Out with friends in Dubuque, Iowa, earlier this month, Dominique Thompson nearly fell off her seat after glancing at the TV to see Brett Favre handing the ball off to someone who looked familiar.
The Green Bay Packers were playing the Detroit Lions in the 1993 wild-card playoffs — and Darrell Thompson was running the football.
Dominique, Darrell’s daughter, called home to tell her folks to turn on the game. They all watched it together, from a bar in Iowa and a couch in Minnesota.
“It was wild,” Dominique said. “I had never seen him in a full game.”
Favre’s recent Hall of Fame induction put Darrell Thompson back in the spotlight. He received some phone calls from media to talk about his Packers days playing alongside a legend.
“I was on TV a lot lately because of Brett Favre,” Thompson said. “Not because of me.”
That tailback on TV who led Green Bay in rushing in one of Favre’s early seasons, and who also holds the Gophers all-time career rushing record, has quite the legacy of his own. Thompson, a 48-year-old father of four and husband of 20 years, has dedicated his post-NFL life to guiding children — both his own, and those in the community in need.
With the youngest Thompson, 17-year-old Race, emerging as the latest in a family of gifted athletes, Darrell’s influence continues to grow beyond his playing days. The Gophers’ all-time leading rusher and team radio analyst is proud that his kids — Dominique, 23, Indigo, 20, True, 18, and Race — are humble no matter their achievements. He’s proud they have learned the importance of helping others, picked up by watching him run Bolder Options, a nonprofit organization that finds mentors for troubled youth in the Twin Cities.
“We have a responsibility to be involved with kids, with the community. Otherwise, why are we here?” Thompson said. “My message to all of my kids is to be humble because nothing is promised. But my saying whenever I dropped them off in the car was, ‘Play hard and have fun.’ ”
Thompson was only a year old when his father, George, moved with his wife, Morsie, from St. Louis to Rochester to follow a job as an IBM industrial engineer.
Four years later, his parents divorced, but they still provided a stable environment for him and later his two siblings. Thompson remembers how they were actively involved in helping kids in the community.
They worked with Rochester A Better Chance Foundation, which helps minority children prepare for college. His father worked on seven charitable boards and is now the executive director for Rochester Diversity Council.
“When a kid is acting out or is angry, it’s usually because his home life is like that,” Thompson said. “I never felt like that.”
Years later after he retired from the NFL, Thompson teamed with Minnesota Jaycees Charitable foundation to work at Bolder Options, which became its own organization under his direction in 1998.
“When you have a one-on-one relationship and you show a young person that you care and you listen to them, then you have a chance to make a difference and to change that trajectory of that young person’s life,” Thompson said. “Get them to realize that they can make a right turn when they made a wrong turn or poor decision in the past.”
The program partners youth 10-14 years old with one mentor for a year. The weekly activities range from working on homework and goal-setting to swimming, 5K runs and bicycle races. About 70 percent of the matches stay together. The national average is 50 percent, according to Thompson.
Thompson, who went from working with 50 kids in 1998 to as many as 2,500 each year, has an eight-member staff. Outreach director Rob Lyons, a former NFL defensive back, joined the group last year.
“Darrell started at the ground level,” Lyons said. “Now being the executive director of the program, he’s seen a lot of kids come through and come back to say, ‘Thank you for making a difference in my life.’ ”
On Aug. 11, Bolder Options graduated 10 students from its program, including Carter, a 12-year-old from St. Louis Park. Carter had doubts about being paired with his mentor, Anu, last year. But his grades improved to honor roll level. The pair now are avid mountain bikers.
“I did know that Darrell Thompson played for the Green Bay Packers,” Carter said. “I’m actually thinking because of how awesome this has been and how many people have been mentors to kids, I think when I’m older and I get the chance, I will come back here and maybe volunteer.”
Not until he was in 10th grade at Rochester John Marshall did Thompson realize just how special his talent was in football, after making varsity. Shortly after that, his chiseled 6-1, 200-pound physique and blazing speed attracted coaches from across the country, most notably Iowa, Nebraska and UCLA.
Having a father from St. Louis and a mother from Mississippi, Thompson wasn’t raised as a Gophers fan. He never attended games and didn’t dream of playing in maroon and gold. By his senior season, he strongly considered Iowa because he liked then-coach Hayden Fry. His sister played volleyball there, which is how he met his wife, Stephanie, a Hawkeyes teammate.
