Can We Get a Witness – The Transformation of IU's Anthony Thompson
Former All-America tailback thrives in unexpected ways
By Pete DiPrimio
of the News-Sentinel
Sunday, August 23, 2015 - 12:01 AM
BLOOMINGTON -- The pastor braces to deliver the message five days in the crafting, a lifetime in the recognizing.close window
He towels off his face because preaching is hard work if done right, and Lord knows he aims to do it right.
“We need you Lord in our lives,” he says. “We need you in our finances, in our marriages, in our community. We need your strength. We need your wisdom.”
“Yes!” a woman shouts from Bloomington's Light House Community Church congregation.
The pastor pushes because that is his nature. He battles because that's who he is. It once lifted him to the cusp of Heisman Trophy glory, to the thrill of NFL opportunity, but all that left an emptiness and a longing to find more.
Two decades later, he can't wait to share what he has found.
“I know the Lord to be awesome,” he says.
The pastor stands strong before the altar, still looking sturdy enough to take on Big Ten linebackers as he did in his prime. A large cross is mounted on the wall behind him, framed by limestone blocks and bathed in white spotlights and pale sunlight slipping through the church's nine rectangular windows
About fifty parishioners -- black and white -- have gathered to hear the pastor's message. In the back, a child plays with a pink sippy cup in her father's lap, not yet old enough to understand the significance of the message and the man who delivers it.
“I know the Lord to be a heart fixer,” the preacher repeats. “I KNOW him to be awesome. Can I get a witness?”
“Amen!” a man shouts.
“Yes!” a woman follows.
The pastor rocks gently to the organ music, imposing in dark-suited intensity just as he had once been in white football pants and crimson jersey. They are different attires, but reflect the same purpose -- to make a difference. He tilts his head back, eyes closed, face directed toward a higher power.
“I am talking about a RADICAL hope. A LIVING hope!”
“Yes,” a woman shouts.
“We are in need of hope. We are in NEED of hope. Can I get a witness?”
“Amen,” a man shouts.
“Is there any hope for marriage? Is there hope for divorce? Is there hope for the person who abuses drugs, who abuses alcohol, who abuses a child or a spouse? Is there still hope? We need RADICAL hope!”
“Come on!” a woman shouts.
The pastor's voice rises. Words flow in rhythm like a song only he can hear. His hands thrust out much the way they did when he stiff armed would-be tacklers. But what he battles now is far more formidable than that.
“We need a RESURRECTED hope! We need a hope to get excited about. What Jesus did at Calvary gives us hope. It is that blessed hope to where you KNOW everything will be all right!”
“Can I get a witness?”
Anthony Thompson pauses. Indiana University and NFL glory are a generation in his rear view mirror, but it has steeled him for this. He is a man, not a myth. He is a role model, not a saint. He has fled the media and embraced it. He has sinned and failed, thrived and dominated, cheated and lied, nearly costing him the woman he loved, and risen above it. He is a difference maker because he knows temptation and redemption. He is a success because he does not let fear stop him. He is a comforter who brought meaning to terminal illness for former Hoosier football coach Terry Hoeppner. He is a man of God, an IU associate athletic director, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, a husband and a father, a self-professed former “heathen” and, in a few minutes a soul will be saved, another touchdown for the Lord.
Thompson doesn't know that yet, but he has hope.
Can we get a witness?
Delivering the blows
In a brutal game, Anthony Thompson played with brute force.
Turn the other cheek?
Are you nuts?
“The name of the game was hit or be hit,” he says. “I liked to inflict punishment on a would-be tackler.”
He leans forward on his desk at his Memorial Stadium office, hands folded under his chin as if in prayer, another busy day looming as one of IU's six associate athletic directors. There are meetings to attend, coaches to help, decisions to make. His hair is buzzed to stubble. Intense dark eyes stare out from a remarkably unlined face. He wears a white shirt, dark pants and a no-mercy smile. The pastor is no where in sight.
“I liked to inflict punishment,” he says again. “That was my M.O.”
Or, as IU radio announcer Don Fischer puts it, “He just pounded people. He was so physically imposing. It's amazing how good he was in that regard.”
