Feb. 20, 2008
Anthony Thompson will be the first to tell you when looking back at his football career, whether it be at the high school, college or professional level, he was never the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest. But growing up in Terre Haute Ind., in a single-parent Christian family of seven kids, his work ethic was unquestionable. He was taught to reach for the stars and settle for the moon. Ultimately it would be that work ethic that would help the man affectionately called "A.T." become the NCAA's all-time career rushing and scoring leader as well as one of Indiana's beloved student-athletes, coaches and administrators.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Hoosier great is that he admits not knowing a great deal about college football at a time when kids his age where already receiving recruiting letters. Yes, his family grew up cheering for the Chicago Bears and Thompson studied and patterned the running style of the great Walter Payton. However, when it came to the college game, his knowledge of the sport did not reach beyond the simple fact that nearby Indiana State fields a football team.
In fact, when Notre Dame head coach Gerry Faust came to Terre Haute North High School inquiring about Thompson, the talented prep star amazed people when he did not know of Faust or where Notre Dame was located.
Thompson's mother, who was also not well versed in sports, knew enough to give her talented son what would become the best coaching advice he ever received.
"My mom instilled a strong work ethic in me as a kid," Thompson said. "I remember scoring seven touchdowns in a high school game and came home bragging about it. She knew nothing about athletics and she told me, `Anthony, there is always going to be someone better than you.'"
Thompson says it was at that point he decided he was not going to be outworked by anyone.
Interest in Thompson came from several college schools, but Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State and Florida State became his top-five choices. Wanting to stay close to home, within a phone call or a car trip of his mother, three brothers and three sisters, Thompson choose to play college ball at Indiana. He knew he wanted to play in the Big Ten and after visiting the campus and speaking to the coaching staff, he also knew he wanted to play for Bill Mallory.
"The first things I think of when I think of Coach Mallory is hard work, commitment and intensity," Thompson said. The guy taught us that if you work hard, good things will happen, and we took on his attitude every time we took the field."
Mallory was hired in 1984 and went 0-11 his first season, followed by a 4-7 mark in 1985. But with the addition of Thompson in 1986, Indiana began a streak of three-straight bowl games with seasons of 6-6, 8-4, and 8-3-1.
"I had a great four years at Indiana," Thompson said. "We were able to accomplish a lot of things that I think people had doubts about, and one was to go to three straight bowl games starting in 1986. My junior year we had a chance to compete for the Big Ten title against Michigan State."
But despite a 5-6 record and an end to the bowl streak his senior year, Thompson accomplished several feats that are still talked about to this day. One of the most impressive rushing performances in college football history occurred on Nov. 11, 1989, at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
"When we were at Wisconsin, our starting quarterback Dave Schnell got hurt in pregame warm-ups," he said. "He couldn't throw the ball five yards and our backup at the time, Trent Green, was young and had never thrown a pass in a Big Ten game. Coach came over to me and said, `Strap up! You are going to get a lot of carries today!'"
Sixty minutes later Thompson had accumulated an NCAA record 377 yards on the ground on 52 carries. The single-game yardage is still a Big Ten record, while his number of carries ranks fourth in conference annals.
Thompson led all Big Ten rushers in 1988 (140.5 ypg) and 1989 (163.0) and was named the conference's Player of the Year in each of the two seasons as well.
"Any time you can win the Player of the Year award in the Big Ten, it says you have had some great teammates and coaches around you," he said. "Winning two years in a row was very humbling."
Thompson points out that he never played for records and awards, just for wins. However now that he is older and able to look back on his accomplishments, he has a great appreciation for all of his honors. As a senior, Thompson earned his second first-team All-America distinction, was named the Walter Camp Foundation's Player of the Year and the AFCA "Coaches Choice" Player of the Year, and earned the Maxwell Award as the nation's finest college football player. He also won the Chicago Tribune Silver Football for Big Ten Most Valuable Player twice, becoming one of only three people to ever do so. The Hoosier great was also invited to the Downtown Athletic Club following his senior year for an opportunity to win college football's most prestigious award, and yes, Thompson had no clue about the Heisman Trophy in high school either. In a close race, Thompson fell just 70 votes shy of Houston's Andre Ware, but still looks back at that moment as one of the greatest experiences of his life.
