LONDON – McLeod Bethel-Thompson might not play in Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. That doesn’t mean the game — and venue, Wembley Stadium — won’t hold special meaning for the second-year Vikings quarterback.
Bethel-Thompson’s grandfather, Wilbur Thompson, won a gold medal in the shot put at the 1948 Summer Olympics in the original Wembley Stadium, which was demolished in 2003 to make room for the new stadium.
Bethel-Thompson didn’t know about the Wembley connection until this week.
“It will be awesome,” he said. “Pretty sweet.”
At age 92, Thompson is the sixth-oldest living U.S. Olympic gold medalist, according to the United States Olympic Committee. Bethel-Thompson said his grandfather rarely talks about his Olympics experience or his gold medal performance during their family visits.
“He’s a pretty stoic, quiet man for the most part,” Bethel-Thompson said. “He doesn’t talk about it unless he’s asked. Every once in a while I try and pick his brain, but he’s pretty quiet about it. He never bragged about it.”
In fact, Bethel-Thompson said he’s seen his grandfather’s gold medal only a few times.
“He doesn’t display it all,” he said. “He keeps it in a wooden box in the back [of his home].”
Thompson has a simple reason for that.
“I don’t want it to be stolen,” he said.
Thompson, whose nickname is “Moose,” competed in track at Southern California and was team captain in 1946. He finished fifth in the shot put at the NCAA Championships in 1942 and second in 1946. That’s when he started to consider training for the Olympics.
The Olympic Games were not held in 1940 or 1944 because of World War II. Thompson had served three years in the Army before returning to USC to pursue his degree in engineering and to compete in track and field.
Thompson recalled the tough economic realities of postwar London, which included food rationing for Olympics athletes.
“Things were really tight,” he said. “I remember one of my coaches saying, ‘Can my athlete have two potatoes instead of one potato?’ This guy was a weightlifter. But no, couldn’t do that.”
Thompson had the best meet of his career at the Olympics, setting a personal and Olympic record at the time with a throw of 56 feet, 2 inches.
Thompson competed at the U.S. Indoor Championship after the Olympics and then retired from competition to begin his career as an engineer.
“It was fulfilling something that I wanted so bad and had worked on so hard for,” he said. “It was worth it.”
Now, 65 years later, his grandson will visit the place where he made those lasting memories. If starter Christian Ponder (ribs) is unable to play, Bethel-Thompson would back up Matt Cassel, increasing the chances for his first regular-season NFL appearance.
“I think that’s wonderful,” Thompson said. “That really means something to me. I’m so proud of him. He’s a real athlete and a nice guy.”