Time has not dulled the amazement for those who saw it.
“What made him good was his work ethic,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass says. “He always acted like he was a play away from being cut. Later on I found out that was his mentality. He was powerful. He just blew people up. That impressed me the most.”
Thompson -- AT to those who know him -- made a lasting first impression on Buck Suhr, IU's running backs coach in those 1980s glory days. Suhr went to see if the stories about this Terre Haute North High School superstar were true. The Hoosiers under new coach Bill Mallory were looking to build a Big Ten contender with a run-first approach, and what better way to start than with an in-state tailback elite programs such as Florida State, Ohio State and Michigan coveted.
What did Suhr see?
“He played a half and was never tackled,” Suhr says. “He was never on the ground. They ran him out of bounds a couple of times. You just knew he was a special guy.”
The Big Ten quickly found out how special. In Thompson's first college start as a 5-11, rock-solid 205-pound freshman, he rushed for 207 yards against Wisconsin to set a tone. His No. 32 became a four-year bulls-eye everybody targeted, few stopped.
“It was his strength and agility,” Suhr says. “He had great balance and good vision. He found seams (in the defensive line) other people couldn't, and he had the quick feet to get there.”
Suhr knows how important those attributes are. He is stocky and square jawed. His once dark-brown hair has softened to gray, but he retains the intensity from his own football playing days.
“AT was a great competitor. He loved basketball. Even today, if he plays, he'll pound you to win the game. That's where it all started from. He's a great competitor who loved to win.
“When you get to our level, there are a lot of great competitors. He was a step above that.”
Thompson was famous for dragging as many as eight tacklers for additional yards. Coaches loved replaying the film.
“We had a lot of fun with that,” Suhr says.
Thompson was a workout fanatic who pushed himself past pain with an intensity few matched. If players were told to run 25 yards on a practice play, he'd sprint 50. If they had to hit blocking sleds 10 times, he'd do it 20. He'd wear a 30-pound weighted vest while running Memorial Stadium's 76 steps. Former IU assistant coach Steve Stripling called Thompson a “machine” in workouts who never got “worn down.”
Thompson even spent a few summer days before his junior year working out with future Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton (IU teammate Kevin Kelly knew Payton and set it up). That included grueling sessions on Payton's famous hill -- 70 yards long with a 45-degree angle few would want to walk, let along sprint multiple times. It was part of an old garbage dump in Chicago's northwest area that is now a golf course.
Why all the training? Because, Thompson says, he wanted to prove critics wrong.
“Growing up some people would say I wasn't big enough, fast enough, strong enough, smart enough to make it. I never said anything back to them. I took that negative and turned it into a positive. Guess which voices came into my head when I was running hills or lifting weights.”
He pauses. His eyes harden. He is 47 years old and still fueled by a decades-old fire.
“If not for those people saying those negative things, I wouldn't have had that drive. So I thank them. They made me what I am today.”
The right choice
It was July of 1991 and Thompson braced to pop THE question with mountain spectacle in mind. You find the right woman, the one who will make you better as you have done for so many teammates, and you want to do it well.
And if you find her in a “dive” of a Terre Haute bar, well, the Lord works in mysterious ways.
“She's one of the best things to ever happen to me,” Thompson says of his wife, Lori, a Bloomington physician.
Thompson knows it now. He didn't know it on that first night, when he was drawn to Lori's dark-haired beauty, doe eyes and light-up-a-room smile.
Technically, they'd known each other for years. They'd grown up on the same Terre Haute street, Liberty Drive, but knew each other more as a name than as a person. This time, during a night on the town in a bar without romance, Thompson aimed for a deeper connection.
“She was with her nerdy medical friends,” Thompson says with a playful grin. “I saw her from a distance and tried to play the shy role.”
Lori, preparing for her first year of medical school, was out with friends who were drawn to his fame. She was less impressed. She was smart and serious and not interested in role playing.
“I didn't think of him as any big deal,” she says from an office at Light House Community Church. She has warm eyes that sparkle when she laughs, which is often. She exudes charm and confidence in equal doses.
“We started talking. He asked if I wanted a drink. I don't drink alcohol. That impressed him because he didn't drink either. He asked for my number. I didn't expect to hear back from him.”
