SEATTLE — Back in the Pacific Northwest to prep before his New Orleans Saints take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field, New Orleans Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas has been able to spend some time at his old stomping grounds.
The Port Angeles High School Athletic Hall of Famer served a stint as running backs coach at Washington under former head coach Steve Sarkisian, and the Saints are using Husky Stadium as their practice facility after playing the Rams in Los Angeles last Sunday.
Even more memorably, the UW Medical Center sits across from the venue, the hospital where Thomas’s wife Ebbie gave birth to their first child Teyo, now 8.
“This is where my oldest was born, so a lot of good memories,” Thomas said of time in the U-District.
Thomas is on a business trip this week, but he’ll have a chance to see some familiar faces postgame.
“It’s my mom [Brenda Gedlund of Forks] and her husband,” Thomas said. “My family is coming out from Louisiana. But it’s a work week in the grind before then.”
Thomas’ last trip to the North Olympic Peninsula was for his hall of fame induction ceremony in April 2018.
“I enjoyed all the stories with my former teammates and coaches,” Thomas said. What I really liked was hearing from the fellow hall of famers and hearing their stories. They were a lot of the athletes I watched when I was in elementary and junior high and they were the stars.”
After graduating from Port Angeles in 1993, Thomas played at the University of Idaho, where he ended his playing career in 1998 and remains the school’s all-time leader in rushing yards. He was inducted into the Idaho Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.
He then became a college coach, serving stints as an assistant at Purdue (twice, 2000-01 and 2006-08), Louisville (2002-03), Idaho (2004-05), Washington (2009-12) and Arkansas (2013-14) before joining the Saints’ coaching staff.
Since his arrival in 2015, the club has led the NFL with 82 rushing touchdowns through the 2018 season.
In the past two seasons, Thomas has helped his players earn three Pro Bowl selections — Mark Ingram II (2017) and Alvin Kamara (2017-18). He’s also been the position coach for two seasons of at least 1,500 total yards of scrimmage by Kamara and one by Ingram.
Thomas credits head coach Sean Payton for the team’s rise back to prominence in the past couple of seasons, calling him a “genius.”
“The last couple of years we have had a lot of success,” Thomas said. “What stands out is the transition from the first two years to the previous two seasons. The philosophy of the Saints is nobody is above the program, always try to grind and the end goal is to win. It’s been neat to watch that process through four, and now in my fifth season.”
Thomas said coaching in the NFL is a little more pure of a coaching experience than in college, where assistant coaches also must carve out time for recruiting players.
“It’s a whole lot of football and no recruiting, from the time in July when we report, until February, with the end goal the Super Bowl. It’s all football. You are getting your masters [degree] in this game.”
And Thomas has one successful professor in Payton (119-75 as a head coach with three conference championship appearances and a Super Bowl win).
“My boss is one of the best minds in the game. Every day I’m learning something about coaching, managing, calling plays. There always plenty of room to learn even more about this game.”
Thomas has two children with his wife Ebbie, a former Purdue track athlete that Thomas met while a graduate assistant coach with the Boilermakers. The kids are active in youth sports.
“Teyo is playing year-round baseball,” Thomas said. “He took a liking to it a couple of season ago. Niko [age 6] wanted to play football this year, we weren’t pushing it, but he wanted to play. Our main deal is getting him involved in a team sport, something his brother isn’t doing and something he enjoys. I’m already seeing that he’s learning things like how to power through when he’s tired, and to strap it up and go again.”
Thomas said he’s been able to attend some practices, and did check to see if Niko’s team was being taught proper techniques. But he said he’s “not hovering” over the coaching staff.
The grind of a pro football coach — Thomas said most days begin around 7 a.m. and can end well past midnight depending on the opponent — doesn’t leave much time with his family during the season. But technology does help him check in and stay involved with his boys.
“Their mom, Ebbie, is a saint, no pun intended,” Thomas said of the parenting load she shoulders during the season.
“Every morning before our meetings start I Facetime them and make sure they see me. Check in on their plans, talk to them before school. If it’s a home game, I’ll see them on Sunday after the game and sometimes I wont’t see them again until the next Friday.”
The kids also make it to practices and games but aren’t wowed by spending time next to pro athletes.
“They are around the team,” Thomas said. “If I was in the locker room or on the field as an eight-year old I’d be beside myself. But the guys are just guys to them.”
Thomas is happy with where he is at professionally, and Payton just signed a contract extension through 2024.
He’s thought about the future and did say he may be interested in moving up as a coordinator or head coach down the line.
“I’m focused on this season and doing my best in order to have an opportunity to stick around with the Saints,” Thomas said.
And he doesn’t rule out a move back to coaching college football.
“You have distractions at both levels,” Thomas said. “The way you can manage them is a little different.”
As for Sunday’s game with the Seahawks, Thomas knows it will be a tough matchup.
“They are obviously super talented at linebacker and with the new acquisitions at defensive end [Jadeveon Clowney and Ziggy Ansah],” Thomas said. They are the No. 2 team with takeaways, so we will have to take care of the football. And playing in front of the 12th Man, we will have to manage that. We will have our work cut out for us.”