GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was never going to be the fuzzy moment in which all wounds were healed and all conflicts were resolved. There wasn’t going to be a warm embrace between coach and player at a press conference where they detailed their mutual admiration.
It was pretty well understood that, no matter what the saga’s course, it wasn’t going to end well between Earl Thomas and the Seahawks. But what took place Sunday was worse than what anybody could have imagined.
In the fourth quarter of Seattle’s 20-17 win over Arizona, Thomas fractured his leg as he dove over Cardinals receiver Chad Williams in the end zone. He grimaced for several minutes before Seattle’s medical staff wrapped the limb in an air cast and carted him off the field.
This is often the moment when injured players give a thumbs up to let their fans know that they’re OK.
Thomas opted for a different digit — the middle one — aimed right at the Seahawks’ sideline.
That will likely be the final image people have of Thomas as a Seahawk. Given the severity of the injury and his grievances with the organization, it’s hard to imagine he’ll ever don the blue and green again.
From frustration to anger to nostalgia, the situation has spawned a tornado of emotions among fans and players. But above all, Sunday’s scene was this: sad.
I can’t help but think of former soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane in a moment like this. The beloved Frenchman is a consensus top-10 all-time player whose exploits will be relived and remembered for generations to come.
But despite all of his wizardry, the image most associated with Zidane is him headbutting Italy’s Marco Materazzi in his final World Cup match. No number of championships or records can cover up that blemish.
The difference between Zidane and Thomas, of course, is that Thomas’ antagonism was directed at his own organization. Feeling he had long been the subject of disrespect, Earl spent the past few months openly griping about the Seahawks’ refusal to extend his expiring $40-million contract.
His resentment caused him to sit out training camp and skip practices, which likely rankled coaches and clearly rankled fans. It didn’t, however, seem to upset teammates.
Asked about Thomas’ approach to this season, Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin pointed to Sunday’s injury as justification.
“This is why. I know surface-level thinking tells you he’s making a lot of money. And yeah, he is making a lot of money. But relative to this game, relative to what this role entails — he’s a Hall of Fame-caliber player. He’s the best safety in the league. ” Baldwin said. “And just like any other profession, you want to be paid accordingly, especially when you have such a high risk of being injured.”
So what did you think about the middle finger? (Which clearly wasn’t intended for the players)
“I feel it,” Baldwin continued. “You have a guy who gives his all. He literally puts his body on the line. … I know there’s a business they have to run. I understand that. But how can you get mad at him? He’s got a business he has to run too.”
Linebacker Bobby Wagner was equally accepting of Thomas’ gesture. In fact, he smiled when first told about it after the game. That doesn’t mean he thought it was warranted. But given the circumstances and Earl’s mental state in the moment, he did think it was understandable.
“When guys get hurt, and when crazy things happen, there’s a lot of emotions. There’s a lot of things that go through somebody’s mind and somebody’s heart,” Wagner said. “It might not be right. It might not be the best emotions, but it’s good to have emotions. Let him have emotions for whatever it is.”
It’s hard to zero in on one unfortunate moment in the context of seven-plus glorious seasons. Thomas was the founding member of the Legion of Boom and the most talented defensive back Seattle has ever had.
Most 12s aren’t scoffing at the bird he just flipped at the team’s brass. They’re lamenting that he probably played his last game as a Seahawk.
Even Pete Carroll, who had every right to express his displeasure toward Thomas after the game, praised the man he’s spent more years coaching than any other player.
“I love Earl. I have always loved him. I love everything he has ever done for us. Everything he stood for,” Carroll said. “It wasn’t always smooth, but it has been good, and I’m proud of the relationship we have. My heart breaks for him.”
Sunday was indeed heartbreaking, but not just because of the injury. It’s because in lieu of waving goodbye to an adoring fan base, Earl’s right hand did something else completely.
Remember, it was just seven days earlier that he had two interceptions against the Cowboys in a win at CenturyLink Field.
“Was this your last game as a Seahawk?” a reporter asked Thomas after that game.
“I don’t know if it was,” he said, “but I had a damn good time and I’ll go out like that if I have to.”
Looking back on it, I think everyone wished he had.