RENTON, Wash. — Shaquill Griffin is one of the few people to experience the pain and the pleasure of Earl Thomas.
The pain came first.
That happened in Griffin’s first appearance for the Seahawks, the first time he played alongside Thomas in Seattle’s secondary, during the first preseason game of the 2017 season at the Los Angeles Chargers. Griffin started at right cornerback, and Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers challenged the rookie almost immediately.
On the fourth snap of the game, Rivers threw a deep fade pass intended for Tyrell Williams. Thomas sprinted over from his center-field position and helped knock the ball away for an incompletion — and, in the process, took out the receiver and the rookie cornerback with a crunching hit.
“That was my welcome to the NFL,” Griffin said.
It’s a happy moment, a cherished memory, and it’s those kind of warm and fuzzies that Griffin and the Seahawks hope fans remember when Thomas returns to CenturyLink Field on Sunday — wearing the colors of the Baltimore Ravens.
“He did so much for this organization, he did so much for this team,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “He’s a legend here. I would expect him to be well received.”
Thomas was the last of the founding members of the Legion of Boom to leave Seattle. But he did leave behind a legacy for the next wave of defensive backs to try to emulate.
“Me coming in my rookie year, to have a guy welcome me with open arms and help me learn how to be a pro, he didn’t have to do that,” Griffin said. “I’ll always love him for that.”
Yes, it was a pleasure to play alongside a future Hall of Fame safety, and Griffin experienced the joy Thomas played with firsthand after the rookie’s first interception.
That happened during the Seahawks’ final game of the 2017 season, at home against Arizona. Cardinals QB Drew Stanton floated a pass deep downfield, overthrowing his intended receiver (who, coincidentally, was Jaron Brown, now a starting receiver for the Seahawks).
Griffin and Thomas were in position to make the interception — and Griffin swiped it away from Thomas.
Thomas celebrated by bear-hugging Griffin and rolling over him on the ground.
“The emotion he had on his face to see me make that play … that was a big moment for me,” Griffin said. “He tackled me, we rolled over, he slapped my helmet — just all excitement. It was a great moment.”
The one word Griffin most associates with Thomas is passion.
“He loved what he did, and he loved who he did it with,” Griffin said.
This last offseason, Griffin spent time studying game film from the golden years of the Legion of Boom. He wanted to know what made those guys so good, what made them such a tight-knit group. The passion and the joy and the genuine kinship they had for one another is what was so apparent for Griffin.
He watched those old games in wonder, and he said he has tried to bring that passion, that joy, that genuine love for teammates to the field.
“I remember when I first got here, the first thing (Thomas) said was: ‘Ask me any question you need to, any thing you need, ask me now.’ It was during the offseason, he said, ‘Once the season starts, I’m locked in all the way,’ ” Griffin said.
“Then,” he added, “when the season actually started you could see it; he was a totally different person. That’s the part that could get intense, but it was just about how you did it. If you want to be the best in the world, you have to take those measures and those steps, and he showed me that.”
Pete Carroll has his own on-field memories of Earl Thomas.
His favorite: Thomas’ karate-chop of Rams running back Benny Cunningham at the goal line in the final regular-season game of 2014, forcing a touchback and helping the Seahawks secure a division title and home-field advantage for a second consecutive playoff push to the Super Bowl.
A photograph of that play is one of about two dozen photos displayed prominently outside the Seahawks’ indoor practice facility. It hangs directly to the left of a photo of the late owner Paul Allen hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII victory.
“It’s because of (Thomas’) effort, the vision to see, the imagination to understand how you could possibly make a play like that,” Carroll said. “Just extraordinary.”
Carroll described Thomas’ intensity and focus as “somewhat unmatchable.”
Quarterback Russell Wilson’s locker was directly across from Thomas’ inside the Seahawks’ facility, and he could see how intensely the safety would “lock in” for even the most basic walk-through sessions midweek.
“He brought it every day,” Wilson said. “He’s as good as it gets. You think about safeties, to be honest with you, he’s one of the top one, two or three safeties to ever play the game in my opinion.”
Wilson and Thomas practiced against each other every day for eight seasons, and their wives and kids became close the last few. Now the QB and the safety will go head-to-head for the first time on an NFL Sunday.
“I love Earl as a person,” Wilson said. “I love him as a player. I loved him as a teammate.”
And there ought to be plenty more love to go around Sunday.