She did, but she wasn't looking for a relationship. He was on his way to Phoenix and the NFL Cardinals. She was about to start her second year of medical school in Indianapolis.
“It wasn't love at first sight,” she says. “He had to work for it.”
Work took a year. Lori was dedicated to her studies. Thompson had the NFL and an active social life.
“He had lots of other girlfriends,” Lori says. “I knew that. I had to get past that. He had to continue to woo me.”
Thompson did, and came to realize this was the woman for him. He planned his moment carefully. He invited her to visit him in Phoenix during the Cardinals' training camp. She had no idea a proposal was coming, wasn't sure if she was interested if one came. She told him she didn't want to make the trip.
“I was ready to say we were done. I think he had a girlfriend in every city. I'm not joking. At least one on every coast, and in between. I was done.”
But the same tenacity that made Thompson such a good player surfaced.
“He kept insisting that 'I have this airplane ticket. You have to come.' He's pretty persistent and tenacious and persuasive. I kept saying, no, I'm not coming out there. Finally, I said, I will come visit you.”
Thompson took her to Camelback, a spectacular mountain that overlooks Phoenix. As they drove to the top, Lori had an ominous thought.
“As we're getting higher and higher. I'm thinking, he's going to kill me.” She laughs. Her dark eyes sparkle. “I think, he's trying to dump my body. I don't know why I thought that. I said to myself, I hope my mother remembers where I told her we were going. That was my crazy thinking at the time.”
Lori gazes at a paneled wall without seeing it. She has, for an instant, time traveled back to the mountain moment that changed everything.
“We get out of the car. It was dusk and I had on high heels. We sat on this little bench. You could see the lights of the city and all the stars. It was gorgeous. When he pulled out that ring I thought, He's not going to have to kill me because I'm going to slip and fall all the way down.” She laughs again.
For the record, Lori said yes.
“He was so dedicated to football and his family. I admired that. He was a big deal and I wasn't, but he never used his influence or his standing to push himself on me or make me feel like I was nothing. He always made sure I did what I needed to do. He always encouraged me, and was so excited to hear what I was studying.
“He didn't talk about himself a lot. He was so humble and down to earth. That was what was so attractive, his commitment to family and friends. I loved that.”
After the proposal, Lori returned to Indianapolis for her third year of medical school.
“I came back walking on Cloud Nine,” she says. “I could hardly concentrate.”
Lori is now a highly regarded doctor with accomplishments to rival that of her husband. Their marriage has produced four children (Anthony II, Ciara, Jacob and Monteka), a partnership at Light House Community Church (Lori is also an ordained minister), and more.
“When the crowd stopped cheering,” Thompson says, “she kept on cheering.”
Ashamed of fame
Limelight once sent Thompson fleeing. After games as a freshman, he'd sneak out of the locker room in a clothes hamper with help from IU equipment manager Marty Clark. When he couldn't escape, he'd turn his back on reporters and mumble answers into his locker.
“I was so shy and backwards. I hated for the media to talk to me after walking by all the seniors. I felt awkward and ashamed.”
Bearing the brunt of the consequences was Kit Klingelhoffer, then IU's sports information director, now a retired Hoosier assistant athletic director.
“I took great pride that if I told somebody in the media we'd have a player lined up at a certain time, the player would be there,” Klingelhoffer says. “With Anthony, it was a struggle. He'd be late at times. He wouldn't show up at times.
“One time I talked to him that morning about an afternoon interview and he didn't show up. I asked him why and he said he forgot. You can't hardly forget from morning to afternoon.”
Mallory stepped in. The long-struggling program needed positive publicity and a superstar like Thompson would help draw fans, recruits and overall interest. Even as a freshman, Thompson was the best player, and he had to act like it.
Mallory was a feisty coach, a granite block of a man who demanded your best, and if he lacked the intimidating aura of IU basketball coach Bob Knight, that didn't mean he couldn't blister paint off walls when he deemed it necessary.
“I pulled him in,” Mallory says, “and told him, 'Listen, you have to talk to the media. Talk about your teammates, talk about what we're doing, but you have to do it' And he did. He stepped up.”
