June 28, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – So, how do you get from southern California to this River City?
Know somebody, and go through a connection in Florida.
That’s pretty much how Gary Thompson landed in the Marshall football program.
It isn’t every day the Thundering Herd roster includes a San Diego resident … but then this isn’t the first time, either.
“The connection is Coach Doc (Holliday), Coach (Chuck) Heater and my high school coach, Troy Starr,” Thompson said after another day of offseason conditioning with his Thundering Herd teammates in the Bobby Pruett Training Center. “Coach Starr knew Coach Doc and Coach (Chuck) Heater from Florida.”
Holliday, the fourth-year Herd coach, and Heater, MU’s new defensive coordinator, were on the 2007 Gators’ staff with Starr, who was coach Urban Meyer’s director of football operations before moving to Helix High – the high school where Reggie Bush starred -- in La Mesa, Calif.
Thompson was here before Heater, but now he’s got to impress the guy and Heater’s son-in-law, MU defensive ends coach Sean Cronin.
“They came to my high school in California to recruit Travon Van (former Herd running back now at Montana) for Florida when I was a freshman,” Thompson said. “When I found out I wasn’t going to qualify, and Coach Starr told me about Marshall and said Coach Doc was here, and I looked into it.
“I figured I could go to a junior college for 2 or 2 1/2 years, or come here and sit out a year (for academics) and then play Division I football all four years like I wanted to. So, I came here.”
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Thompson hopes to be a factor on the defensive front for the 2013 Herd. He’s playing the rush end spot, where the starter is MU graduate student Alex Bazzie in a position the new MU defensive coaches now call “Fox.”
“He was a track athlete in high school who’s put on 30 pounds since then, and that’s the kind of guy you like, with that kind of explosiveness,” Heater said of Thompson. “We’re anxious to see what we can do.
“We’ve got nothing in the bank; we don’t know anything because we haven’t watched him, but we’re excited about him, and we have some need of depth at end anyway, so he’ll have an opportunity. He’s at ‘Fox,’ but he might be able to swing a bit (to the other end or outside linebacker).
“He has been an aces guy since he’s gotten here, done a great job in the classroom, so we’re excited and we like guys who seem to take of business, and hopefully he can play football. We’ll find out.’
In Helix football, Thompson was a starter at defensive end and tight end, helping his team to a 13-1 record and California state title in 2011. He was recruited by USC, BYU and Arizona, among other prominent programs, and Marshall really liked Thompson as a rush end or outside linebacker.
From the defensive front, he had 14 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries as a senior but said he came up short on his ACT score. His academic year to become eligible gave him a chance to study for more than his needed 24 credit hours passed.
“It was hard sitting out, knowing you’re not playing a sport you love,” Thompson said. “You wish you could have done something back in high school to avoid that, but that’s behind you. It was pretty tough but I got through.”
He spent time studying from the stands at home games and some practices, too.
“I watched the D-ends and linebackers, because that’s where they were thinking about having me play once I could,” Thompson said. “I watched what they did and figured how I could come in and get into the mix, and I picked up on some techniques I could use.
“I watched Bazzie and learned a lot. It’s going to be a tough battle just to earn some playing time because he’s worked at it hard, and he’s a senior (who graduated this spring and is finishing his eligibility) and he knows what he’s doing.”
Thompson, like new D-line mate Josh Brown, was still unable to work in spring practice. He’s anxious for the arrival of August camp, when he will finally return to the field. He brings a special combination of speed and strength to the position.
“People don’t expect me to be as strong as I am for my size,” said Thompson, who has benched 365 and is approaching 500 in the squat. “I’ve got good speed, but you can’t use that to beat people all of the time. That’s where my bench work comes in and I use it.”
Meanwhile, Thompson’s time 2,300 miles from home has been a learning experience in more places than the classroom and in football weight rooms and meeting rooms.
“What’s impressed me since I’ve been here is how much people here are really behind the team,” Thompson said. “How important it is to the community, to the city, especially tied to what happened in the past (the 1970 plane crash).
“It really shocked me how much they were into the sports, especially football. I saw the (‘We Are … Marshall’) movie and I knew the story and it touched me, but going to the (Spring Hill) cemetery (a recent organized MU team run to the memorial and grave site), it opened my eyes even more, made me understand how the plane crash means so much.
“I really have a lot of respect for this community here and I’m glad I’m here.”
Asked his expectations for 2013, Thompson admitted he wants to be a contender in the competition behind Bazzie and with Bazzie and redshirt junior Ra’Shawde Meyers, who finished spring ball as No. 2 at that spot.
“I’m sort of a guy who’s been behind the scenes,” Thompson said. “With Bazzie, I’m behind a guy who’s started and been here for a while and it’s his senior year and he plays hard. My expectation is to get some playing time, or if I could end up starting, or split the reps, I’d be really proud of myself because I sat out a year and worked really hard to get here.
“I try to look at it and remember like, I got a second chance to do what I love and I’ve really got to take advantage of that opportunity. Go out and get it. I can’t slack off and I won’t.”