"I had to pinch myself when I was sitting in downtown New York," said Thompson, who is also the lone Hoosier player in any sport to have his jersey retired. "I had never been there and it was very surreal. I figured if I won that would be great, but if I didn't, it was still such an honor. Being able to share that moment with my family and coaches was very rewarding."
Thompson's dream of becoming a professional football player came true when he was selected by the Phoenix Cardinals in the second round of the 1990 NFL Draft. During his pro career, which ended in 1992 with the Los Angeles Rams, Thompson played in 37 games and scored six touchdowns.
When Cam Cameron was hired as Indiana's head football coach in 1997, he extended an offer to Thompson to return to Bloomington as the running backs coach. There was already a special bond between the two as they were from the same hometown and Thompson was recruited by Cameron when he was an assistant coach at Michigan. After two seasons, Thompson was promoted to assistant head coach and spent a total of five years on the Hoosier staff.
"I learned more about football in my five years of coaching than I did in 20 years of playing," Thompson said. "Being able to share my student-athlete experience with the current players was really what gave me the most joy. I don't miss the preparation that came with the job, but I miss the camaraderie."
Following his coaching career, Thompson earned a position with Indiana's Varsity Club, the school's development arm. He takes pride in the fact that he has been able to see all facets of Indiana University athletics in the past 20 years, having been a player, a coach and now an administrator.
Thompson has also been able to provide for the athletics department, specifically the football team, in a spiritual manner. Shortly after he was hired by Cameron in 1997, Thompson started a bible study for the team, which was attended by 50-to-60 student athletes. He was later offered the position of pastor at the Lighthouse Community Church in Bloomington, a role in which he has served for the past five years. Thompson said his other profession is similar to that of his old one as a coach.
"My team is my congregation, the Bible is the playbook, Bible study is our game plan, and every Wednesday is the game," he said. "It's rewarding for me helping others get their lives turned around."
Perhaps one of Thompson's greatest rewards was providing for Terry Hoeppner over the last 20 months of his life. The former Hoosier football coach lost his battle with brain cancer in June 2007, however spent the entire fight alongside his wife Jane and Thompson, his pastor.
"That was a journey that really challenged my faith and really encouraged it at the same time," Thompson said. "Seeing Coach Hep believe in God and come really close in his faith really gave me a sense of encouragement. It is still heart wrenching sometimes, but you get through it all knowing he is in a better place. God needed him more than we did."
It is most likely that faith, above all, is what got the school and its football program through the 2007 season. It was Hoeppner's dream to "Play 13," which signified competing in a bowl game for the first time since 1993. When the Hoosiers advanced to the Insight Bowl, Thompson believes it was nothing shy of fate.
And fate also arrived in Thompson's life recently in way of being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. For a man who had grown up having known nothing about college football, now he has proof that he is one of the greatest to have ever had played the game.
It should come as no surprise that when Thompson heard he was going to be inducted, he knew nothing about the award. So he resorted to a popular search engine for background information.
"I found out on Google that in the past 120 years of college football, there have been 4.7 million guys that have played the game and only 800 or so have been inducted," Thompson said. "That really told me how much of an honor this was. When I was inducted, it was really a sense of accomplishment not only for myself, but for former players, coaches, alumni and everyone associated with Indiana University. I couldn't accept the award by myself. There are so many people that helped me get to the Hall."
Thompson has now spent the majority of the last 20 years devoting his time to his family, church, and the school that gave him the opportunity to learn a thing or two about college football. He says he lives his life the way Mallory once led the old Hoosier gridiron squads.
"Coach developed a toughness with guys that were borderline on talent," he said.
Thompson always knew he wouldn't be the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest on the field, and according to his mother, there was always going to be someone better.
Perhaps she was right, but there sure haven't been many.
For more on Indiana's Anthony Thompson, click here to view the Big Ten Network's Black History Month essay on the Hoosier legend.