. It seems to have made a big difference.
His mother also remembers that before Earl was born, they had to deal with some tough times before any hurricane headed their way.
"I was diagnosed with cancer after finding out I was having Earl," Thomas' mother said. "I prayed about it because I had lost my first child. When the tests came back, I was healed. God still works in miracles."
The Thomas family has remained strong through all their challenges. Not long after the storm, things becamse positive for Earl regarding college.
The vast amount of mail that he had been receiving from college programs slowed to a temporary stop at one point. As mail got going again, the top schools that were contacting him pushed it to a new level with correspondence.
Thomas remembers when all that mail led to a special day.
"I got my first offer three weeks ago from Texas A&M," Thomas said. "It was a blessing man after all of this. I really was shocked. You look back on all of this and you forget how early this is for offers. Texas found me, too, and I'll be heading up there this weekend for their junior day. I'm just excited about all of this."
LSU, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Kansas, Texas Tech, and many others have jumped back on quickly with mail. The next offers may not be too far off for the young man that has had to deal with more than just an off-season.
Thomas added that he knows what it is like for people who have lost personal items in major storms. He also knows what to tell them when he meets them from time to time.
"I've been through the bad times and they have, too," he said. "The way I look at it, something good has to come around now. That's the best advice I can give."