Photographed at the Seahawks’ Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton on Oct. 5. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
He knew something was wrong with his ankle. He knew it as soon as he curled up on the field in Baltimore last December.
What pain? Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls asked himself, shielding the hurt surging through his ankle.
The trainers and doctors wanted to cart him off the field. For three minutes, as one of them held his mouthpiece and another leaned near his face, they tried to convince him to leave that way. But it was too late, he was gone, his mind was already elsewhere, where it always is: Flint, Michigan.
“I’m not getting carted off this field,” he told them.
Every time Rawls talks about his hometown, his eyes water. He can’t help it. Flint is a part of him, not just where he comes from.
“It’s in my DNA,” he says.
His friends laugh about how expressive he gets when he talks about Flint. His upper lip curls, his eyes alternate between wet and crackling, and he uses his hands as punctuation. It’s obvious he’s trying to translate what he feels inside to how that should look to everyone else.
“This platform and everything I do, I’ve got to dedicate that back,” he says. “I have to. I can’t disappoint my family. I can’t disappoint my city. Hell, they’ve already got enough going on.”
His friends and family see the pressure he puts on himself and worry it’s too much. He’s only 23, and the trajectory of his career is still uncertain, marked by a brilliant rookie season and injuries. He is chasing two dreams at once: The childhood dream of playing in the NFL and the grown-up realization of what his success could mean for Flint, both psychologically and financially.
The day after the 2015 season ended, he told reporters, “I want to be Superman to my city.” He wanted that before Flint’s water made his mom’s face break out in a rash, but the water crisis added urgency.
He called home, nearly in tears, and proposed all the ways he wanted to help Flint, some of which were unrealistic. He didn’t just want to donate bottled water; he wanted to drill a new well. His mom, Deadra Whitley, calmly listened.
“I understand your heart,” she said, “but I don’t want you to be so stressed about the world. You have to live your own life. Don’t take on too much.”
Just about everyone close to him has made the same point. All those years he worked to reach the NFL, but now that he’s here, in Seattle, a part of him is still in Flint.
“I fight myself every day about it,” he says.
He is still deciding how to help Flint — camps, a foundation — because bottled water still lines schools, businesses and basements. But right now he can give hope.
So when the Seahawks’ medical staff tried to cart him off the field in Baltimore last year, he refused. His ankle was broken. It would eventually require surgery, screws and a metal plate, and he wouldn’t play football again for eight months. During that time, his rehab allowed him to go home only once — for his granny’s funeral.
But what he did that afternoon was amazing in hindsight: He stood up. And then, very gingerly but completely on his own, he walked off the field.
“The whole time I was thinking about Flint,” he says. “They weren’t going to see me fold. They weren’t going to see me back down.”
He started telling his story in the beginning — the little house on Foss Ave., his granny’s house, the most formative place of his childhood. Both his parents were always in his life, but his relationship with his late granny, Diane Rawls, is hard for him to talk about without crying.
Her house is where he learned the cruelness of the world and the tenderness of love.
This was before his rookie season in 2015, and he shared his story with a bleacher full of kids at the Flint Boys and Girls Club. It’s important that people back home see him and even more important that those people are young.
“You’ve got to be touchable,” he says. “One thing about me, I’m a touchable person.”
He’s a natural speaker. He seems to get lost in his emotions, but instinctively he knows when to pace, when to stop, when to linger.
He continued through his life at the Boys and Girls Club: The injuries in high school. Being a backup in college. Graduating from Michigan in three years. Transferring to Central Michigan. His mistakes.
He was arrested in 2014 for allegedly stealing a woman’s purse from a casino and later pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for attempted larceny from a building.
“He knows how low he felt on TV, going to court, his daddy having to give him money to post bond,” says his dad, Thomas Terrell Rawls. “And he learned from it. He had to learn the hard way.”
As Rawls talked to the kids, he kept saying: “I’m built for this.” He said it over and over; afterward, someone suggested he trademark it.
