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.”