Q&A with Earnest Thomas
How frustrating has this year been from a defensive perspective?
It’s always a little frustrating, obviously, when you’re not getting wins, but the whole year and ever since last season, we’ve all been preaching family. That makes it easy to come in and go to practice every day. We’re around guys that we have created such strong relationships with. Knowing we still have a chance to send the seniors out on a high note with these last two games is good. It’s not always the best when you’re not getting wins like you want, but when you’re around people you care about and you’re playing this game that you love that we’re so blessed to play, sometimes you have to step away and look at the brighter side. It could definitely be a lot worse. Me being from Detroit, I know a lot of guys who wish they were in the situation like we are. You’ve got to always keep in mind that things could be worse. It’s bad, but it’s a game. A lot of people have their own opinion and probably have never even played before. We control what we control, and we just have to remember that we’re blessed to play this game each and every day.
What was it like growing up in Detroit?
For me, it was great. I had a strong upbringing with my mother and my father. I have a big family; a lot of women in my family. They taught me a lot of strong principles, along with my father. For me, it wasn’t what people would normally think of a Detroit upbringing. My mother and my father always provided everything they could for me. I always went to the best schools if I could. They always say that if you made it out of Detroit, you could make it anywhere. That’s something I just prided myself on knowing from where I came from and some of the people who had just as much talent as me, or even more, who weren’t able to get this opportunity to play Division I football. It’s just all a blessing. We all have a beginning, and we all have different stories. For me, that’s part of my story.
How different is Champaign-Urbana than Detroit?
Very different. It smells different here. It looks different. Detroit is a big city, but I love it here in Champaign. It’s definitely an outlet coming from Detroit. I love this college atmosphere and the people around here, just walking to class every day and things like that. I love being a college athlete. Sometimes we get so caught up in winning and losing that you feel that you don’t really appreciate the small stuff that comes with it, like a simple interview. You’ve got to cherish things like that and just keep things in perspective.
How long are you growing your dreadlocks out?
It’s just a little bit more than two years right now because I started growing it out going into my sophomore year at Camp Rantoul. The locks symbolize strength. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it. I just hadn’t gotten a haircut for a while, and then we had a lot of people on the team that had locks. My godfather had locks a long time ago, and he always wanted me to get them. He always told me, ‘This isn’t just a look. There’s a certain thing behind them.’ That’s true. Some people get them for looks, and some people get them for different reasons.
What’s the hardest part of playing strong safety?
I’d say the hardest part of playing strong safety, or any position in the defensive backfield, is the majority of the time, you’re going to be the guy who gets the blame, no matter what anybody else does right or wrong. That’s the position that we’re in. When we make great plays, we get all the credit, and when something goes wrong on the field, because we’re the ones in space a lot of the time, people want to point a finger at somebody. A lot of times, that’s not the case, but it comes with the territory. I wouldn’t really want to have it any other way. I just want to continue to work and improve my game every day to get to the level where I want to be at. You’ve got to embrace that. If you don’t, you might as well pick another position.
It’s probably a sore topic, but only two interceptions this season by Illinois. How mad does that make you?
At this point, we’ve been striving every day in practice to get takeaways. I’ve been able to force a few fumbles, but as far as getting the ball out of the air, we haven’t gotten them. As a team, we just want to win. We’ve moved past that. It’s not really about who gets the interception. We just want to win. Point blank. Winning makes things feel so much better. First and foremost with the interceptions, we’ve got to stop the run. When we stop the run, we’ll be able to get a couple more opportunities to make some plays on the ball.
You’ve forced a team-high three fumbles this season. What’s the key when it comes to those?
I think I got six in my career right now, and really, just growing up, I always just prided myself on hitting. I sort of carved out a reputation back home being a good hitter. Really, it’s just about not having any fear. In the Big Ten, you’re going to go against guys that are bigger than you. As a defensive back, especially as a safety, you can’t be afraid to put your head in there and make a play. That’s 90 percent of it. Playing defense, you can’t have no fear. You have to be strong and be physical. Then good things will happen.
Your dad was a high school coach. How much did that help you?
It helped a lot just for the simple fact that when I was growing up, I was always around football. He never pressured me to play football. Actually, I probably liked basketball a little bit more up until my eighth- or ninth-grade year. I played on an AAU team called The Family back home, but in eighth grade is when guys started to sprout, and I was still around 6-foot. Guys were getting to 6-6, 6-7 and taller. The game got a lot tougher, and football was something that came a lot more natural. My dad always instilled in me that whatever you want to do, just do it and give it your all. He had great knowledge to give me. I’ve got two sisters. You can ask them football things, and they’ll know just as much as anybody else. Things like watching film and putting in extra practice, that all started with him. I’ll never forget one night. It was around 11 at night, ‘Monday Night Football’ was on and it was snowing. We went out to a track in our neighborhood, and I said, ‘What are we doing?’ He said, ‘You’re going to get out and run a mile.’ I thought he was going to come with me. He sat in the car, had some coffee, kept the radio on and I was running around the track with the lights on and the snow coming down. He was tough, but he taught me a lot of good things. Stuff like that you never forget.
How hard was it to lose him at such a young age?
It was tough. Early on, when I was growing up, he instilled so much in me from a young age. Obviously, when you’re getting older, you want a father around, but he taught me so many things that it was, almost in a way, that he was preparing me for when he wasn’t going to be there. I knew I just had to grow up fast and kind of assume the man of the house role. I was the only man in the house. Regardless of whether it was taking the trash out or making sure people got from Point A to Point B, I just had to step up and do it. I remember there was a point in time where I would do anything to help out. It was a tough situation, but there’s a lot of strong people in my family. We all just stuck together. That’s how we really transitioned and got through it. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think of my father. Wins and losses hurt, but I’ve had a lot worse.
You had a lot of support out at Camp Rantoul with your mom, your grandmother and your aunt here. What does that mean to you?
I call them my three queens. They try to make it here as much as they can. My mother is very passionate about the game. Football is not going to last forever. At some point and time it’s going to run out, so it’s important when your family can get there and watch you as much as they can. They just love watching the game. They love watching football, period. When ‘Monday Night Football’ is on, they’re calling me and telling me who’s playing and asking if I’m watching the game. They make just about every game here. You just can’t get it back. It definitely hurts when you lose, because as a competitor, you always want to win, but little things like that, you begin to cherish so much more.
As readers might be finding out today, you are comfortable in talking to the media. Where does that stem from?
I don’t know. I was always a good talker. That just comes from my father and my mother. If I did something wrong, my dad would want to talk to me and find out why I did what I did. I was always good at just having conversations and talking to people. That was, again, something that was instilled in me from a young age and just has continued to advance and evolve. I don’t mind dealing with the media. It’s all a blessing, and you can’t take it for granted. It’s going to come with the good and the bad. I really don’t buy into it a lot. I might try to Google a picture or something for my Twitter page, but I just be myself.
Your girlfriend is OK with this answer. Who’s your dream date?
My girlfriend, Jalisa Hike. She was down here, and she just went back to Chicago, so I miss her.
A night on the town with Jalisa Hike or a pick-six, 10 tackles and a win at Purdue?
A pick-six, 10 tackles and a win at Purdue. A couple of those things are overdue. She’s dying for a win, too. She wants one just as bad as me.