Flint is regularly listed as one of the most dangerous cities in America, and nearly 42 percent of the people live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Rawls grew accustomed to the calls revealing another death or arrest, and when he started naming people back home, he realized how few close friends he still had.
“It’s like a cage,” his mom says. “There’s nowhere to go unless you have a dream or a goal.”
But Rawls took ownership of Flint’s problems: “I’m built for this.” That’s what he wanted the kids at the Boys and Girls Club to understand. They were built for any challenge, any adversity, because they’re from Flint.
When he was done, after 45 minutes, the kids rushed him. But that’s not what gave one listener goose bumps. It was before that, when Rawls fell quiet. As he collected himself, 200 clapping kids filled the silence, urging him on.
The part of his story that choked him up: The test that changed his life.
As a senior at Flint Northern High School, he took the ACT six or seven times, and every time, he didn’t get the 18 he needed. It threatened his college career before it started.
His high school coach, whose name is Fred Jackson Jr. but who everyone calls coach Boo, kept telling his dad, Fred Jackson Sr., “Dad, I got one!”
His dad was skeptical until he watched Rawls run. Fast and physical, he could blow by defenders — or run them over. He played on a busted ankle in high school and still rushed for 200 yards. He never ran out of bounds.
As the running backs coach at Michigan, Fred Jackson, Sr. offered Rawls a scholarship. But the deal hinged on the ACT.
Rawls didn’t try very hard early in high school. “It’s not because I was dumb,” he says. “It wasn’t that. But where I come from, you talk about school?” That makes him laugh. “School? Why do you think so many schools close? People don’t go to school.”
He puts both hands on either side of his face: tunnel vision. That’s all he knew, the world he saw immediately in front him, the world according to Flint.
He had one more shot at the ACT. If he blew it, his scholarship would go to someone else.
So coach Boo huddled with school administrators. Rawls needed a tutor, and they knew the teacher to ask.
Her name is Jeanette Rousseau, but everyone calls her Miss J. She once called out Rawls’ older brother in front of the whole class for copying a paper. She required her students to buy their own copy of “Tuesdays with Morrie” so they could write in it.
“Get used to it,” she shot back when they complained. “You’re going to be doing this next year.”
She’s not a Flint native, but after graduating from Michigan, she never left. She’s had more than 60 students killed or sent to prison in 16 years but quit counting after 60.
When she hears about a shooting on the news, she prays she won’t have another empty chair in her classroom.
Miss J knew Rawls well. Earlier that year, she had called him to her room after reading one of his papers.
“What kind of (crap) is this?” she said, tossing the paper on her desk. “Would you go out on the field and run a half-ass play for coach Boo?”
She knew the answer. “Then why should I accept half-ass work in my classroom?”
She let the question hang in the room.
“Cause you’re Thomas Rawls, right? Cause that’s what people have done for you. They have accepted mediocre work. They have allowed you to come to class late with no repercussions or consequences because you’re Thomas Rawls. And they’re crippling you, and I’m not going to cripple you. I’m kicking out the crutches.”
She slid the paper across the table.
“If you tell me, if you truly believe in your heart, that this is truly the best work you’re capable of doing, then I will accept it.”
He rewrote the paper.
For the ACT, she set up a computer in her classroom just for him. She bought prep books and burgers and taught him to underline and write in the margins.
“She never gave up on me,” he said.
When the envelope finally arrived, Rawls grabbed it off the kitchen table, tears forming. It felt like life and death in his hands.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” he said and gave the envelope to his granny.
She opened it and started crying, so he started crying too: An 18.
Deadra Whitley shows a collage of pictures of her sons. (Bettina Hansen/The Seattle Times)
When Rawls talks about Flint, he is really talking about his granny’s house on Foss Ave. His entire childhood revolved around that house.
On a beautiful September night, the little house came alive: aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, neighbors.
“This is where it went down,” said his older brother, Thomas Rawls, who goes by Rell.
