BOMBAY BEACH, CALIF. — Every morning, Cedric Thompson rose before the sun to catch a 6:15 bus to the nearest high school. He’d slump into his vinyl seat, using headphones to tune out the noise, as the bus rattled along Hwy. 111. And every evening, after a full day of classes and two hours of practice in 100-degree weather, he melted back into his seat for the two-hour ride home.
He hated those long rides when he first moved to Bombay Beach at age 15. But he knew he was safer than he had been among all the gang violence in South Central Los Angeles. And during those 13-hour days, he knew he wasn’t missing much at home — just his dad and the one-bedroom house they shared a half-block from the deserted beach.
Thompson, 20, appreciates those days much more now that he’s become a starting safety for the Gophers. He realizes living in a small, suffering town helped him find the focus he needed — athletically and academically — to somehow land a Big Ten scholarship.
Unknown to the Gophers until shortly before National Signing Day in 2011, Thompson became a late addition to Jerry Kill’s first recruiting class. He started eight games last year as a sophomore, finishing with 43 tackles and two interceptions.
“Coming from the big city to Bombay, I was like, ‘There’s no way I can live like this,’ ” he said during a recent visit home. “It pushed me to get out of here.”
Bombay Beach sits 60 miles southeast of Palm Springs on the Salton Sea’s once-promising eastern shore. The population is about 300. There is no gas station. The closest hospital is 37 miles away. Locals say it was something to see 40 years ago, with bustling bars and restaurants. Now it looks like a scene from someone’s post-apocalyptic imagination with abandoned houses, sun-dried ruins and dead fish washed up on the shore.
Photographers and film crews have been drawn to the area’s desolate landscape over the years. Walking down the street one day, Thompson met director Alma Har’el, who asked if Thompson would like to be part of a movie. That film, “Bombay Beach,” won Best Documentary Feature at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.
Har’el featured Thompson as one of three prominent subjects, capturing his determination to use Bombay Beach as a refuge, in search of something better.
“If there is an American dream turned upside on its head, then it’s [Thompson],” Har’el told film critic Philip Concannon. “He came from Los Angeles, the ‘City of Dreams’ as Hollywood suggests it can be, to the poorest ghost town in California. And through being there, he managed to get a college scholarship and a step toward the life he wants.”
The life they had
Cedric Thompson Sr. keeps a low profile. Taking drags from a cigarette, he asked not to be photographed as he sat on his shaded patio, telling stories about the family’s early days.
He was 24 when Thompson was born. Flossie Bradford was 16. Both parents attended Locke High School, near Watts, though neither graduated. They had two more children over the next five years, including Tedric, who is now a freshman football player at Colorado.
Thompson said there was a heavy gang presence on his father’s side of the family, but he credits Cedric Sr. for giving up that life after he was born. Still, Thompson said, his father’s criminal record from his younger days has made it difficult to find work sometimes.
“Any questions you want to ask me can be concerning [my son],” Cedric Sr. said. “I’m not interested in my life story.”
Cedric Sr. did say he knew 16 people who died in gang-related killings, including one clipped by an AK-47 at a family picnic. He has a brother serving a life sentence and a nephew who’s on trial for murder.
Thompson’s parents worked hard to shelter their kids as best they could. When Thompson was in middle school, they found a home on a relatively safe block in Compton. It’s a white house with green trim and careful landscaping on the corner of 139th Street and Central Avenue.
“There’s a lot of fond memories right there,” Cedric Sr. said. “We always had the football team with us. We were just football parents.”
Cedric Sr. played football growing up in Arizona, but he told his sons they had to start getting along before they would get their chance. One day, when Cedric was 9 and Tedric was 7, their father took them to Jesse Owens Park in Los Angeles, site of a large indoor swimming pool, a gym and sprawling practice fields.
“They thought we were going swimming,” Cedric Sr. said. “We brought towels and everything just to throw them off. They jumped out, and I said, ‘Let’s go over here. We’re signing up for football.’
“As soon as they started playing football, they came together. They stopped arguing. They stopped fighting. I think about that all the time.”
