All-American safety jazzed up to play Tide
By RALPH D. RUSSO
AP College Football Writer
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — If Earl Thomas says he’s jazzed up to play, he might not be talking about football.
Texas’ All-American safety is also a pretty mean musician. These days he plays piano in a jazz band that jams in clubs around Austin.
In high school, Thomas played saxophone in the band and sometimes marched at halftime of games in which he played.
“It was kind of embarrassing,” he said Monday.
Starting as a redshirt freshman last year provided some moments Thomas would like to forget, too. Like any first-year starter, he learned on the job.
This season, Thomas has hit all the right notes, helping No. 2 Texas go undefeated and earn a spot in Thursday’s BCS national championship game against No. 1 Alabama.
The 197-pound sophomore set a school record and ranked second in the nation with eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He was also second on the team with 71 tackles.
The development of Thomas, along with fellow sophomore safety Blake Gideon, was a huge reason why Texas’ pass defense improved from 104th in the nation in 2008 to 25th this season.
“Earl and Blake have progressed tremendously,” defensive end Sam Acho said. “They were both really good players last year, but now they’re great players. They’re hard workers. It’s a testament to their hard work and their dedication to the game.”
With Thomas leading the way, the Longhorns are tops in the nation in interceptions with 24.
“Last year we had a lot of opportunities, we just couldn’t catch it,” he said. “This year we worked real hard in the summer, just finishing plays, running full speed through ball drills. It’s just paying off for us. They’re coming in bunches.”
Like football, music has always come easily. Thomas got his first drum set when he was about 5.
When he was about 12, his uncle, who played piano at his grandfather’s church in the small town of Orange, Texas, went off to college. Thomas’ grandfather, also named Earl Thomas, decided if his grandson could play drums, he could probably play piano.
“My grandpa just kind of threw me up there,” Thomas said. “My grandpa told me to ‘go up there, son, and make some music, go bang on something.”’
In Thomas’ senior year at West Orange Stark High School, Hurricane Rita destroyed his family’s home and church.
“When you see something like that, it was devastating,” Thomas said. “We stayed in a hotel room my whole senior year.”
But it didn’t interfere with his budding athletic career. He played running back, receiver and defensive back in high school. He also ran track and played baseball and basketball.
And, yes, he even marched in the band.
He’d take off his shoulder pads at halftime, grab his alto sax and play while still wearing his football pants. Now that’s versatility.
Football got Thomas a scholarship to Texas and he brought his love for music with him to Austin. He still plays piano in church and a friend got him hooked up with a jazz band called Bad Bones.
“I’m the youngest guy by far in the band,” he said. “It’s an old-school band,” by which he means the rest of his bandmates are in their 30s.
He plays for his teammates when he gets a chance, too.
“It’s amazing,” defensive lineman Sam Acho said.
But Thomas never mentioned his time in the marching band to the other Longhorns.
“I didn’t know that,” Acho said, “but now that I know I’m going to give him a hard time.”