Feb. 3, 2011
By Larry Watts
Twenty-one years after playing his last game for the University of Minnesota football team, Darrell Thompson is still making big gains in the Twin Cities. Now he is doing it as the executive director at Bolder Options, an activity-based one-to-one mentoring program for 10 to 14-year-olds who have usually had their first brush with the law.
“Most of the cases are shoplifters and truancy problems,’’ he says. “At this age they are still pretty amiable to adults, and too much TV and everything they see on the streets haven’t influenced them. We’re trying to give them something positive to think about in their lives.’’
Bolder Options primarily uses running, biking, academic goal-setting and volunteerism while working with at-risk youth. Mentees agree to meet with mentors two to four hours per week for at least one year. It costs $2,400 for a youth to go through the Bolder Options program for one year compared to a minimum of $40,000 to go through the juvenile justice system.
“The focus is to get them to think about positive things, and reduce crime and truancy,’’ Thompson says. “We want them to believe in themselves.’’
Thompson got involved with Bolder Options as a volunteer and speaker near the end of his National Football League career. Selected by Green Bay with the 19th pick in the first round of the 1990 NFL Draft, he played five seasons with the Packers, rushing for 1,641 yards (a high of 654 in 1993) and scored nine touchdowns. After getting cut by the Packers, he reported to the Chicago Bears mini-camp in 1995, but was cut at the end of camp.
“That’s when I found out I had arthritis in my hip and it was recommended I retire because I could do further damage to my hip within one or two years,’’ he says. “In the next one or two years, I will probably have to get hip replacement surgery.’’
After his football career was over, he returned to Bolder Options to work on a part-time basis. Within six months, he was elevated to full-time. Three years later, when the program had started to gain momentum and became a non-profit organization, he was asked to become executive director.
“I was the only employee,’’ he says with a laugh. “Now we have 16 full-time employees. We had 153 kids go through our program last year and we’re up to 175-180 this year.’’
Bolder Options has now expanded to three locations — south Minneapolis, north Minneapolis and Rochester. After starting out with a budget of $30,000, Thompson now has $1.5 million in his budget.
“It has changed tremendously and so has my role,’’ Thompson says. “When I first started, I was a gift worker and right on the front lines. I would sign kids up, match them up (with mentors), take care of events and even order the pizza. Now we have five people who do that and a person who supervises them.’’
If Thompson, who turned 43 last November, has any regrets, it’s the fact that he is still a year short of finishing his degree in sociology if he went back to Minnesota on a full-time basis.
“My salary is probably comparable to other executive directors,’’ he says. “But the lack of a degree has caused me to miss a few opportunities even though I met all the other qualifications. I probably think about that about twice a month.’’
One opportunity that intrigues Thompson is the Golden Gophers’ director of athletics position whenever Joel Maturi decides to retire. Thompson, who is currently serving as president of the M Club and has been a football analyst for WCCO Radio for the past 14 years, has been asked by a number of people to throw his hat into the ring.
“Becoming an athletic director, there is no question I would have to finish my degree and I have a much smaller window to prepare myself,’’ he says. “I’m still not exactly sure of what I want to do. It’s a headache position, but the job I have is a headache position.
“I really enjoy the work I am doing. We recently held an event where a local college let us use their space. I had fun going around talking to 300-350 family members. I cleaned tables, laughed, joked and handed out gifts to family members while they played Bingo.
“I see the difference this program makes in peoples’ lives,’’ he added. “I see kids go to college and some now have kids of their own. They come back here and thank us for the impact we had on them. That keeps me excited about my work, especially all the paperwork that goes with this job.’’
Coming out of Rochester, Minn., Thompson certainly made his impact on the Minnesota football program and in the Big Ten from 1986 to 1989. By the time he left for the Packers, he rushed for 4,654 yards and 40 touchdowns, still career bests in Golden Gopher history. Posting a season-best 1,376 yards as a true freshman in 1986, he topped the 100-yard mark in a game 23 times in his career, which is still a Minnesota record.
Thompson said he felt some pressure to go to Minnesota, but was comfortable enough to go out of state if he was excited about another school.
“I was blessed with a lot of choices; it seemed like I was getting a media guide in the mail every two or three days,’’ he says. “I was looking at Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, UCLA and Oklahoma State. Ohio State came in late, but I really wasn’t interested. I could really see myself running behind the line at Nebraska or Iowa.’’
