This nice guy finishes first

EL PASO -- If Leo Durocher, the oft-quoted old Brooklyn Dodgers manager, had ever met Lamont Thompson it's unlikely any of us would be familiar with the phrase "Nice guys finish last."

Sun Bowl Photos
A look through the lense at the Coug's victory over the Boilermakers.

Thompson, the greatest air thief in Pac-10 history, ended his college career the way it began five seasons ago: With the football in his hands, ten wins under his belt, and the heart-felt admiration of teammates and coaches all around.

There is one important difference, though, between this nail-biting ending and the one five years ago against No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

This one, courtesy in large part to the ever-classy Thompson, ended in a Cougar win.

With two interceptions, five pass deflections and 10 tackles on Monday, the first-team AP All-American earned Player of the Game honors in the 68 th renewal of the Sun Bowl. The senior free safety from El Cerrito led his Cougars to a dramatic 33-27 victory over Purdue. In the process, WSU earned a 10-win season for only the third time in school history.

Not coincidentally, Thompson played a starring role on two of those three fabled Crimson teams.

In typical Thompson fashion, he spent most of the Sun Bowl post-game deflecting attention away from himself. "The whole defense deserves that award and the adjustments the coaches made at halftime had a lot to do what we did," Thompson said.

Those who know Thompson best feel he was the most deserving candidate not just for this game, but the way he has persevered through his five seasons and WSU.

"I tell people he's the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry," WSU coach Mike Price said. "He's just the nicest person. With anything that happens for him you just have to say, 'It couldn't happen to a nicer guy.'"

Purdue had all the momentum entering the second half after turning a 14-0 deficit into a 20-17 lead at intermission, but Thompson stole it right back --- literally. On the Boilermakers' second snap of the second half, Thompson cut in front of Purdue's top receiver, Taylor Stubblefield of Yakima, and outwrestled him for Kyle Orton's pass. The interception set the tone for what would turn into 28 shutout minutes of play by the Cougar D.

"That was huge for us," said junior QB Jason Gesser, who struggled through one of his worst outings in the 22 Cougar starts he's had since 1999. "That's why he's an All-American," added receiver Nakoa McElrath before Gesser could finish his thought.

Thompson's first interception set up Drew Dunning's game-tying 34-yard field goal. The defense continued to hold strong, allowing WSU to score the go-ahead touchdown on Gesser's keeper with 3:04 left in third quarter.

Purdue's attempt at a quick answer was then denied by Thompson, who made a lunging deflection on a deep pass which Boilermaker standout John Standeford appeared on the verge of catching in stride and going the distance.

Later, with WSU hanging on to a 30-20 lead midway though the fourth quarter, Thompson disrupted another comeback bid by the Boilermakers, intercepting Orton in the WSU end zone.

Being blessed with exceptional athletic ability certainly helped Thompson make the plays, but his career at WSU --- individually and as team --- has been anything but easy.

After leading the Pac-10 with six interceptions en route to a Pac-10 championship and 10-2 record in 1997, Thompson struggled for much of the next three years. A lack of depth forced the Cougars to move him to cornerback and a neck injury hampered him half of the 1999 season and eventually forced him to sit out all of the 2000 campaign.

The Cougars' fortunes followed his --- they won just three Pac-10 games in those three season.

"I wouldn't want it any other way than how it was," said Thompson, who accomplished all his goals with another 10 wins, a WSU single-season record 10 interceptions and a Pac-10 record 24 career interceptions.

"To play in a Rose Bowl and then have all the adversity the team had and I had --- I wasn't sure if Iwould ever play again after that neck injury. Then to have this kind of a year just feels so good."

This game would prove to be no different than Thompson's career. Just when all seemed to well on Planet Coug, Orton fired a 51-yard TD strike to Stubblefield to cut the Cougar lead to 33-27 with 1:53 remaining. Purdue then recovered an onsides kick and drove to the WSU 22 before the Cougars forced three straight incompletions to finally put the Boilermakers away on a deflected pass by senior linebacker Raonall Smith.

"After I hit the ball I looked to the sideline and I saw all the smiles and that is when it hit me that we had won," Smith said. "I just raised my hands in the air. It was overwhelming."

Thompson also savored the moment, but he won't be drinking any champaign when he gets back to the team hotel. The 23-year old has never had a drink or a smoke in his life.

"It takes a lot of character to come back the way he did, but he is a model student and a model person," said WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba. "He's just a really good kid."

Thompson thinks the clean lifestyle helped him come back from his injury and continues to help him perform at a high level, but he doesn't consider it a sacrifice.

"That's something I've never been interested in," Thompson said. "It's not me. It's been around me my whole life and I just opted to be different. I've tried to surround myself with people I have something in common with. Doing what your friends are doing is not always the best thing for you. You have to identify what it is that you want to do and if your friends can't respect that, then you have to question their friendship."

One supportive friend is roommate Fred Shavies, a hard-charging Cougar defensive end. "He just works so hard," said Shavies, who recorded one of WSU's five sacks in the game. "When I first got here (1998) he was just a natural and then he didn't have a couple of good years, but he knew he had to work harder if he wanted to get to the next level."

Thompson said he focused on the Cougars having success more than improving his NFL draft status, but admits he can't help but consider himself closer to a life-long dream of playing on that next level. Some experts have projected Thompson as one of the top defensive backs to go in this year's draft. Doba has no doubts. "He's got a great future," Doba said. "If someone (in the NFL) is looking for a free safety I don't think they can find a better one."

Indeed, a year ago The Sporting News singled out Thompson as one of the up-and-comers on NFL draft lists --- even though he sat out the entire 2000 season and wouldn't be entering the draft until April 2002.

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