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.