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Earl Thomas Loves the Cowboys—but Do the Cowboys Love Him Back?

On the eve of free agency, let’s break down the 29-year-old safety’s affinity for his home state and the Dallas franchise

NFL free agent safety Earl Thomas III with the Dallas Cowboys star behind him AP Images/Ringer illustration

On Christmas Eve 2017, the Seattle Seahawks knocked the Dallas Cowboys out of the playoffs with a 21-12 win, but the bigger story was what happened when the two teams walked off the field. Seahawks safety Earl Thomas III went to track down his friend Dez Bryant in the locker room. En route, Thomas put his arm around head coach Jason Garrett’s shoulders and told him, if he had the chance, “Come get me.”

At his own locker after the game, Thomas confirmed what he said to reporters while offering exceedingly rare honesty.

“I’ve always been a Cowboys fan growing up,” Thomas told reporters. “But the biggest thing when I say ‘come get me’ is I don’t literally mean like ‘come get me now.’ I’m still in the prime of my career; I still want to be here. But when Seattle kicks me to the curb, please, the Cowboys, come get me. That’s the only place I would rather be if I get kicked to the curb.”

One year and three months later, Thomas has been kicked to the curb, but the Cowboys might not come get him. They likely have to pay quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper, and DeMarcus Lawrence big contracts this offseason, and they are already talking about extending running back Ezekiel Elliott. The Athletic’s Calvin Watkins reported last week that Dallas is not interested in Thomas at his desired price of around $13 million annually, which would match Kansas City’s Eric Berry as the highest-paid safety, reportedly a priority for Thomas. Dallas might just be posturing ahead of negotiations, but it seems clear it wants a hometown discount. That might not fly with Thomas, who was once the highest-paid safety in the NFL and has seen others eclipse him in salary who have not eclipsed his play on the field.

“If the money’s equal, if all things are equal, he’s going to Dallas,” 49ers cornerback and former Seahawk Richard Sherman told the Sacramento Bee’s Chris Biderman in February. “Now if that [compensation is] not the same, there’s more of a discussion, more of a fight.”

That fight might be difficult for Thomas considering the pull of home.

“My heart and soul belong to Orange, Texas,” Thomas wrote about his hometown, which is less than 15 miles from Louisiana, in a Players’ Tribune column in 2015. His grandfather, Earl Thomas I, built a church in Orange and served as pastor while working in the same grocery store for 43 years. Thomas’s father, Earl Thomas II, and his mother raised their children in the house next door to the church. That house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005, but Thomas, a star safety at University of Texas, was drafted by the Seahawks in 2010 and bought his parents a new house the following year. He is still obsessed with Texas high school football and Longhorns sports. He practiced with the Longhorns during his holdout last year. When he got married in 2016, his white jacket had burnt-orange trim. (He was also wearing a crown.) Thomas’s children are enrolled in school in Austin, according to 247Sports’ Mike Fisher.

In July 2018, former Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril told Sirius XM that Thomas was still obsessed with Texas professional football too.

“Everyone in our locker room knows that Earl loves the Cowboys,” Avril told Sirius XM in July 2018. “I mean, he grew up in Texas. That’s just who he is. He will leave immediately after work just to catch them play on Monday Night Football. You know what I mean? So we understand that. We didn’t take it too serious. I did have a conversation with him after the [2017 Cowboys] game like, ‘What the heck were you thinking?’ He’s like, ‘Bro, they just making it a big deal, it wasn’t even supposed to be that big deal of a deal, I was in the heat of the moment. I just said it. Whatever.’”

Thomas has said things in the heat of the moment before. When he broke his tibia in 2016, he tweeted he was contemplating retirement (he did not retire).

“Just like Earl said he was retiring, you can always read too much into what Earl [says],” Sherman told ESPN in February 2018, when both were still on the Seahawks. “He loves football. He loves the game. And obviously he’s making $8.5 million, and the top player at his position is making $14 [million], so being the competitor that he is ... it’s more out of respect than anything, because it’s kind of disrespectful when he feels like he’s the best in the game, and I think he’s being paid like the seventh or eighth.”

Thomas used to admire the Cowboys from afar, but he has a personal connection there now too. When Thomas was asked after the “come get me” incident whether he was happy in Seattle, he cited Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard as one of the reasons he didn’t want to leave. Richard had coached Thomas every year of the safety’s career. He was Seattle’s assistant defensive backs coach in 2010, then the defensive backs coach from 2011-2014, and then became Seattle’s defensive coordinator from 2015 to 2017. Richard is one of the primary reasons the Legion of Boom rose to prominence (and Thomas loved the Legion of Boom). But less than a month after the incident, the Seahawks fired Richard and the Cowboys hired him as defensive backs coach and passing-game coordinator. Dallas promptly got career years from multiple members of its secondary in 2018.

The Richard hiring, plus Dallas’s holes at safety, only increased the Thomas-to-Dallas momentum. The Cowboys were reportedly so interested in Thomas that they offered a third-round pick for him during this past NFL draft and bumped it up to a second-round pick in training camp, but they were turned down both times. When the Seahawks hosted the Cowboys in Week 3 last year, the rumor mill hit its fever pitch. Thomas told reporters a few Dallas coaches asked him before the game whether he was “ready for the trade tomorrow,” though he wasn’t sure whether they were joking (the NFL investigated the incident and decided it was not tampering). Thomas intercepted Dak Prescott twice, including late in the fourth quarter to seal the game. Thomas bowed toward the Dallas sideline.

But one week later, while in the midst of a partial holdout in which the 29-year-old sat out of practices while still suiting up on game days, he suffered a lower leg fracture while playing the Cardinals. He flipped a middle finger to the Seahawks sideline as he was being carted off the field.

It’s unclear whether the Cowboys are truly uninterested in paying Thomas a big contract or whether they are leveraging his interest against him. If they were going to part with a second-round pick for him six months ago, they presumably were planning on extending Thomas to a long-term contract, but it’s possible that the combination of Thomas’s injury and trading a first-round pick for Cooper changed their calculus. Regardless, Thomas could have an opportunity to play for his beloved Cowboys if he so chooses.

At the 2018 Pro Bowl, Thomas was asked what was going through his head when he made the “come get me” comment.

“I’m a Dallas Cowboys fan. I’m from Texas. My dad always instilled that in us. That’s all we watched growing up.

“I had an amazing game that game and I was caught up in the moment,” Thomas told NFL Network’s Jane Slater. “I saw coach Garrett. I just listened to my inner self!”