It was during his visit to Iowa when Thompson really put it all into perspective. During a dinner conversation, one of the attendees told him he had to think about where he wanted to be if he got hurt on his first day of practice and his football career was over.
“I just kept eating, but when I laid down that night I started to think about that conversation,’’ he says. “I wasn’t even dreaming of pro football at that time.
“It wasn’t long after that I realized Minnesota was the best place for me after my football career was over. There are more Fortune 500 companies within 30 miles than there are in the entire state of California. Minnesota told me about all those companies and how they tried to make sure there was something, as far as internships, for the players if they wanted to take advantage of it. So based on that and (then head coach) Lou Holtz, I picked Minnesota.’’
Unfortunately, Holtz had left for Notre Dame by the time Thompson arrived in Minneapolis. However, Thompson was confident in his replacement, John Gutekunst.
“Playing for ‘Gute’ was fun and he did a good job training me,’’ Thompson says. “He did the best he could, but it was very difficult for him to follow Holtz. Players were disgruntled with the way Holtz left (after two years) and some even wanted to follow him to Notre Dame. It was a difficult time.’’
With fleet-footed quarterback Rickey Foggie running the wishbone and Thompson rushing to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, the Gophers finished 6-6 in 1986, losing to Tennessee in the Liberty Bowl. It would be Thompson’s lone bowl appearance in his collegiate career.
The Gophers went 6-5 in ’87, but with the graduation of Foggie and a change in offensive scheme, they dipped to 2-7-2 in Thompson’s junior season. Missing two games with a hyper-extended knee, Thompson failed to rush for over 1,000 yards (910) for the only time in his Minnesota career.
“We went to more of an I-offense, but we just didn’t have the personnel to do it,’’ Thompson says. “We were still running the option, but defenses defend you entirely differently when you have a running quarterback. We should have won both of those ties and we gave up the lead in another game.’’
By the time his senior year rolled around, Thompson was ready for a rebound. Not only did the 6-foot, 215-pounder want to help Minnesota return to its winning ways, but he was also looking for another 1,000-yard season and to improve his stock for the NFL. Thompson rushed for 1,139 yards and the Gophers went 6-5 in 1989, good enough to qualify for a bowl game now, but not then.
“If today’s system was in place then, I probably would have been to two more bowl games,’’ Thompson says. “But the game has had several changes. Spring football is a nightmare now. I used to do all the running and fundamentals, but when it came to scrimmages, I was only in for two or three plays because they already knew what I could do.’’
Thompson quickly found out there was no time to relax in the NFL. Every practice was a challenge in itself.
“Physically, emotionally and psychologically,’’ Thompson says. “One coach told me to imagine the most challenging opponent I faced in college and it would be like that in practice. It was exactly like that and two times harder in games.
“There is so much information to process. We went through 25 new wrinkles per week and you had to do them full speed in practice Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at full speed. In college, we would get five or six new wrinkles and I didn’t even bother taking notes. I didn’t care which way they were going to block it because I was just going to run the football anyway.’’
According to Thompson, it was difficult letting go when he finally announced his retirement in 1995.
“You get used to the competition, the camaraderie inside the locker room and having a healthy amount of disposable income,’’ he says with a laugh. “I was saving money, but I didn’t think twice about going out and buying a new pair of shoes or a coat for my mother.
“It was a blessing and it takes a while to figure out how good you have it because you’re young. Now I have to look at bills and decide if I can afford something. At least the game of football gave me a little head start on life. I’ll be able to draw retirement when I reach 55, but several players never reach that age because of the damage done to your body over the course of your career.’’
Thompson and his wife have four children, ranging in age from 11 to 18. His 18-year-old daughter is a freshman at Wisconsin.
“We already have border issues in my family,’’ he says. “My wife is a Hawkeye and my sister is a Hawkeye.’’
Thompson’s 13-year-old son has been playing football for the past two years and the 11-year-old will join him next year. Thompson and former Minnesota great Marion Barber are both assistant coaches for their sons’ team.
“We’re both very even-keeled; the only pressure is on us as coaches,’’ he says.
With the success of Bolder Options in the Twin Cities area, Thompson is now looking to expansion.“If we can get more money, get up to around 17-20 employees, add more volunteers and open another office, then we will be able to get to more kids,’’ he says. “People all around the country have been asking us to come work in their communities, but what holds us back is the funding.’’