“This is it right here,” said his dad, Thomas Rawls, who goes by Terrell (The Thomas Rawls name extends back to Rawls’ grandpa, and it’s why his family calls him Ty).
His mom, Deadra, sat in the living room, reminiscing about the start of her son’s football career. Someone dug up footage from those early days, when he ran so hard that everyone called him “The Terminator.”
“I was in awe of my son having a goal and a dream,” she said. “That’s something I never did. When I was little, I wanted to be an actress, I wanted to be a policewoman. We all want to be something. But I never fought to do any of those things.”
His family didn’t let him stray more than a block or two from the house. When he was young, his father warned him, “Growing up, a lot of friends that you have aren’t going to be here all the time. You’re going to see them come and go.”
Rawls didn’t understand, he was too young. And then it started coming true: phone calls and empty chairs.
Once, Rawls and his older brother sneaked out at night. They were careful to leave the door unlocked, but when they came back, they couldn’t get in. Then they looked at the window: Granny.
“Y’all ain’t getting back inside,” she yelled.
His older brother, Rell, stood in front of that house in September. He looked beyond the tree painted half maroon and half gold, the colors of Central Michigan, to the street. That’s where his brother’s dream started years ago, racing and throwing the football on evenings just like this.
“He always said, ‘I’m going to be in the NFL,’” Rell said. “As a kid, I wasn’t trying to crush his dream, but I was like, ‘Man, you’re not going to the NFL.’”
He thought for a second, scanning the neighborhood and the empty lot across the street.
“This is all I know,” he said. “I’ve never left here. I ain’t ever been out of the state, ever.”
The years between Seattle and Flint have been complicated for Rawls. Everything he did was designed to eventually leave Flint, but that success has created a longing for what he left behind.
He doesn’t want anyone to think he abandoned his city, and no matter how many people tell him otherwise, he can’t shake that feeling.
It was especially hard because of his granny’s health. Rawls is close with his entire family, but everyone accepted that he was Diane Rawls’ favorite. What he wanted, she cooked. She couldn’t say no to him.
“I just talked to him an hour ago,” his mom said. “I told him, ‘Ty, you know you’re a big baby because Granny treated you like a baby.’”
Last year, family and friends noticed something wrong with Diane. She still clipped every article and recorded the news just so she could watch her grandson again. But she looked thinner, frail, and had injured her arm.
One by one, everyone tried to get her to go to the hospital, but she refused.
Rawls had no idea anything was wrong until his best friend called. His family didn’t want to bother him, not while he was trying to make it in the NFL. Diane didn’t want that.
Rawls immediately booked a flight home and walked through the door at Foss Ave, surrounded by artifacts of his life: his helmets, his articles, his framed acceptance letter to Michigan.
He got her to the hospital, where she learned she had stage four breast cancer. She wore his No. 34 jersey and kept his picture on a table next to her during chemo. She saw him play with the Seahawks just once, in Cincinnati last year, when he rushed for 169 yards and scored a 69-yard touchdown.
“She was my strength,” he says, “and I was her medicine.”
She died in March. Her funeral was the last time he’s gone home.
Earlier this year, he called his brother and said, “Bro, it’s lonely at the top.” Sometimes he calls his mom and just sits on the phone, both of them watching TV, their breathing the only noise filling the distance.
On his worst days, he stands at the Seahawks’ practice facility, on the edge of Lake Washington, and stares at the trees and water. He didn’t board his first plane until he got to college. Just recently he went to the beach and realized, “The beach is awesome!” He never saw people in Flint jog or walk their dog just because.
What gets him every time is the sun hitting the water, the way it glistens. It calms him. Everything around him disappears and he’s gone again, lost in his mind, talking to himself and thinking about Flint.
“Just look at where you are today,” he tells himself. “You worked so hard. Look at where you are today. How can you have a bad day?”
Members of Thomas Rawls’ family visit him in all their Seahawks regalia. (Photo courtesy Deadra Whitley)