What a difference a year makes!!!

As far as Orange’s Earl Thomas is concerned, this year is as different as night and day for this city’s newest National Football League member.

Last April, Earl, along with most football fans in Southeast Texas were wondering exactly which team would draft the talented former West Orange-Stark and Texas Longhorn star and in which round would he be selected.

After two very successful seasons as the defensive star of the Texas Longhorns football team where he was named as a first-team All-America selection as a free safety and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award that honors the nation’s best defensive back, the word around those in the know was that Earl would be drafted in the first or second round of the 2010 NFL draft.

Those rumors proved to be well-founded as Thomas was at the top of the Seattle Seahawks’ wish list and turned out to be the 14th player chosen in the first round.

Seattle’s new head coach Pete Carroll knew he needed to fix the Seahawks’ pass defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in 2009 and liked what he saw in Earl Thomas’ playmaking ability.

Even before that fateful pre-draft swing through Texas and Oklahoma which convinced Carroll and General Manager John Schneider that Oklahoma State’s left tackle Russell Okung (No. 6 pick overall) and Earl were their target picks, the Seahawks were on to just what Thomas could do for their secondary.

“Earl is one of my favorite players,” commented Matt Berry, the team’s Southwest area scout who just happens to live in Austin and has been watching Thomas since his redshirt first season with the Texas Longhorns.

“The first thing that sticks out about Earl on the field is how hard he practices and just the tempo he carries himself with. Texas is a little bit different place. You walk out and there are athletes everywhere,” Berry continued.

“Earl sort of stuck out in my early visits. Then you watch him play and you see the instincts, you see the range,” he added.

Thomas left the University of Texas after playing only two seasons because he wanted to repay his parents for all they’ve done for him by buying them a house to replace the one that was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Rita. Thomas’ parents Earl and Debbie had been living with his grandparents since then.

This dream was recently fulfilled when Earl presented them with a huge house in the Little Cypress community.

Earl was taught about hard work and humility at an early age, thanks to his father and late grandfather, Earl Thomas Sr.

“They used to make me cut grass at Kroger’s so everybody could see me cutting the grass in the ditches,” Earl recalled. “People used to pass by honking their horns and laughing at me.” Thomas started that job when he was eight years old and continued until he entered West Orange-Stark High School.

The Seahawks’ mini-camps began shortly after the draft and it didn’t take Earl’s teammates and coaches long to come up with a nickname for their prized rookie free safety just like the Dallas Cowboys did with former Mustang Kevin Smith after he also was picked in the first round back in 1992.

Smith was dubbed “Pup” because of his young appearance after coming out of Texas A&M. Earl’s new nickname of “Deuce” was the brainchild of Seattle’s defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and picked up quickly by the Seattle media from Carroll and Earl’s Seahawk teammates.

One curious sportswriter inquired about the origin of Earl’s nickname “Deuce” and Bradley explained that after the first minicamp he asked Thomas if anyone had ever called him “Earl the Pearl” and Earl didn’t know what he was talking about.

“I told him there was only one ‘Earl the Pearl,’” referring to famous NBA star player Earl Monroe. “But he could be the second one.” And thus “Deuce” was born. “It’s a cool nickname,” Bradley said. “I really like it. And it’s catching on, too.”

But that was last spring and this year is entirely different due to the current lockout of the NFL players by their respective team owners. This is really a problem for Earl and his Seahawk teammates because this is the time when the minicamps occur and the players receive a lot of individual attention from the various position coaches.

The Dallas Cowboys plan to hold unsupervised team workouts, but that is not the case of all the NFL franchises. According to several media reports, agents are advising players not to participate in unsupervised practices because of the risk of injury. Injured players could wind up on the NFL’s non-football injury list and not receive any pay for the 2011 season, the agents warn.

Progress has been slow in this labor standoff, but last week a federal judge encouraged each side to resume negotiations and the NFL and lawyers for the players sent letters to each other and to the court in which they agreed to resume negotiations with the help of a neutral mediator.

However, neither side can agree on whom the mediator should be or on what the nature of the talks would be, so it’s unlikely that either side will budge unless the court intervenes.

Both sides are hoping a settlement can be reached before the upcoming 2011 draft April 28-30. But the draft itself is a bone of contention because the owners abhor giving guaranteed millions to unproven talent.

And Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Scott Fujita, a member of the NFLPA executive committee commented, “The draft has always struck me as bizarre, bordering on the ridiculous. It’s probably the most un-American thing about the NFL: Telling a person where he has to go work.”

But Orange native Earl Thomas is very happy where he has been told to work and is very anxious for this labor standoff to be solved so he can go back to defending against the best offensive football players in the world.

KWICKIES…Congrats to Orange City Councilman Jimmy Sims for getting an eagle-2 Saturday afternoon on the Par 4, No. 17 hole at Sunset Grove Country Club. Sims used a pitching wedge for his chip-in from around 50 yards. Witnessing the shot were playing partners Pete Sterling and Darrel Latiolais.

And while on the subject of golf, Tiger Woods made a brilliant run in the final round of the Masters Sunday, tying for the lead at 10 under before unheralded young South African Charl Schwartzel birdied the final four holes and walked away with the green jacket and the $1,440,000 first-place check at Augusta National. Youthful Jason Day and Adam Scott tied for second, two-strokes off the winning pace while Tiger, Geoff Ogilvy and Luke Donald tied for fourth, four shots behind Schwartzel.

The Houston Astros barely avoided the 0-8 start of the 2010 season by going 2-7 during their first three series of the new season. But Manager Brad Mills is still pulling his starting pitchers when the team is leading and when they have thrown fewer than 100 pitches. The bullpen continues to get lit up, resulting in come-from-behind victories for the opponents.

The Lamar baseball team won two-of-three in last weekend’s Southland Conference series against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at Vincent-beck Stadium in Beaumont. The Cardinals were blanked in the opener Friday 5-0 and used a six-hit shutout from right-hander Blake Ford to nip the Islanders 1-0 Saturday. The Big Red pounded five Islander pitchers for 13 hits and won 10-0 using the league’s “Mercy Rule.” The win upped Lamar’s record to 9-6 in SLC play and 22-13 overall. The Redbirds resume SLC play this weekend with a three-game series against Sam Houston State beginning Friday night in Huntsville.

JUST BETWEEN US…Australian Jason Day, who tied for second in last weekend’s Masters, credits the success of today’s group of talented young golfers to Tiger Woods. “When Tiger came along, he pretty much changed game,” Day said. “Everyone turned into athletes. We’re not fat slobs anymore. He has pretty much changed the game for the good.” Day meant that foreign players have modeled their style after Woods with his weight-lifting program and tedious practice sessions between tournaments.