Cedric Thompson has occasional flashbacks to his years in Bombay Beach, Calif., the tiny desolate town along the Salton Sea, where he transformed himself into a college football player.
“There will be a story that pops into my head, and I’ll be like, ‘God, I forgot that even happened to me,’ ” said Thompson, a senior safety who led the Gophers in tackles last year.
Bombay Beach has about 300 residents, most of them retired. Back in the 1960s, it was a popular resort destination, with ads billing it as “Palm Springs by the Sea.” Now, dead fish wash up on the deserted shore, and the roads are lined with abandoned houses.
Thompson moved there with his dad after his parents divorced. For father and son, it served as a refuge from all the gang violence they’d experienced in south-central Los Angeles.
Thompson found a whole new focus — for football and school — that helped him land an unexpected scholarship to Minnesota. After coming to campus as a complete unknown in 2011, he has emerged as this team’s de facto captain, alongside quarterback Mitch Leidner.
“I thought Cedric would be a good leader, but I had no idea he was going to do the job he’s done,” coach Jerry Kill said. “With his upbringing, and how he survived things, and what he stands for, he’s got great respect.”
Finding his way
Thompson’s memories of Bombay Beach mostly include the constant boredom, the occasional 120-degree heat, earthquakes and the stench wafting off the landlocked Salton Sea. It’s a town that sits 223 feet below sea level, on the southern edge of the San Andreas Fault.
The closest high school was 27 miles away, in Calipatria, so Thompson would catch a bus each morning at 6:15 a.m.
“When I look back at what I used to go through, living in Bombay — getting up, taking a two-hour bus ride — I can’t believe I used to do that,” Thompson said. “But once I’m in a situation, I don’t think about it. I’ll do whatever it takes to get where I want to be.”
As a 6-foot, 210-pound tackling machine, Thompson’s next step could be the NFL. His other dream is to open an athletic and academic tutoring center, where inner-city youth can better prepare to become college athletes. He’s on track to graduate in May with a degree in business and marketing.
But Thompson was reeling when he first arrived in Bombay Beach, at age 15. A cousin and a close friend from his Pop Warner team had been shot and killed by gang members. When his parents first split, Thompson and his two younger siblings moved with their mother from Compton to suburban Palmdale.
As a freshman at Palmdale’s Knight High School, Thompson kept getting into fights and was nearly expelled. Searching for more structure, he moved into his father’s one-bedroom shack, a half-block from the Salton Sea.
At about 140 pounds, Thompson wasn’t much of a factor as a sophomore running back at Calipatria High School, but coach David Shaw saw potential. With nothing else to do at home, Thompson turned himself into a workout fiend.
Shaw spent seven years as Calipatria’s coach, and Thompson was his only player to come from Bombay Beach.
“It takes a dedicated kid to get up that early and ride the bus,” Shaw said. “He has an inner drive that’s unmatched. He was driven to do better in his life.”
Thompson rushed for 1,808 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior. When other recruits went elsewhere right before 2011 signing day, the Gophers were desperate for alternatives. Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel found an e-mail featuring highlights of Thompson dominating games in the desert.
That was one e-mail Sawvel was happy he didn’t delete.
After converting to safety, Thompson played seven games for the Gophers as a true freshman. He steadily improved as a sophomore and junior, capping last season with a team-high 14 tackles against Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
“I think he’s as good of a tackling safety as there is in the Big Ten,” Sawvel said, noting that Thompson can still improve his pass coverage.
But when it comes to Thompson’s leadership, the Gophers couldn’t be more pleased.
“He’s not the nicest guy all the time,” Sawvel said. “We started calling him ‘Mr. Grumpy’ every once in a while. He wants to make sure other people are on his page, not their own page.”
Thompson went to Kill’s office after the Texas Bowl and said he was ready to take over for departing senior Brock Vereen as a team leader.
Thompson said his time helping raise a younger brother and sister in Compton and Palmdale helped prepare him for this role. His siblings stayed with their mother, instead of joining him in Bombay Beach, but they’ve all remained close. His brother, Tedric, is now a starting safety at Colorado.
“I’m so proud of him,” Thompson said. “Because, for one, I did everything I could to get to college to show him that he could make it. And the fact that he’s there, and he’s doing his thing — words can’t even explain how proud of him I am.”
That’s a common feeling for people who’ve followed this family’s story.