Fischer remembers his first-ever interview with Thompson. It was a disaster.
“It lasted 90 seconds and he talked about 15 of those seconds. The rest was me asking questions. He just didn't talk. He wasn't comfortable being interviewed. I wouldn't say he was afraid of the media, but just the limelight.
“By the time he was a senior, he was as good an interview as you'd ever get. He grew that much in four years.”
Growth had limits. Playboy asked Thompson to appear in its preseason All-American team issue before his senior season. He said no because he didn't want to appear in a publication that included, well, Miss September.
Klingelhoffer bore the brunt of that, as well.
“I was sad when his playing career was over,” Klingelhoffer says, “but I wasn't totally sad because I didn't have to deal with him anymore. I told him that. We joke about it now.”
Thompson chuckles about it.
“We had a love-hate relationship,” he says.
Rallying the team
Thompson was raised under single-mom intensity. His mother, Helen Allen, pushed love, religion and discipline in equal doses. She was 20 when she had him, and her youth was no excuse for not raising her children right.
“She always taught me to treat people the way you wanted to be treated,” he says, “to always give back because somebody has helped you.”
Because Thompson's father was never in the picture, help came from uncles Hubert, Squire and Denny.
“They got us involved in football, kept us off the streets and taught us how to do the right things,” Thompson says.
“I don't know my father. If he walked by today, I wouldn't know who he is. He was never around.”
Thompson's tone hardens.
“He tried to reach out to me when I was a senior in high school. I was busy. I didn't want to get involved. You don't miss anything you don't know.”
What Thompson did know was punishing defenses. As an IU freshman, despite missing four games because of an injury, he rushed for 873 yards and five touchdowns. As a sophomore, it was 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns. He was Big Ten offensive most valuable player as a junior by rushing for a school-record 1,684 yards and 26 touchdowns. In his final season, he set a new record with 1,783 yards and 24 touchdowns to repeat as Big Ten MVP.
“Anthony Thompson is the best football player I've ever seen,” Fischer says. “Pound for pound, (former IU quarterback and Big Ten MVP Antwaan Randle El) might be right there with him. Anthony was just a great, great player.”
Beyond the numbers, former Bloomington Herald-Times sports editor Bob Hammel says, was the remarkable leadership.
“I don't know if I've been around a player whose team rallied behind him the way it did,” Hammel says. “They loved to play with him. They loved to block for him. He was such a team player. Such a harder worker. All the things that don't go with the glory back, he was.”
Not everyone believed it. When Thompson rocked Wisconsin for a NCAA-record 377 yards as a senior in a 45-17 win, he and Mallory were accused of padding his statistics to help his Heisman Trophy prospects.
Not true, Hammel insists.
“It was not a case of running it up, it was a case of trying to win the game. It was 28-17 at one point. AT finally put them away. Those yards were needed to win. (Mallory) pulled him at the end. He didn't play the last five minutes.
“Anybody who said it was running it up didn't know Bill Mallory or Anthony Thompson.”
In fact, Mallory says, Thompson ran so much out of necessity. The Hoosiers were 4-4 and needed two more wins to qualify for a bowl for the fourth straight season. Just before the start of the game, team doctors delivered bad news -- starting quarterback Dave Schnell had hurt his arm.
Mallory was a no-nonsense coach, a substance guy in an often stylish profession who had no use for gimmicks when the smash-mouth option was available.
“I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'” Mallory says. “I asked, 'What can he do?' They said, 'Well, he can hand off.'
“My second string quarterback was hurt. My third string quarterback, if I had told him he'd start, he'd have passed out. So I told AT, 'Strap it on, you're going to be running more.' He told me, 'Whatever it takes to win.' That was his attitude.
“Normally we'd run him about 35 times a game. That day we ran him 52.”
That highlighted a record-breaking year in which Thompson also set school records for rushing yards in a season (1,793), and a career (5,299). His 67 career rushing touchdowns were a NCAA record.
