OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Over the course of nine NFL seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Earl Thomas picked off 28 passes, earned a Super Bowl ring and was selected to the Pro Bowl six times.
Those are some of the memories the standout safety will take across the country before he faces his former team Sunday as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.
"They gave me my first shot. I won so many games there, grew up as a young man there," Thomas said Wednesday. "So I'm always going to respect that organization and always going to be a part of it."
The 30-year-old Thomas started 125 games in Seattle, but his 2018 season began with a training camp holdout and effectively ended when he extended his middle finger toward the Seahawks bench while being carted off the field with a broken leg in Week 4.
Thomas, however, views his exit as the result of the team's desire to save salary cap space while retaining their linebackers.
"I feel like they were kind of trying to phase me out," Thomas said.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll has a different take on the circumstances surrounding Thomas' departure.
"I wish he could have played with us and we could have stayed together forever. But it didn't work out that way," Carroll said. "We parted ways. That's it."
After losing safety Eric Weddle to free agency, the Ravens were delighted to provide Thomas with a four-year, $55 million contract. The deal surprised him, not just monetarily but in who offered it.
"I thought maybe the Cowboys, to be totally honest," he recalled. "I thought that's what the story was looking like until the money got funny."
And so ended a successful run in Seattle that included seven playoff appearances, two Super Bowl games and a brutish defence nicknamed "The Legion of Boom."
"He went on and pursued another opportunity, got a great shot with the Ravens," Carroll said. "Earl was an incredible competitor, and I loved coaching him. I think it will be fun playing against him."
Seattle's loss has been a boon to the AFC North-leading Ravens (4-2). Thomas already has an interception and 19 tackles in addition to providing leadership in the locker room and on the field.
"He has taken to the whole thing," coach John Harbaugh said. "He believes in what we're doing and how we're doing it, culture-wise and football-wise. I love being around him. I love his demeanour. I love his desire to be great, and I think it's rubbing off on the guys."
Thomas has no idea what to expect from Seattle fans who cheered for him for the better part of the past decade.
"I thought about it late at night," he said. "Hopefully they respect what I've done and I get a couple of cheers, not too many boos. Whatever happens, happens. But hopefully it's love."
Thomas said he's feeling "no emotions yet" but can't guarantee it will stay that way when he walks into the stadium he used to call home.
"Maybe when I get to the visiting locker room and see how that feels, maybe it will add something to it," he said. "But other than that, it's business as usual. I'm going out there to compete, make plays and try to help us win."
Understanding that this game has to be meaningful for Thomas, Harbaugh made the newcomer one of the team captains on Sunday.
"I'm sure that he's excited and looking forward to it," Harbaugh said. "He's got a lot of friends there and the fan base there, I think for anybody it would be a meaningful thing."
Thomas will be part of an ever-changing secondary that is without injured starters Tony Jefferson, DeShon Elliott, Tavon Young and Jimmy Smith. Baltimore traded for two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters on Tuesday and signed safety Bennett Jackson from the New York Jets practice squad.
Both expect to be used Sunday against the Seahawks (5-1), who have the league's eighth-ranked pass offence behind quarterback Russell Wilson. Peters was expected to join the team on Thursday.
"To me, he's one of the top corners in the league," Harbaugh said of Peters. "He fits in real well and gives us another weapon back there."
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