RENTON — Thomas Rawls is almost all the way back from his latest challenge: a shattered ankle and torn ligaments.
Rawls was back in the starting offense Monday during the Seahawks’ latest training-camp practice. His dozen or so plays were his first on any field since he got hurt Dec. 13. It was the next milestone for Seattle’s lead runner as he works his way back to play in the season opener Sept. 11 against Miami.
Rawls caught a swing pass from Russell Wilson in team scrimmaging, six days after he came off the physically-unable-to-perform list. What he looked like — and what he said on the edge of the field afterward — suggest he will not only start the season’s first game but it may be tough to keep him out of one of the final two preseason games, Aug. 25 against Dallas and Sept. 1 at Oakland.
“Actually, I think I am ahead of schedule,” Rawls told The News Tribune.
“I’m feeling great. I’m feeling phenomenal. And just getting the energy back out here with the fellas is making me come alive even more.”
Rawls last season became the first undrafted rookie in NFL history to rush for 160-plus yards in multiple games. His recovery has gone on for more than nine months. He’s wowed his coaches and teammates with his fiendish dedication each day toward his rehab — coach Pete Carroll said Monday Rawls looked “terrific.”
He spent each day of a long, lonely offseason in the Seahawks’ training room at team headquarters grinding through scar tissue, doubt and what he admits were, yes, tears to make it this far.
Yet the first major injury of his football life has not been the biggest challenge Rawls has conquered in his 23 years.
Rawls was born, raised and is still beloved in an infamous city the dwindling, outsourcing automobile industry had left to rot when he was growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. A place where his mother Deadra Whitley, family members and friends close enough to call “brothers” still live.
“I’m from Flint, Michigan,” Rawls said, “where you’ve got to be tough.”
Flint is an hour’s drive north up Interstate 75 from Detroit. A 2015 U.S. Census survey listed the city’s population just over 102,000 with 56 percent of those residents African-American and 40 percent of all residents living in poverty.
As the engaging Rawls has said, he’s come from “the bottom.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Flint was a mecca of employment and productivity for General Motors. In 1978, the city had 80,000 GM employees.
As of last summer, it had 7,200, according to the Detroit News.
When the manufacturing jobs left Flint, so did the money. The city’s tax base plummeted. City officials saved by cutting the police and firefighting forces in half. Crime rates consequently doubled.
Rawls hasn’t returned to Flint since last summer; his ankle injury and rehabilitation kept him at Seahawks headquarters this past offseason. Yet the city never leaves his mind.
“In Flint, we’ve gone through different kinds of struggles. It’s a part of life, you know?” he said. “One thing about the people from Flint is, they know how to survive.
“They won’t back down. They won’t settle for anything. They just keep pushing.”
After he rushed for 1,585 yards and scored 19 touchdowns as a senior at Flint Northern High School, he left Flint to play football at Michigan.
While Rawls was in Ann Arbor, cash-strapped Flint officials sought ways to save money on its public water supply, much like it had decades earlier on the police and fire departments.
The results were similarly tragic.
As National Public Radio and others have reported, Flint decided in 2013 to leave its Detroit Water and Sewage Department supplier and join a new water authority. But the city needed to build a pipeline to connect to the new supplier. In the interim, they needed an available — and cheap — water source.
They decided on the Flint River. It was the city’s consumable water supply until the 1960s, so officials banked on it being usable again.
E. coli and other harmful bacteria were in the river. Its water also caused corrosion in the city’s pipes, causing lead to enter Flint’s homes and sinks.
As an undrafted free agent, Rawls isn’t at all rich by NFL standards. He will earn $525,000 this season on the second year of his three-year rookie contract.
Yet one of the first things Rawls did with his rookie cash last year was buy his mother a house just outside of Flint. Outside its contaminated water supply.
Her son gave her two of life’s fundamentals, safe shelter and clean water.
“Most of my family are still in the heart of it,” Rawls said of Flint’s ongoing water crisis.
“It’s just a messed-up situation that I can’t do anything about — except raise awareness, and just try to my job here, on and off the field. To make those people smile in some kind of way.
“Because they deserve to smile.”