The Thompsons played for the Woodcrest Generals, proudly wearing the red-white-and-blue uniforms. Cedric Sr. still has numerous photos from those days taped to a wall in Bombay Beach. But one of Thompson’s teammates didn’t make it to adulthood. Clayton Montgomery got shot by a gang member on Western Avenue, just a few blocks from Jesse Owens Park. He was 15.
Thompson managed to stay out of gangs, heeding his parents’ warnings, but other friends fell into the trap. When he was in eighth grade, his 16-year-old cousin, Roy Williams, was shot and killed. While the family mourned, the marriage between Cedric Sr. and Bradford continued crumbling. Bradford finally decided to pack the kids and move to Palmdale, an hour northeast of Los Angeles.
“I was just tired of L.A., and things weren’t getting better — the gangs and all that,” Bradford said. “So I was like, maybe if I just move my boys out of here, there won’t be any problems, and they won’t have to worry.”
But it didn’t take long for Thompson to find trouble at Palmdale’s Knight High School, a place where racial tensions were especially high between blacks and Hispanics. He started getting into fights and cutting classes, nearly getting expelled.
After doing some soul searching, he decided to go live in Bombay Beach, where his father had moved into a deceased uncle’s home.
“I was missing my dad,” Thompson said. “I knew he was the only one who could control me.”
Welcome to paradise
On Thompson’s first trip to Bombay Beach, the blue Astro van his father was driving sprung a flat tire along Interstate Hwy. 10. It was after dark by the time they arrived. Thompson could smell the Salton Sea, just down the road. But he was too tired to explore, too jaded to care.
“I woke up in the morning and went for a walk,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t believe I was here.”
The Salton Sea formed by accident in 1905, when the Colorado River flooded into a salt basin. For decades, people thought the area had limitless potential. Promotional ads in the 1960s billed it as Palm Springs-by-the-Sea. Movie stars turned up at the resorts. Fishermen flocked to catch corvina and tilapia.
“It was a gas,” said longtime Bombay Beach resident Larry Wiebalk. “You couldn’t find a place to put your towel down on the beach — that’s how many people were out here.”
The sea is 15 miles wide and 35 miles long. It takes in water from the New River, but nothing flows out, creating a hot stew of increasing salinity that has turned deadly for fish. The stench can be staggering. Tilapia still bite, when they’re not washing up on the shore. The corvina are long gone.
Wiebalk said he hasn’t stepped in the water in 20 years. Thompson can’t recall ever seeing a boat.
Last weekend, the temperature in Bombay Beach reached 122 degrees. Besides sitting 223 feet below sea level, at one of the lowest elevations in the Western Hemisphere, the town is located on the southern edge of the San Andreas Fault. There aren’t just earthquakes, there are earthquake swarms.
A huge flood hit in 1983, decimating the homes and businesses along the water. The abandoned houses near the shore became playgrounds for Thompson and two friends when he first moved there. He welcomed their company in a town inhabited mostly by retirees. But his buddies moved back home to Michigan when he was a junior.
“After that I had nobody,” Thompson said. “It was just me and my dad.”
A light comes on
As a sophomore at Calipatria High School, Thompson just went through the motions. The bus rides — 27 miles that lasted nearly two hours because of stops — wore him down. His grades were terrible. He thought about quitting football.
“He was so brokenhearted about me and his mom separating,” Cedric Sr. said. “He was just going to graduate and find a job. I said, ‘No, son. You need something to do to keep your mind off everything else.’ ”
After playing on the freshman team at Knight High School (enrollment 3,400), Thompson spent most of his sophomore year playing JV at Calipatria (enrollment 350), even though the varsity went 1-8.
Thompson weighed about 140 pounds. He ran a few plays as a varsity running back late in the season, impressing coach David Shaw. The young coach encouraged Thompson to dedicate himself in the weight room. With so little else to do in Bombay Beach, Thompson became maniacal about his workouts. He’d run up and down the beach, with a tire tied to his waist. He practiced his 40-yard dash in the street.
“I would have never worked out that hard if I was living in L.A.,” Thompson said. “In L.A., I had fun and went out with friends all the time. But in Bombay, I was bored all the time, so all I did was work out.”
In the second game of Thompson’s junior season, he scored four first-half touchdowns. The light came on. Shaw saw his college potential and urged him to improve his grades. Sometimes Thompson would come home from the bus, and crash from exhaustion, but Cedric Sr. would wake him, coaxing him to do his homework.
