Earl Thomas is the favorite son of a troubled Texas town

Earl Thomas' annual free football camp in his hometown of Orange, Texas, is perhaps the city's signature event. Guiseppe Barranco/The Beaumont Enterprise

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Just outside of Seattle, way up near the forested, snow-frosted peak of Cougar Mountain, Earl Thomas III stepped out into the front yard of his $2 million six-bedroom home on a chilly November afternoon. Even today, eight seasons into a career with the Seahawks that seems destined for NFL immortality, Thomas can barely believe he has made it all the way up -- almost literally -- to the top of the mountain.

"I was just standing out there," he recalls one recent morning. "And I'm like, 'Man, I'm in the mountains. I'm so blessed.'"

Cougar Mountain is a long way, in every way, from the start of Thomas' odyssey. Orange, Texas -- 2,500 miles away on the Louisiana line -- is nothing like Seattle: no mountains, barely even hills; almost never any snow; and whatever natural beauty the area boasted has been sacrificed to the ceaseless demands of the petrochemical and lumber industries. The town of 18,500 is in the heart of a region, still in a post-oil-boom decline, waylaid by three storms in 12 years, including Hurricane Harvey most recently.

Orange also has a bedeviling legacy as one of Texas' most palpably inhospitable regions for black people, a town where Confederacy enthusiasts recently erected a monument on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, to be seen from Interstate 10 and the 55,000 cars per day that pass by. The partially completed project has hit roadblocks but had overwhelming support in a poll conducted by a local newspaper. "There's still a fair amount of racial tension in the area, far more than I've seen in other parts of Texas," says Ginger Gummelt, social work professor at Lamar University in nearby Beaumont. "In no way has it progressed like in other parts of the country."

But Orange still has football, which might be the thread holding it all together. It's been an anchor when Orange was almost literally adrift, a distraction when the oil boom finally dried up in the 1980s, an emblem to the outside world when there wasn't much else to brag about. And, of course, it is what connects Thomas to his town, to such a degree that it makes him a rarity, even among his NFL peers. "Guys will donate money," teammate Richard Sherman says. "But they're not as involved. He is uncommon."

Thomas' largesse in Orange has become the stuff of local legend. He holds a free summer football camp that draws hundreds of children. Last fall he chartered two buses for townsfolk to attend his alma mater's third straight state championship game appearance. He sponsors giveaways for Thanksgiving turkeys and winter coats. And those efforts are only the ones that he, a famously private man, allows us to see.

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. worked at the same grocery for 43 years. He left a legacy to his six kids and their families 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."

From Earl Sr. on down, helping people is his family's legacy. But when pulled up and away by his own talent and hard work, how much does a man owe to his hometown?

IN A COMMUNITY with little else to celebrate, West Orange-Stark football is a welcome distraction. The school has played for a state title three straight years, winning the past two and rolling to a state-best 36-game winning streak. And it's favored to win at AT&T Stadium this December. 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."

Town elders still talk about the bitter fights over desegregation and the merger of West Orange and Stark-Lutcher high schools in 1977. "There was a big question mark as to whether [West Orange-Stark] would make it because the schools had been enemies for years," says Thompson, the linebackers coach and equipment manager for that first team in '77. "People felt like football would bring the communities together."

Friday, however, is the only day the school can lay claim to being a catalyst of civic unity. High schools have gradually become segregated again in Orange County, where the town of Orange is the only one with a population above 11,000. Most white residents in town send kids 20 minutes north to Little Cypress-Mauriceville High or west to Orangefield High, where four out of five students are white. The county's other high schools -- Bridge City and Vidor -- have similar demographics. Vidor, 20 miles west, was immortalized on a 1993 cover of Texas Monthly featuring a Klansman and the words "Texas' most hate-filled town."

"Orange has some of the tendencies of Vidor, just not as violent," says Walter Buenger, chief historian of the Texas State Historical Association and a professor at Texas. "They all have that KKK undertone." Even Earl III, whose success at Texas and in the NFL would presumably let him go anywhere with little trouble, avoids Vidor. "I'm not going over there," he says, his face crinkling.

By contrast, West Orange-Stark's numbers are the inverse of the city's: Two-thirds of its students are black, compared with one-third of the town. "We've had a lot of people move their families," says Thompson, who is white. "But our African-American athletes are still here."

Town lines are brazenly drawn. Last year a meme of a black player with the words "You will always be a n-----" was sent by at least two Bridge City players to a West Orange-Stark player, who then tweeted it out. Bridge City's administration apologized and said the players would be disciplined but did not say how. The teams didn't shake hands after the Mustangs' 55-0 win.

So it is that on most fall Friday nights, aging white alums fill the bleachers of Dan R. Hooks Stadium to watch a championship team of mostly black teenagers represent the best that Orange has to offer.

THE TEXAS DIVISION of the Sons of Confederate Veterans had different ideas about what Orange might project to the outside world. A weathered circular concrete pedestal with 13 columns (one per Confederate state) rests on unkempt grass, like ruins of a fallen civilization. Plans for the monument called for as many as 40 poles topped with battle flags. "Your support will enable passengers in over 55,000 cars per day [to] see Confederate Flags flying proudly in the Texas breeze," read a flyer for the Confederate Memorial of the Wind. Instead, a project once lauded as the largest of its ilk in 100 years languishes alongside I-10.

