Thompson ponders life as a Vol

There are times when Leroy Thompson second guesses himself. There are times when he daydreams about how his life would have been different if he'd played football at the University of Tennessee, not Penn State. If he'd worn orange, not all white.

``All the time,'' Thompson said.

But no matter where the Austin-East product went, he would have faced stiff competition to play.

At Tennessee, it would have been Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb.

At Arkansas, it would have been Barry Foster, who became an NFL MVP.

At Georgia, it would have been Tim Worley and Rodney Hampton.

At Miami, it would have been Warren Williams.

At Penn State, it was four eventual NFL players – Blair Thomas, Gary Brown, Sam Gash and Richie Anderson.

``I was better off preparing for the pros having to compete against those guys in practice every day,'' said Thompson, who said he now loves the Vols but admits he'll be pulling for Penn State when the teams meet Jan. 1 in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

Thompson admits to peeking back.

``I used to wonder and sit back,'' Thompson, one of the nation's top prospects in 1987 who picked Penn State or hometown Tennessee, in part because, he said, he'd never been more than three hours outside of Knoxville.

``Now, going to games and seeing the Vol fanatics, and not having a pro team to take away attention and being in the midst of 100,000 at games and being intimately involved in the program, you do think: `Wow, what would it have been like if I'd come here,'' Thompson said.

But 20 years ago, when Thompson was a star at Austin-East, Tennessee wasn't what it is now. Thompson-Boling Arena wasn't built. The Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex – the indoor football practice facility – wasn't built. The Jim Haslam Practice Field hadn't been expanded. Neyland Stadium didn't have skyboxes.

Plus, Thompson wanted to see life outside of East Tennessee and he wasn't crazy about former UT coach Johnny Majors.

``I did want to get away, kind of mature as young man,'' Thompson said. ``So my recruiting trips were my opportunity to see the world.''

He made unofficial visits to UCLA and Hawaii. His official visits were to Miami, Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee and Penn State.

He committed to Miami, but his mother didn't like the Hurricanes coach.

``Jimmy Johnson was arrogant,'' Thompson said. ``I liked Jimmy. My mother did not like Jimmy. Jimmy came in and put his feet on the coffee table and pretty much thought he had the deal sowed it.''

While Thompson loved Miami and hanging out with the players, he felt the temptation of the beaches and beautiful women and additional perks the players had – like fancy cars and living in condos – would cause him to suffer academically.

``I just couldn't see myself going to class,'' said Thompson.

Former UT assistant Kippy Brown was on the verge of getting Thompson, but fullback Sam Gash, who visited Georgia at the same time as Thompson, convinced the young man from inner city Knoxville to make the trip to Happy Valley, Pa.

Thompson fell in love with Penn State. But his recruitment didn't go the way Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno tells it, not according to Thompson.

Paterno said Thompson recruited Penn State.

Wrong, says Thompson. Penn State was recruiting Thompson earlier as a defensive back. He wanted to play running back. When former Austin-East coach Sam Anderson later called Penn State to say Thompson was interested, but only as an offensive player, Penn State quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell bought in.

When Caldwell went to Paterno, Paterno said: ``There must be something fishy there. We looked him up and he was a first-team USA All-American.''

Paterno called Thompson and ``bugged him'' about why he wanted to leave Knoxville.

``Too much pressure,'' is the reply Paterno remembers.

Thompson admitted to the pressure, but took exception to the notion he recruited Penn State.

``You know, he's 80, OK,'' Thompson said of Paterno. ``You may have to chalk that one up to his memory.''

Thompson said Caldwell, the former Wake Forest head coach who is now quarterbacks coach of the Indianapolis Colts, camped out in Knoxville for two weeks. When Paterno visited the home, he basically ignored Thompson for almost two hours. He was too busy wooing Thompson's mother.

During the visit, Paterno sat down to play cards. Hearts, he said.

``No, we play spades down here,'' Paterno recalled the mother saying. ``The mom said, `You white folks play hearts. We black folks play spades.''

Thompson said most people don't know the real Paterno.

``If you're around Paterno for more than five minutes, he's an absolutely hilarious guy,'' Thompson said. ``If he weren't a great football coach, he could be a great comedian. He is fuuunnnny.''

But on the field, Thompson said, Paterno is ``just a maniac, very serious.''

Thompson picked Penn State, but he paid a price.

``It got pretty bad,'' said Thompson, the nation's No. 1 prospect, according to the Dallas Morning News. ``It was unbelievable. I was a 17-year-old kid and I didn't understand the magnitude of what was taking place. It was crazy. Folks would come over after school and throw oranges at me. … It was an extreme amount of pressure to put on a young kid to make that type decision.

``I think there was even more pressure then because there were less stringent rules. You had colleges throwing a little of everything at you to try to get you to come to their school. I won't mention what those things were, but there was a lot of pressure, particularly if you came from an urban area, with a low income and didn't have a lot. It was mighty enticing, some of the things that were put on the table that you had to turn your back on and try to look for an education and an opportunity to play in the pros.''

As the recruitment got heated, Thompson moved out of his family's apartment to live with his high school coach, Sam Anderson.

He said the hostility toward his decision to attend Penn State continued even five to eight years after he returned to Knoxville in the mid-1990s following a successful NFL career.

Thompson said he immersed himself into volunteer work at schools and churches and helped raise funds for charities. Finally, some locals began to see Thompson the generous person rather than Thompson the football player who snubbed UT.

``Now, the first question isn't, `Why didn't you go to Tennessee?''' Thompson said. ``They say, `We appreciate what you've done for the community.

``That's actually more important than playing in the NFL or other accolades I've been able to accomplish.''

At the same time, Thompson, who is not a UT graduate, has been trying to help UT recruit Catholic High's Harrison Smith, a top-notch prospect who is leaning to Notre Dame.

``If he's interested in coming back to Knoxville and going into business,'' Thompson said, ``it would be better for him to go to Tennessee. If you're a college athlete at Tennessee and you graduate and you market yourself well, pretty much in this town, you can write your ticket.''

It took longer for Thompson to write his ticket when he returned to Knoxville. But know this: He has done more in this community than more than 80 percent of the former football players at Tennessee.

Thompson should be thanked for what he's doing now, not vilified for what he didn't do 20 years ago.

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