NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- When it was halftime, the West Orange-Stark (Texas) High School Mustangs did what football teams do: They jogged into the locker room.
Except Earl Thomas. The guy who ran fastest with the football, caught the football with verve and played a stellar defensive back would stay on the field. He'd take off his helmet, shrug off his shoulder pads, pick up his tenor saxophone and fall in line with the marching band -- still in cleats and football pants.
"At times it was embarrassing," Thomas said.
But the football hero/band geek double life wasn't embarrassing enough to stop. The band played on, and Thomas played with it. When you're good at everything and you attend a small-town high school, you're often asked to do it all.
Thomas was a four-sport athlete at West Orange-Stark and a four-instrument musician as well. He played piano, organ and drums at his grandfather's church, and sax in the band.
He still is multitasking at Texas. He is an All-American strong safety for the Longhorns -- and when time permits, he's a jazz pianist with a group of 30-something musicians in a group called Bad Bones, which performs at clubs in Austin's exceptional music scene.
Teammates who have seen him tickle the keys give him solid reviews.
"He has skills on the piano," linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy said.
"Excellent," said defensive end Sam Acho. "He can really play."
He can really play football, too.
The 5-foot-10, 192-pound Thomas is the leading playmaker on a defense that made a habit of wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. Only one team in America has more than Texas' 35 takeaways on the season, and that's an Ohio team that has played one more game than the Longhorns. Nobody has more interceptions than the Horns' 24.
Thomas personally has one-third of those 24 picks, ranking him second nationally in interceptions per game. The redshirt sophomore also broke up 16 other passes. He's second on the team in solo tackles (45) and total tackles (71), including five tackles for loss. He forced a fumble as well, just to round out the stat line.
"He's real fast," Alabama receiver Julio Jones said. "Probably one of the fastest [defensive backs] we've seen all year. And he's a ball hawk. He gets to the ball."
Who can do it all for the Texas defense?
His name is Earl.
Last year, at one particular time, his name was mud. Thomas was one of two defenders who failed to stop Michael Crabtree from catching the famous pass from Graham Harrell and then scoring with it as Texas Tech beat Texas on the final play from scrimmage and kept the Horns out of the national title game.
Thomas was in a tough spot then, a redshirt freshman probably being asked to do too much in a callow secondary. But he's been in much tougher spots in his life.
His family's home in Orange, on the Gulf Coast of East Texas, was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005 and has not been rebuilt. Today, Thomas' family lives with his grandparents.
The family didn't expect much to happen when they evacuated ahead of the hurricane, but they believe they saw video of their devastated house on television while relocated in Louisiana. When they returned home, they knew for sure. Thomas and his family spent a difficult year living in a Super 8 motel room next to a Waffle House -- his mom and dad sharing one bed, he and his brother sharing the other.
"You can be put in tough situations," Thomas said. "You can't control it. It's how you adapt to it."
No familial situation, not even a home-destroying hurricane, was as difficult as the one Debbie Thomas endured before her children were born. She had already had a miscarriage and was pregnant with Earl when she was told she had cervical cancer. Life expectancy at that moment: six months.
But according to the family, a subsequent doctor's visit showed no signs of cancer. Earl was born healthy and happy, and his brother followed.
That happy circumstance did not come without some heightened responsibility, however.
"My mom always reminded me, 'You're a miracle child; you can't do what everyone else does,'" Earl Thomas said. "That just helped keep me out of trouble."
Thomas spent much of his time in Orange "going muddin' and running around barefooted." From the sound of it, he lived a Tom Sawyer lifestyle with a pious twist.
"I was in church most of the time," he said.
The church was run by his grandfather Earl Thomas Sr. He was the man who got little Earl to sit down at the piano, goading him into it at church at age 12.
"Go up there and make some music," his grandfather told him.
He has been playing ever since -- in clubs, in the band and on the football field -- but his next performance is all about football. If Texas is going to beat Alabama for the national championship Thursday night, it will need a virtuoso performance from the versatile Earl Thomas.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.