Walter Thurmond overcomes adversity to play big role in Super Bowl XLVIII

Walter Thurmond overcomes adversity to play big role in Super Bowl XLVIII
January 29, 2014, 3:00 pm
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Thurmond: Out here to represent UO

Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond (28) runs the ball in for a touchdown after intercepting a pass against Minnesota at CenturyLink Field.

(Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond found himself during Tuesday’s Super Bowl XLVIII media day relegated to the portion of the Prudential Center floor reserved for backups while most starters conducted interviews from podiums.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a bad place to be. Thurmond, after all, is at the Super Bowl in his fourth season out of Oregon.

Nevertheless, Thurmond’s star could have been shining so much brighter here if not for his own doing.

Repeatedly during the hour-long media session, reporters asked Thurmond about his serving a four-game suspension late this season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

The positive test, reportedly for marijuana, cost Thurmond his starting job that he had gained after former Oregon State defensive back Brandon Browner had been lost with a groin injury and later due to his indefinite suspension for also violating the substance-abuse policy.

If not for his positive test, Thurmond likely would be starting and not Byron Maxwell during Sunday’s game against Denver at MetLife Stadium.

Yet even though Thurmond won’t be listed as a starter, he could play starter’s minutes as the nickel back against Denver’s warp-speed passing offense.

“He’s going to be really important,” Seattle All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman said. “Walter Thurmond is an incredible corner, an incredible talent. I think us having three guys who could be a No. 1 corner really helps us. Unfortunately, things happened a certain way and Max is getting the start this week and Walt has to play the nickel. But he still gets a chance to play because (the Broncos) come out in a lot of nickel formations.”

Recurring injuries

Thurmond’s career has gone anything but smoothly since his final season at Oregon.

In the fourth game of his senior year in 2009, Thurmond suffered a severe knee injury returning a kickoff against California.

The injury caused Thurmond’s draft stock to tumble and he fell into Seattle’s lap in the fourth round.

The Seahawks believed they got a steal, according to secondary coach Kris Richard.

“What he showed us on tape was an innate ability to cover and get the ball,” Richard said. “That’s a huge, huge, huge deal for a defensive back. His skillset in college definitely translated to the NFL.”

Richard said Thurmond’s recovery from the injury in order to contribute as a rookie was a testament to his competitive spirit.

“You’re talking about a guy who is a fierce competitor,” Richard said. “He has a great energy and enthusiasm for this game. He’s really a committed and intense player. It’s phenomenal to watch him go out and compete.”

As a rookie Thurmond, from West Covina, Calif., appeared in 14 games with one start and had 37 tackles and seven pass breakups.

He had arrived. Then the injuries returned.

His 2011 season ended after six appearances, three starts, when he cracked his fibula while colliding with safety Earl Thomas.

Last year Thurmond played in just two games due to a lingering hamstring injury.

While he languished in the training room, Sherman and Browner became stars.

Costly mistake

This season Thurmond finally stayed healthy and became the starter after Browner was lost for several weeks with a groin injury prior to the team’s Nov. 17 win over Minnesota.

Thurmond started that game in place of Browner and returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown.

That thrill ended quickly the following week when Thurmond was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

That left Seattle with just three healthy cornerbacks and high-powered New Orleans up next.

“You’re talking about a tough competitive guy who made a mistake and realized that he cost more than just himself, he cost us,” Richard said.

Thurmond said sitting out proved difficult to handle but he got through it with the help of his teammates that he said never passed judgment on him.

“It was tough because you’re a competitor, you know,” Thurmond said. “You want to be out there. You want to be out there with your teammates. You want to help contribute to the team. Fortunately I was able to still be at the facility so I was still around the guys.”

He said the suspension didn’t impact him personally, however.

“We all make mistakes,” he said. “I’m not going into detail about what the situation was. The people who need to know, know already. It’s not for anybody else to know. That stuff is in the past. I’m able to move forward and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I’m at the Super Bowl and that’s all that matters.”

Thurmond originally planned to appeal the suspension but ultimately decided not to do so in order to ensure he would return in time for the playoffs.

Thurmond returned to the field for the team’s 27-9 win over St. Louis in the regular season finale.

But by then his starting position was gone and not back to Browner, who by then had been suspended indefinitely.

Both players reportedly tested positive for marijuana.

While both were out, Maxwell, a sixth-round pick in 2011, started opposite Sherman and intercepted four passes over the team’s final five regular season games and into the playoffs.

Where Thurmond had failed to take advantage of Browner’s blunder, Maxwell had taken advantage of both men’s mistakes.

Super role

The evolution of the passing game in the NFL has led to the third cornerback essentially being a starter for many teams while defending three and four-receiver sets.

Denver quarterback Peyton Manning will certainly receive his fifth MVP honor after setting single-season records for passing yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55).

He has four targets at his disposal: wide receivers Demaryius Thomas (1,430 yards, 14 touchdowns), Eric Decker (1,288, 11) and Wes Welker (778, 10), and tight end Julius Thomas (788, 12).

With all four expected to be on the field together for the majority of the game, the Seahawks’ secondary will need all-hands on deck in order to slow down Denver.

Thurmond will be a key member of that calling.

“He’s going to be vital,” Seattle’s Earl Thomas said. “He could be starting anywhere else in the NFL. It just shows the depth we have here in Seattle and obviously he’s going to have a big day ahead of him matched up in the slot with Wes Welker. He’s a starting cornerback in this league.”

To combat the Broncos, Seattle plans to do what it does best.

“I think everyone is planning to be physical with everybody,” Thurmond said. “That’s our style.”

But what has worked against other teams might not work against Manning and company.

“He’s a smart quarterback,” Thurmond said. “He’s going to play mind games with us with his different checks and audibles. Our thing is we really can’t get caught up in that situation. We have to play our game.”

Thurmond said ignoring Manning’s calls is a must because he’s a master of deception.

“At the end of the day you don’t know what the play was to begin with and you don’t know what his changes are so there’s no need to worry about it,” Thurmond said.

Seattle hopes its coverage is tight enough to allow its pass rush to develop.

The Seahawks ranked eighth with 44 sacks this season.

“I love to watch those guys play,” Thurmond said of Seattle’s defensive line. “It’s literally a race to see who can get to the quarterback first. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

He’s also never seen anything like the Super Bowl hype, with began when the team left Seattle.

“It was basically a parade for us leaving,” he said. “It was ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like that. As soon as we got off the freeway the whole road to the airport on both sides were fans. There were thousands of fans out there. Thousands of fans…I think we have some of the best fans in the country.

But Thurmond said that the best part of the Super Bowl experience hasn’t happened yet. He hopes that moment will involve the presentation of the Super Bowl trophy to Seattle owner Paul Allen.

That moment for the Seahawks franchise and the city of Seattle, will be poignant.

For Thurmond, given all he’s endured, contributing to such an accomplishment would be monumental.

“He’s had a few issues here and there,” Richard said. “But I think it’s a testament to his character and great level of humility that he was able to hang in there and keep going.”