This time last week Thomas Rawls was an undrafted rookie coming off a two-carry game. He was continuing to soak up all he could from lead man Marshawn Lynch.
Rawls is on live interviews beaming across national television. From Maine to Maui he’s the darling of fantasy owners. Folks in the Pacific Northwest are scrambling to come up with a nickname for their new favorite Seahawk — “Rawls Royce,” “RawlsStreet, “Mini-Beast, “Rhino” or the one his high-school coach in Flint, Michigan, gave him: “The Train.”
This week his coach, Pete Carroll, compared his bulldozing running to that of — gasp! — Hall of Famer Earl Campbell.
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“Yeah, I’ve seen Earl Campbell cut ups,” Rawls said of the 1970s Houston Oilers superstar. “My dad used to show me back when I was younger. Number 34, right? Just making sure.
“A huge compliment. He’s one of the greats. That’s amazing.”
Yes, Thomas Rawls, the guy 32 teams chose not to take with any of the 256 picks in May’s draft, is suddenly a star. He’s also the Seahawks’ 22-year-old lead back for at least the next month, and maybe the coming years, in an offense that relies on the run. Right now his emergence is just in time for the attempt by Seattle (5-5) to rally back into the playoffs while Lynch recovers from abdominal surgery that will keep him out at least three or four games — including Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh (6-4) at CenturyLink Field.
And it will keep Rawls in the starlight.
“It has been a lot,” Rawls, who will make his fourth career start, said Friday. “But I don’t get distracted. I stay away from a lot of stuff with the media and things like that. Just try to stay to myself and the people that are priorities.”
Those people are the rugged folks of Flint. Such as Deadra Whitley, the mother who raised him and two others in a city that most believe died in the 1980s with the automobile and manufacturing industries in the Rust Belt. Such as Fred Jackson, Rawls’ coach at Northern High School, who he still keeps in contact with, and Jeanette Rousseau, Rawls’ favorite teacher at Northern.
She made the 4 1/2-hour trip with Jackson and Whitley from Flint to Cincinnati last month. They watched the guy they call “Ty,” for Rawls’ middle name Tyrell, romp for 169 yards against the then-unbeaten Bengals, when Lynch had a hamstring injury.
Rawls says the city of Flint, widely shuttered over recent decades, has made him the tough runner the world now sees. Filmmaker Michael Moore made his and Rawls’ hometown famous in his 1989 film “Roger and Me.” It chronicled Moore basically hounding and finally confronting General Motors chief executive Roger Smith about what he did to Flint by downsizing GM.
Rawls was born four years after “Roger and Me” was released.
“It’s in my DNA,” he said of Flint. “It’s just in me. It’s hard to explain. I think I show it a little bit out on the field. That’s where I’m free …
“It’s a little rough, but there’s some good things in Flint. ... I’m just trying to carry it over and try to build up on it. Try to encourage the young ones, the young boys and young girls. Even the adults back home. If I can get a call or a message saying you give me so much hope, I think I’ve done my job. And I’ll continue to do it.”
How often does he get those calls from Flint?
“I get them a lot,” he said. “They keep me going. It motivates me and makes me go harder. Makes me go stronger.
“And it’s always in the back of my mind of why I do things and the reason why I’m doing it.”
What Rawls did last week in Seattle’s reviving win over San Francisco was bull for 209 yards. It’s now the Seahawks rookie rushing record, breaking the mark set by Curt Warner in 1983. It was the second-highest rushing game in Seahawks’ history, 57 yards behind Shaun Alexander’s team record from 2001.
With a punishing style that gives as much or more punishment as defenders give him, Rawls last week became the first rookie in NFL history with 250-plus scrimmage yards, a rushing touchdown and a receiving score in a game. Defenders haven’t tackled him so much as he’s fallen over them while he’s plowed through them.
To think, two weeks ago he was a 22-year-old third-stringer. Seven months ago he was at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. A year ago last week he was rushing for 76 yards in his final college game, a loss to Western Michigan. He missed CMU’s bowl game in the Bahamas last December because of an academic issue.
Fourteen months ago Central Michigan suspended him for two games when he was facing felony charges in a purse-snatching incident inside a Michigan casino. According to the Mount Pleasant Morning Sun, Rawls eventually entered a guilty plea to a high-court misdemeanor of attempted larceny in a building. He was sentenced to a year of probation, 104 hours of community service to be completed in nine months, plus fines and restitution costs.
And two years ago Rawls was finishing his third, frustrating season as a backup at the University of Michigan. He got just 73 carries in three years before he transferred upstate.
That’s how far he’s come.
Carroll pulled him aside this week to ensure Rawls was handling his sudden fame well.
“I visited with him about it,” Carroll said. “He seemed very squared away. Not wanting to change anything about how he prepares and his habits and things like that.
“I thought it was worth talking to him about since it was such a shift. That’s hard on anybody.”
Rawls says he thinks about how far he’s come — just about every day.
“Oh most definitely, I think about it all the time. And not just (about) the last six months but over my time, just my past,” he said.
“But it all starts with hard work. My dedication and my commitment, and my investment to myself and my body and my mind. Just going out here and trying to do the right things.”
EXTRA POINTS: The Seahawks will activate DB Jeremy Lane off the physically-unable-to-perform list by Saturday’s 1 p.m. deadline so he can make his season debut against the Steelers. He will likely be the fifth, nickel defensive back and may be the right cornerback for benched Cary Williams. The team will need to release someone from the active roster to make room for Lane. … LB Bruce Irvin is likely to miss his second consecutive game because of a sprained knee ligament. The Seahawks list him as doubtful for Sunday. Mike Morgan is poised to make his third start in five years at outside linebacker. … C Patrick Lewis is listed as questionable, but Carroll made it sound as if he will play. “He made it through the week,” of practice, the coach said.
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle