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.”