But Thompson bonded with Gophers assistants George Wemeier and Jim Strong. John Gutekunst made Thompson his top priority after replacing Lou Holtz in 1986.
“The day after I was named head coach, I was on a plane to Rochester to recruit him,” Gutekunst said then.
Thompson, who set a then-Division I-A record with 205 yards in his debut, rushed for a school-record 4,654 yards from 1986-89. He holds Gophers career records for rushing touchdowns (40), 100-yard games (23) and attempts (936).
“I think I made the right decision,” he said. “The friends, the relationships, and the community — I’d do it all over again.”
‘Dad played in the NFL’
Thompson lived in both Wisconsin and Minnesota when he played for Green Bay, where it was hard for him to go anywhere without someone wanting an autograph or picture.
“Packers fans were the best in the world,” Stephanie said. “The way he is, he likes to blend in.”
Once Thompson’s NFL career ended in 1995, he married his college girlfriend and they moved into their Plymouth home. The basement still displays the same game balls and Packers helmet the kids showed off to friends growing up.
“My teachers would be like, ‘Oh, your dad is Darrell Thompson,’ ” Race said. “I would brag a little bit about it.”
Sometimes when putting his children to bed, Thompson would recall how he got different scars. The most gruesome is a puffy spot on his forearm where his skin caught on an opposing player’s helmet.
“Now they see this guy who has got his hip replaced, can’t run like he used to run,” Stephanie said. “But it would’ve been fun for them to see him in his prime.”
Thompson started coaching his oldest daughter in basketball when she was in the sixth grade. On rides home it was tough for him not to critique her dribbling or follow-through.
“That was the hardest thing to learn,” he said.
Dominique and Indigo were coached in basketball by their dad until the eighth grade, True from fifth to eighth grade. Race’s basketball team had his father as an assistant for two years before middle school.
When Dom was 15 and Indigo 11, they got serious about volleyball. They wanted to try something different at first because their mother, aunt and uncle all competed in college.
As for football, Thompson’s sons messed around with their friends in the backyard for years. But their dad told them they wouldn’t be allowed to play on a team until the eighth grade because of concern over concussions. True suffered a concussion this summer while training with his junior college football team, but he still remembers changing his dad’s mind on when they could start playing. True wrote a persuasive essay for school when he was 11.
“He lowered it to sixth grade,” True said. “That worked out.”
Their own path
On Thompson family trips, Race usually gets the most attention because he towers over his parents and siblings at nearly 6-9 and 220 pounds.
While visiting the Wisconsin Dells this summer, he ran into some fans from Minnesota who pleaded for him to play for his father’s alma mater. The youngest Thompson is starting to make a name for himself, even scoring 41 points in an AAU game for D1Minnesota in July. After the game, Race’s father downplayed the performance, which came in front of several college coaches.
“He’s always just in the stands, and he’ll give me a nod or something,” Race said. “He never is super pumped up. My parents told me I always need to be humble. I just play and let my game do the talking.”
A four-star forward in the 2018 class, the Armstrong junior has scholarship offers from Iowa State, Marquette and Arizona State. But being offered by Gophers coach Richard Pitino this year was a big deal, he said.
“I grew up watching everything Gophers,” Race said. “Honestly, when I get recruited by the Gophers, I try to forget that my dad went there. Because when I go somewhere to school, I want to go somewhere I feel like home. I feel like I probably would feel at home with the Gophers, but I kind of just want to make the right decision and go where my heart tells me to go.”
Three of Thompson’s kids have left the state for college. Dominique, who played volleyball professionally in Denmark last year, was an outside hitter at Wisconsin. Indigo, a setter, has three years of eligibility remaining after transferring from Virginia Commonwealth to San Diego State. True, a 6-5 wide receiver, is a freshman at Iowa Western Community College.
With all of his kids, Thompson never wanted to put pressure on them to live up to his accomplishments becoming a Gophers star and playing in the NFL. He only wanted to teach them to be humble, to be mentors one day, acts that have given Thompson a new legacy.
“It helped me become the person I am,” Race said. “Now if I see someone who needs help with anything, I’ll ask them what I can do. His personality kind of rubbed off on me.”