Thompson was never the big-play threat that IU All-America tailback Tevin Coleman was last season. He pounded defenses with five-, six- and seven-yard gains until they broke. He led the long-suffering Hoosiers to three bowls in his four seasons, impressive considering they had been to just two bowls in the previous 100 years of the program's existence. They were 6-6 his freshman season, 8-4 as a sophomore, 8-3-1 as a junior. They beat Ohio State twice and Michigan once.
“What stands out the most to me were the touchdowns,” Hammel says. “At Indiana, we were used to big yardage, but no touchdown plays. That wasn't Anthony. He got it in the end zone. He had tremendous yardage totals, but they led to something. They led to wins.
“And he was like a 12th defensive player because he kept the opposing offense on the sidelines. He kept gaining yards.”
As a senior, Thompson finished second to Houston quarterback Andre Ware, who threw for 4,699 yards and 44 touchdowns while setting 26 NCAA records.
Fischer didn't buy it then, and still doesn't.
“There's no doubt in my mind Anthony should have won the Heisman. There was no better player in the country. There's no way Ware was better. He might have had interesting numbers, but no way.”
Thompson did win All-America honors for the second straight season, along with a pair of player-of-the-year awards. The NFL's Arizona Cardinals drafted him in the second round as the No. 31 overall pick.
The hope was he'd dominate the pros as he did college.
Fate had other ideas.
A battle shared
The letter hit Thompson his senior season as tacklers never did. It was from a woman in New Jersey he'd never met, writing about her mother, a huge IU fan, who was dying of cancer. Could Thompson send her a photo?
“I didn't read much of my fan mail,” he says, “but I read that one.”
Thompson talked to Suhr about what he should do. They sent her a photo along with a letter that said many things, including that Thompson would try to score a touchdown for her in his next game, and that “I will kneel down and say a prayer for you, and let you know you are not in this battle by yourself.”
That next game was against Michigan State, and it was important because Thompson was poised to break the NCAA career rushing touchdown record of 59 held by Army's Glenn Davis (set in 1946) and Pitt's Tony Dorsett (tied in 1976).
“I wanted her to know that in one of the most important games of my life, I took the time because she matters,” he says.
Thompson's record-breaking touchdown came in the second quarter. He knelt in the end zone and said a prayer, then ran off the field and hugged Suhr. A photographer took a picture. Suhr still has that photo.
“Two months later we got another letter from the lady who said her mother went into remission,” Suhr says, “and that the touchdown helped.”
At that point Thompson was deep into the race for the Heisman, a process that left him uneasy.
“I wanted to focus on our team goals. I didn't want anything to interfere with that. Sometimes I felt my teammates wanted me to win it more than I did.”
Suhr sensed something was bothering Thompson.
“He wasn't himself, so after dinner one night I asked him if anything was wrong. He said, 'Coach I feel bad. I'd really like to win the Heisman, but I think that's selfish.' I laughed. I told him, 'Everybody wants you to win it. You should be celebrating. You can do it within the team aspect.'
“Think about that. He felt guilty about wanting to win the Heisman. That's Anthony Thompson. Those are the two things that stick out for me -- he scores a touchdown to break the NCAA record, and he remembers a lady from New Jersey who he doesn't even know, and he feels awkward about wanting to win the Heisman.”
“Coaching can be a tough business, but to have a player like that, that's why you do it. He's the reason why you get into coaching. You get one like that, and everything is worth it.”
'A winner plus'
To understand what makes Anthony Thompson special is to see him on what could have been the worst moment of his college career.
Hammel covered IU athletic greatness for decades, but in the cold, rainy gloom of a late November day in 1989, he saw in Thompson something he'd never seen before.
IU was playing bitter rival Purdue in the annual Old Oaken Bucket battle, and Hoosier stakes were off the charts. Win and finish with a winning record and earn a bid to the Freedom Bowl. Win and Sports Illustrated runs a national feature on Thompson and the Indiana program. Win and Thompson likely wins the Heisman Trophy.
Lose and it all disappears.
Indiana was favored against a 2-8 Purdue team that had been a Big Ten patsy for most of the decade, but as so often happens in rivalry games, odds and records meant nothing. In a back-and-forth battle at IU's Memorial Stadium, the Boilers inched ahead 15-14 in the closing two minutes.
Thompson never returned kickoffs, but this time, with everything on the line, he did.