As a senior, Thompson rushed for 1,808 yards and 27 touchdowns. Halfway through that school year, he moved to Shaw’s house in Brawley, cutting that long commute to 15 minutes.
“He’s like my son,” Shaw said. “I always say he’s a once-in-a-lifetime kid to coach.”
Hidden in the desert
It was 1:30 a.m., and Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel hadn’t left his office. Hired a few weeks earlier, along with Kill, Sawvel was scrambling to round out the new staff’s first recruiting class at Minnesota.
With two days until National Signing Day, two recruits the Gophers wanted were heading elsewhere. Sawvel needed some new leads.
He had received an e-mail from Justin Hannon, an independent recruiting evaluator who put together Thompson’s highlight video. At that time, Thompson was committed to play for Portland State. Sawvel called Hannon that night and started hearing about this running back in the middle of the desert that most schools had overlooked.
“Recruiting can have more to do with location than whether a guy has talent,” Sawvel said. “If you put Cedric Thompson in Atlanta, I’m sure he’d have a whole lot of offers, so it piqued my curiosity.”
The next day, Sawvel called Shaw, and the Gophers made plans to host Thompson on a last-minute recruiting visit.
“Even when I went to Minnesota, I had no idea it was a Big Ten school, no idea they could get to the Rose Bowl,” he said. “I just needed to sign somewhere.”
Thompson also needed an ACT qualifying score to get a Division I scholarship. He struggled with the test as a sophomore before retaking it as a senior. News of the qualifying score came right before he left for Minnesota. The Gophers offered a scholarship, and he accepted on the spot.
“Is that a traditional recruiting path? No,” Sawvel said. “We found him through information that Justin Hannon sends out that probably three-quarters of the time most people delete.”
When Thompson graduated from high school, his mother made the three-hour drive from her home in Santa Clarita to come watch the ceremony.
“He’s the first one in the family who graduated and went to college, so I was very grateful to see him walk across the stage and everything,” she said. “I really can’t explain it. I’m just proud he turned out the way he did.”
Minnesota and beyond
After a Gophers practice this spring, Thompson was doing an interview when defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys walked up and put his arm around him.
“This is my three-year contract,” Claeys said. “You treat him good, all right. He’s the reason I’m going to have a job for three more years.”
Thompson made a smooth transition from high school running back to college defensive back. He played seven games as a true freshman and emerged as a starter last year. He is still a workout fiend and roams the field now as a 5-10, 210-pound force.
“You see a guy who has grown up into a man,” Sawvel said. “I expect him to have a very good year this year.”
Thompson wore No. 27 his first two years with the Gophers, but this year he is switching to No. 2. He’s also going to add “Jr.” to the name on the back of his jersey, honoring his dad. A conversation with his father also inspired Thompson to get a lion’s face tattooed onto his left forearm.
“My dad’s not a real emotional person; he kind of just keeps everything to himself,” Thompson said. “But one day, we were on the phone and he said, ‘You’re the lion of the family. A lion is someone who leads his family, leads the pack, and you’re the first one out. You’re doing exactly what you need to do.’ ”
Thompson hopes to make enough money after he graduates, from the NFL or elsewhere, to open a program at Jesse Owens Park to help young athletes get into college. He looks back on his own experiences — with no ACT preparatory class, for example — knowing how much he would have appreciated the same guidance.
“That’s probably why there’s a lot of violence back home,” he said. “We don’t have the youth programs for kids around the ages when you need that stuff, like 12 and 13. That’s when you start getting in trouble.”
As for his other goals, Thompson said, “My mama wants a house, and I want my dad to have a new beginning. That’s what I say to push myself when I’m struggling.”
Thompson is majoring in business marketing and made the Academic All-Big Ten team last fall. So far, college has proved easier than high school, especially without the bus rides. He likes everything about Minnesota — except the cold.
His girlfriend, Minneapolis native Charlotte Paguyo, was a U homecoming queen candidate last fall. She studied in Europe this spring, and together they visited Florence, Venice, Nice and Monaco.
Sitting there on the French Riviera, it hit him. He could see the sun, sand and water — just like home — but he was a long way from Bombay Beach.