Seahawks’ rookie Earl Thomas is learning from veteran Lawyer Milloy

One position and more than a decade separate them.

Earl Thomas’ braids hang to his shoulders; Lawyer Milloy’s hair has an occasional fleck of gray.

They are almost a generation apart, but it was the similarities that struck Milloy on New Year’s Eve when he hosted Thomas and his parents for his family’s holiday party.

“They were asking all the same questions that my mom and dad were asking my first couple of years,” Milloy said. “I kind of saw myself 15 years ago.”

They are at different points in their careers, different stages of life. Milloy is a husband and father who has reached the playoffs with three franchises. He is 37, playing in his 15th NFL season. He embodies that championship toughness the Seahawks are trying to instill.

Thomas is 21, the team’s youngest player, the promise of the Seahawks’ tomorrow, proof that better days might not be far off. He’s also away from home for the first time, just beginning a multimillion-dollar playing career, and in his first year he’s found a pair of footprints to follow.

“He has just been a role model to me, on and off the field,” Thomas said. “You’re never going to forget that, you know.”

Their careers have intersected in this most meaningful way, the blazing fast free safety taking his cues from the bruising strong safety who is one of the team’s most successful veterans. It took some time just as any working relationship does, but their partnership will be one of the most critical elements of Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Saints as Milloy and Thomas will together constitute Seattle’s last line of defense.

Years in the game

The name didn’t mean all that much to Thomas. Not at first.

Thomas was too young to remember when Milloy entered the league out of Washington.

“I think I was like 11 when he first got in the league,” Thomas said.

Nope. He was 7. Thomas was 12 when Milloy won his Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.

“Actually, the first day I got here, I asked him who he was,” Thomas said.

He knows now. Quite clearly. Milloy is a person and a player who embodies what it means to be a professional — from his tough and unflinching play to the suits he wears to the game to the way he carries himself in the locker room.

Milloy is one of the players who redefined the way safeties are valued in this league. Milloy was the first safety chosen in 1996, picked No. 36 overall, the reason he wears that number.

That wasn’t abnormal for the position, though. Throughout the 1990s, there were a total of seven safeties chosen in the first round, just two selected in the top 15. Two went that high in 2010 alone: Eric Berry, chosen fifth by Kansas City, and Thomas, 14th by Seattle.

They are different types of safeties than Milloy, center fielders with incredible range who very well might have played cornerback 20 years ago. But the game has changed. Safeties are no longer pawns on the field, they’re prized.

Catch-up speed

The first step is Thomas’ trump card, his combination of acceleration and instincts that makes him so special, and he started off fast, picking off three passes in his first four games.

There was a lot to learn, too. Thomas played only two seasons at Texas before entering the draft, so there were some growing pains. Thomas would go chasing a big play and leave Seattle’s defense exposed.

But of all the reasons to be excited about Seattle’s future, he is right near the top of the list. He hasn’t intercepted a pass in six games, but don’t go thinking that his performance has tailed off.

“He’s really going,” coach Pete Carroll said of Thomas. “He’s so much better right now than he was earlier. He’s just improved immensely.”

The Seahawks demonstrated a fuller range of Thomas’ talents last week against St. Louis, matching him up in man coverage at times against Danny Amendola, the Rams’ best receiver. Amendola caught two passes.

This week, the challenge doesn’t necessarily get bigger, but it gets faster. Much, much faster because there will be times Thomas is assigned to the Saints’ Reggie Bush, a prime assignment on the postseason stage.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a team to groom a rookie, though, and Seattle re-signed Milloy not only because he remained a heavyweight hitter, but he could set an example for Thomas.

“Just an honor to play with him,” Thomas said.

They may be a generation apart, but there is no gap. Not in Seattle’s defense and not between these teammates, their families joining together to celebrate this new year.

“When he tells me, ‘I appreciate you,’ that means a lot,” Milloy said. “Legacy isn’t just what you do on the field, it’s how you affect others.”

That’s something Thomas has not only experienced, but learned.

“Maybe when I’m down the road 15 years, and I have somebody coming in as a rookie, I can show them how Lawyer taught me,” he said.