“He ran for about five minutes,” Hammel says, “going all over the field, and he wouldn't go down. He finally got tackled at the 15-yard line.”
Freshman kicker Scott Bonnell lined up for a chip-shot field goal. He was 10-for-15 on the season, and rock solid as freshmen usually aren't (he would go on to set the school career record with 48 field goals), but pressure can rattle even the strongest mind.
Bonnell missed the field goal he couldn't miss, the one so loaded with opportunity, and he jogged dejectedly to the IU sideline as Purdue went into victory formation to burn up the final seconds.
“(The Hoosiers) are all in parkas, and you can't tell who is who,” Hammel says. “But you can tell where Scott Bonnell is. He's by himself. Nobody is around him. He's obviously totally distraught.
“One guy in a parka gets up, goes over, puts his arm around him and talks to him. It's Anthony Thompson. That day he lost everything, and that day he thought of Scott Bonnell. Scott teared up when talking about it. He so much wanted to win it for Anthony. It was beyond a normal Purdue game.”
IU finished 5-6. The bowl bid went to another team. The Heisman Trophy went to Ware, with Thompson as the runner-up.
“AT was going to have a post-game talk to the crowd,” Hammel says. “It was going to be a golden moment in IU history. And it all blew up when Indiana lost the game.”
And yet, Thompson didn't lose perspective. He wasn't about to let Bonnell blame himself.
“I felt his pain,” Thompson says. “I wanted him to understand, you didn't lose this game. We all lost it. We win together and we lose together. He was a great kicker. A great kicker. He was young. He had a great career.
“I told him, you'll do bigger and better things. Get your head up. Let's go. I wanted to make sure he knew I believed in him. I told him it was my fault we lost. I wish I had the speed to take the kickoff in to score. We all share in this loss.”
Still, Bonnell couldn't let it go. Two decades later, Thompson and Bonnell were at an alumni golf outing, and Bonnell apologized for missing the field goal.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” Thompson says. “I said, I cannot believe you're saying this to me. What are you talking about? You don't have to apologize to me. Life is too short to carry something like that around. Let's nip this in the bud now. I thought we did 20 years ago, but he still held that hurt.”
“It was just a game. And he's a great guy.”
That is just as true when describing Thompson, Mallory says.
“He had a real caring attitude for the people around him and what was going on. That's where his focus was. He never put himself up on a pedestal. Did I ever have to say to him, it's about we and us? Never.
“He's a quality person. He's a winner-plus.”
Seeing the light
St. Paul needed a lightning bolt on the road to Damascus to see God's light. Thompson's eureka moment wasn't nearly as dramatic. He was a 25-year-old NFL player, driving through a rainy July night, searching for answers fame and money couldn't provide.
“I remember like it was yesterday. People think you have to be down and out to come to the Lord. I was up and out. I had cars, money, living my dream by playing in the NFL, all these friends and fame, but I was empty. I was lonely. What is my purpose? I know I have more than a football player in me. I was miserable.”
Misery carried irony. Church was part of Thompson's early world by his mother's mandate instead of his choice. He and his six brothers and sisters would spend most of their Sundays in church -- 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., then again 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. -- and “we hated every minute of it.”
Thompson wanted to spend his Sundays watching the Chicago Bears or Los Angeles Lakers or Boston Celtics. His mother didn't care.
“I tell people I've been on drugs since I was 9 -- my mother drug us to church every Sunday,” he says with a smile.
Thompson wasn't smiling on this night. He was set to embrace what as a child he avoided.
“I was searching for peace and love and value, a sense of belonging, in all the wrong places. So that night I said, Lord, if I came to you, would you help me? I said, I'm done. I need to live for you instead of myself. That was the pivotal point. If I didn't make that change, I was headed for a life of destruction.”
Thompson's wife, Lori, could have been collateral damage. Instead, she saw her husband go from a man well versed in life's temptations to a man dedicated to God and family.
“He had a lot of the world in him,” Lori says, “but once he dedicated his life to the Lord, he changed quite a bit. There was no more lying or cheating. He was committed to his relationship with Jesus, and a real relationship with me.”
And then it went further. Much further.