"That's a cloud hanging overhead," Mayor Jimmy Sims says. "I don't want it there."

In March 2009, the Orange County commission proclaimed April as Confederate History and Heritage Month. It didn't draw much notice until after January 2013, when Orange resident Granvel Block, a commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was given a city permit for a "veteran's memorial" on private land he'd bought alongside I-10. Local activists didn't take long to mount opposition.

"Here's what they did to try to spite us," says Henry Lowe, who's working to create a local museum of black history. "What we objected to was it being on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. It was a slap in the face."

Soon after, the Beaumont Enterprise ran an editorial: "Simply put, it would be divisive and offensive. ... No one else in Orange wants this and many strongly oppose it."

However, in an online poll, 74 percent of more than 400 respondents chose "Yes. The Confederate Army and Civil War are part of our history." And Block, in a post titled "Call to Arms" on the Texas SCV Facebook page, claimed polls by The Orange Leader and a radio station showed similar support.

City officials, who had been legally bound to issue the permit, fought back by mandating limits on the size of flagpoles and flags and enacting strict parking rules. The site has sat idle since, though the flag of the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, the last major Confederate command to surrender, was raised there in September 2016. (Block didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Still, the stymied plans haven't felt much like a victory. "Nothing is ever over," Sims says. "But hopefully it remains like it is."

THREE MONTHS AFTER the storm, it is plain to see what Harvey left behind. Homes are boarded up, if not outright abandoned. 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 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).

This innate connection keeps him coming back. It's why he and former UT teammate and Broncos running back Jamaal Charles, a Port Arthur native, each gave $50,000 to local recovery efforts. Their fund-raising site shows $130,000 in donations. "They were this area's Red Cross," superintendent Harris says.

But in a time of endless need and finite resources, many folks in Orange can't help but feel that the town didn't come up much in coverage of Harvey. There's a pervasive feeling that the nation moved on and the town missed a chance to tell its story. "I don't think Orange is ever at the center of anyone's mind," Earl III says. "We can get lost."

EARL III LEFT for Austin in 2007 as one of the nation's top football recruits. He stayed at Texas long enough to deliver on his potential, a consensus 2009 All-American on a team that played for the BCS title, losing to Alabama. A few months later, unlike other projected NFL first-rounders squirming in New York, Earl III stayed home. He hosted a draft bash in Orange at his grandfather's small church, a celebration of his journey and a tribute to his town.

They rolled out a red carpet as 400 folks gathered in the chapel and rec room while Thomas awaited the call. The party culminated with Seattle taking him at No. 14, but it was only the start of Thomas' sharing his new life with his old home. In 2012, he and Debbie held a free summer camp at the high school. The first year 300 signed up. The next year 500. Then he brought in his Legion of Boom backfield mates Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor as counselors. This summer the camp hosted more than 1,000.

"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.'"

In only six years, the Earl Thomas Football Camp has become perhaps the city's signature event. He even chose the 2015 camp as the setting to propose to his high school sweetheart, Nina. (She said yes.)

Football took Thomas away from Orange, but he never really left. In 2011, after buying his parents a home, he bought himself one on a 12-acre plot near the city limits. But his years with Seattle have also opened his eyes to the world. Thomas recalls talented friends and teammates who never made it. He thinks about how on his side of town, so many dreams -- if not the kids themselves -- died young. U.S. Census estimates show that nearly 30 percent of black Orange residents live in poverty, compared with 24 percent of the demographic statewide, while only 8.5 percent hold at least a bachelor's degree, compared with 21.7 percent in Texas. "I saw guys who didn't handle it and it killed them," he says. "As kids, it crushes your spirit before you get going, and you already don't have nothing."

Getting old in Orange isn't much easier. He thinks of his grandfather, who died in 2010 at 74, and all of his work for a community that remains resistant to change. His uncle Anthony now leads the church but has chosen a different, if no less rigorous, path. He commutes 115 miles to Orange several times a week from Houston.

"It's so draining, and I think it's why [Earl Sr.] passed away so early," Earl III says. "My uncle is going through the same situation. I feel like, going forward, the older I get, the more I kind of push away. I don't really grow as much when I'm back."

IN THE SEATTLE suburbs on a recent November morning, Thomas briefly considers the distance from his $2 million home on the mountain to Orange, a town that didn't have a single home valued at more than $1 million in the last census estimates.

"Hard work really does pay off," he says, echoing a mantra of Earl Sr. He then muses about whether the Seahawks truly appreciate everything he's done, or if he shares something else with Orange. "I think I'm overlooked in general," he says, while nursing a hamstring injury in what could be his sixth Pro Bowl season. "Even on this team ... they don't respect me like they need to."

He brought up Charles, who was released by Kansas City in February, a year after suffering a knee injury that he never fully recovered from. "It's the nature of the business: No matter how good you are, if you get hurt, the team will forget about you," he says. Considering his football mortality has meant thinking about life after Seattle and even Orange. "I don't ever think I thought past Orange growing up," he says.

"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."

Nina gave birth to their second daughter on Tuesday, and Earl III has started thinking about the kind of life he wants for his family, about the choices they'll have to make and about the best the world has to offer.

"I want my daughter to have the best schooling," he says. "I want my daughter to be around diverse people, where you don't see the racism and stuff like that going on.

"I know I'm always going to maintain a presence there," he says of Orange, sounding more sincere than diplomatic. "But living there? No."