“As soon as he got baptized, he went out,” Lori says. “It was August before he went back to Los Angeles Rams. It was hot and he was in a suit in a Terre Haute housing project. He went door to door and asked people if he could pray for them. Some recognized him. Some didn't. People thought he had lost his mind, and it appeared he had. He wanted to pray for people and draw people in.”
By then Thompson had joined Terre Haute's Bethlehem Temple Church prison ministry. He'd spend his Saturday evenings visiting prisoners. His focus was clear.
“I brought hope to their lives. Those became my touchdowns -- leading people to Christ.”
Leading carried risk. At times he was in lock-down mode in the concrete-and-barbed-wire bowels of the federal prison in Terre Haute praying with a prisoner serving three life sentences. If trouble broke out, Thompson was stuck.
“I was thinking, I can't believe I'm here praying with this guy,” Thompson says. “I've got to be out of my mind.”
Instead, at age 25, he was out of football. After three professional seasons, two with the Phoenix Cardinals, one with the Los Angeles Rams, totaling 37 games, 831 rushing yards and six touchdowns, he retired.
“I found my purpose. Helping somebody in a rocky marriage; helping somebody realize their potential and come off drugs or alcohol or prostitution or sex addition. That's where the cheers come from now.”
Anthony Thompson as pastor? Could that be right?
“When people I went to school with see I'm a pastor, they say, 'I know there is a God,'” Thompson says.
He laughs. He shakes his head. He remembers the no-church-please days of his youth.
“If someone had told me I would become a pastor, I'd have said, you're crazy. There's no way.
“I never gravitated to the pulpit. I ran from God for years. God has a sense of humor. You don't make deals with God. He tells you, this is the deal.”
Thompson, who once treated public speaking as if it were leprosy, leads a congregation of as many as 115 parishioners. He counsels them, prays with them, directs them.
“I've received a lot of accolades and awards, set a lot of records, but those won't follow me into eternity. When people commit their lives and accept Christ as their personal savior, that's exciting for me. I call that my touchdowns. It's a beginning of a new life. To see marriages restored, children saved from suicide, people set free from drugs and alcohol by the power of the Gospel, those are touchdowns.”
Thompson understands that loving people doesn't guarantee they will love you back.
Take, for instance, when he first started preaching.
“I was struggling,” he says.
He had just finished a service and a woman came into his office and told him that a female parishioner hated him.
“I tried to play it off with her,” Thompson says, “but after she left I asked the Lord, Why? I'm preaching Your Word. Why would you allow that to happen? And what he told me was, 'I'm teaching you to love the unlovable.'”
Love those who hate you. Turn the other cheek. Those are difficult concepts in a difficult world when “eye for an eye” is so much more satisfying. The natural human reaction is to hate back, strike back, give that person a “piece of your mind.”
“That's why some of us don't have much of a mind left, because we're always giving people a piece of it,” Thompson says.
Thompson has no formal training in the ministry. He has a general studies degree from IU. But he has the wisdom to know what he doesn't know. He still follows the advice of his former pastor, Charles M. Finnell, who left Light House Community Church in Thompson's hands to take over the Christ Temple Apostolic Faith Assembly in Indianapolis.
“He said you have to love people,” Thompson says, “and God will teach you the rest.”
That led to the hardest lesson he ever learned.
Terry Hoeppner, the Hoosiers football coach, was dying of brain cancer in the spring of 2007. Thompson had come to Hoeppner's house as his minister and he had to be strong. Terry and his wife Jane deserved that. Thompson was there to provide comfort and understanding and love.
“I'd sit outside his house and pray,” Thompson says. “I'd pray for the strength and the wisdom on what to say and what to do.”
It was, he adds, much like preparing for a football game.
“It was like getting your mind ready to do battle. There the mindset was hit or be hit. With this, I had to get the pastor hat on.”
The Hoeppners made it easy.
“They were such an inspiration to me. They always had a word of encouragement. They were always positive. I was supposed to lift them up and they lifted me up.
“Coach Hep was strong to the end. He didn't complain. And Jane was like a pillar.”
There were questions, of course. What kind of God would let this happen? Why Terry Hoeppner? He was, in every way, the perfect coach for Indiana. He was just over a year into the job when a painful headache led to the devastating diagnosis. Patients with this kind of cancer rarely last more than a year and a half. Terry fought it with prayer and positive thoughts and the best medicine, but after 18 months, it wasn't enough.
Thompson struggled to understand.
“I went through a lot emotions. I was upset with the Lord. How could we lose this great man? Lord, I don't understand Your purpose.”
Understanding finally came.
“We need to trust the Lord even when we don't understand,” Thompson says. “We need to have that level of trust that God knows best. That was a hard lesson for me to learn. It was the most difficult time of my life.”
Night and day
Thompson's connections to IU remain strong. He was the Hoosiers running backs coach under Cam Cameron in the late 1990s, and then spent more than a decade with the Indiana Varsity Club. Last spring Glass hired him as an associate athletic director. It wasn't, he insists, to make Thompson a figurehead.
“The thing about Anthony Thompson is, and this is a tribute to him, you forget that he's in the College Hall of Fame,” Glass says. “You forget that he finished second in the Heisman Trophy, that he won all these awards, that he was an All-American, which from the outside is your perception of him. But on the inside he is so good. He's a go-to guy. He has great judgment. He's a great listener and has great insights. He understands people. That makes him a very good administrator.”
As associate athletic director, Thompson focuses on overseeing football and track and field, plus the strength and conditioning program. He helps with recruiting, and he's still involved with fundraising through the Varsity Club.
How does he balance all that, plus his minister duties, plus a family?
“The No. 1 thing is having good people to support me. They make me look good. I'm smart enough to get people who are smarter than me, and well organized. We have all the bases covered. Our lives are busy, but we wouldn't want it any other way.”
As far as his future in college athletics, he says, “I don't have any aspirations of being an athletic director. I like to work behind the scenes, one on one with our coaches, one on one with our donors and our student athletes, one on one in the ministry. I try to help people be better at what they do. I want to get better at being an administrator and helping the coaches.
“What can I do better? That's where I challenge myself. I have to be better than I was than last year. That's how I push myself -- be better as a husband, a father, a pastor, an administrator.”
Thompson's transformation still inspires Hammel.
“It's one of those examples of why I can defend big-time athletics. This kid would have struggled in life without college football. He had no confidence in what he said. He was so hesitant to talk. Now he's a minister and talks all the time.”
Or, as Mallory puts it, “It's like night and day.”
Thompson reflects on it all from his Memorial Stadium office, a humble man trying to get it right.
“I try to be a person who has no regrets. I don't want to look back on my life. Sure, I wish I had done some things different or better, but did I work as hard as I possibly could? Yes, I did that. Did I use my talents to the best of my ability? Yes.”
Asked what he would like for his epitaph, he doesn't mention athletic glory.
“That I was a man who tried to follow Christ. That I tried to lead a life for Christ. With all my imperfections, at the end of the day, that's what I would want people to remember.”
Touchdown for the Lord
The pastor beckons worshipers to the altar while the four-person choir sings “Great is Your Mercy.”
“Are there any who want to be saved?' the pastor asks. Behind him a large projector screen displays images and words of faith.
Off to the side a man in a gray suit hesitates. The pastor raises his head and closes his eyes.
“Are there any who want to be saved? Come on! Jesus is here. He is a savior who will walk into the fire for you!”
The man in the suit inches forward. The pastor thrusts out a hand.
“Jesus is a heart fixer. He can fill the void in that broken heart. Press your way. Cry your way. Man will fail you. I will fail you. Jesus will NEVER fail you!”
“Amen!” a man cries.
“Yes,” a woman shouts.
“Are there any who want to be saved?” the pastor asks for the third time.
“I do,” the man in the suit shouts.
People applaud and wave their arms in the air. The man is led behind the altar to the baptismal pool. After a few prayers, he falls straight back, trusting the deacon behind him to catch and guide him into the consecrated water. Several seconds later he arises drenched and in tears. A soul has been saved, and the pastor has led the way, just as he once did a football team.
“I was a heathen back then,” Anthony Thompson says. “I didn't know Jesus. But now, praise the Lord, I am free.”
Can we get a witness?