(Originally published July 4, 2012)
The Cougs lost 38-8. Jack took a beating. Toward the end of the game, he got hit again, injuring his ankle. On the same play, receiver Jim Whatley went down and didn’t get up. As an athletic trainer, I had to make a decision quickly on who to attend to first. As I ran onto the field, I figured I had already scraped Jack up once. And besides, he was a senior, which meant he pretty much was out of “sick leave.” Jim was just a sophomore, so I went for him. (Okay, I can’t say that really was my thinking, but it makes for a good story.)
When we came off the field and it was determined Whatley would live, I went over to see Jack, who had limped off under his own power. He stood facing me with his back to the stands, one leg crossed over the other.
It should be noted that Joe Albi had very little room on the sidelines in those days, as in almost non-existent. It wasn’t a crowd-convenient stadium for traffic flow, either. As Jack and I are talking, an elderly gentleman came walking by with a tray of hot cocoa. As he trudged past behind Jack, I said, “Would you like a cup of hot chocolate”?
In perfect sequence, Jack turned and helped himself to a cup of the elderly fella’s cocoa. The guy kept walking, staring back in disbelief that a player had taken one of his drinks but having enough common sense to realize he was certainly in no position to complain, surrounded by a group of football players in a rivalry game that’s not going their way.
TODAY, ON THE FOURTH of July, people will be celebrating our nation’s independence. Speeches no doubt will be given about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the Founding Fathers.
THE THROWIN' SAMOAN FINISHED HIS WSU CAREER IN 1978 AS THE MOST PROLIFIC PASSER IN NCAA HISTORY.
Which gives rise to a fun exercise.
If you took the “founding fathers” concept and applied it to Cougar football, what names would you come up with? Lone Star Dietz, Butch Meeker, Babe Hollingbery, Mel Hein and Turk Edwards would figure to be top contenders. But if you redefined the founding fathers concept to the modern era of Cougar football, one name that would have to go at or near the top of the list would be Jack Thompson.
There are many reasons why. But foremost among them are the stability he brought to the program and the energy he brought to the fans.
In terms of energy, Jack’s passing exploits truly were the stuff of legend. From 1976-78 he amassed more air yards than any quarterback in the history of college football. He was on the cover of magazines. He was All-America and a top ten finisher for the Heisman Trophy.
In terms of stability, consider that he achieved all this while playing for three different head coaches in three years. As a fourth-year junior in 1977, he could have left early for the NFL but chose to come back for one more season.
But all that is not why Jack has remained a beloved figure throughout Cougar Nation over the years.
It’s also because the guy is so dang thoughtful. I’ll explain.
My relationship with Jack began in the spring of 1978 when I was hired as head athletic trainer at WSU. My previous three years were spent at Idaho, so I was aware of him through the media and the fact he had outscored us 90-23 over the previous two meetings between the schools.
I wasn’t sure what to make of Jack at first. He seemed a little too nice. Like, maybe he had “too much syrup on his pancakes!” I wasn’t sure what to make of such a high-profile guy being so polite.
That spring, Jack separated his left shoulder in a scrimmage and had surgery. When school was out, I told him I wanted to see him sometime over the summer (athletes didn’t necessarily stay on campus in those days). He came back in July and we met in the training room one evening. I had my 6-year-old daughter, Holly, with me. Jack picked her up and she sat on his lap. A newspaper reporter from the Idahonian (now called the Moscow-Pullman Daily News) was present and picked up on his conversation with Holly. Jack told her his name, Holly told him hers and said not to forget it. Well, that was nice and I appreciated his kindness. After our first game that season, a win over UNLV, Jack came into my office on a Wednesday to shoot the breeze. He asked how Holly was doing.
Long story short, Jack wound up coming to Holly’s 7th birthday party two days later. Now think about that for a minute. One of the most celebrated college players on the planet, a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate and future first-round draft pick, drives eight miles to Moscow the night before a game (against Idaho) to attend my daughter’s birthday party.
So much for my first impressions of him. Pass the syrup! And maybe some more pancakes! Jack Thompson was and is as genuine and authentic a person as you’ll ever meet. When WSU decided to retire his number -- one of only two so honored in the history of the program (the other being Mel Hein) -- it was, in my view, a salute to his character as well as his work on the field.
THROUGHOUT MY CAREER as a trainer, I always loved home games because so many of “my” former athletes would come by the training room in the morning to say hello. The current players appreciated it, too, as former athletes were held in such high regard. After his NFL playing days, Jack would often come by on those Saturday mornings. He would bring his sons, Jack Jr. and Tony, with him and I would always have some bite-sized candy bars tucked away for them; that is, if my son, Ryan, hadn’t already cleaned me out.
I should probably add an exclamation point to this story. Jack was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1979 draft. That September, upon returning home from a Spokane game, the babysitter told me, “Jack Thompson called to wish Holly a happy birthday!” It was one year later, Jack was playing pro ball on the other side of the country, and he remembered her birthday!
A few weeks ago I was flying to New York and sitting next to a couple from Seattle. We talked for a while and they were Husky alums, so you can guess that there was some bantering between us. That’s until they mentioned that their son played quarterback at O’Dea High in Seattle and that an old Cougar quarterback had offered to help their son with his throwing motion. “We thought, we can’t pay for that,” they said.
But Jack Thompson didn’t want money. He’s about the love of the game and people helping people. The true character of a man is one who does something for someone else and realizes that person can’t return the favor.
That's why Jack gets my vote as the founding father of the modern era of Cougar football.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mark Smaha was the head athletic trainer and then the director of athletic medicine at Washington State from 1978-1999. He was honored by his peers numerous times over the years, and has since been inducted into five different athletic training halls of fame. He and his wife Jackie live in Poulsbo, Wash. Mark's daughter Holly is director of women’s apparel for Nordstrom and is married to Cougar Athletic Foundation regional director Todd Thrasher. They have two sons. Mark's son Ryan (pictured at right with dad in 1987) is the special teams coordinator at Weber State under head coach Jody Sears.
THE 1977 WSU TEAM PHOTO HAD THREE LUMINARIES SEATED AROUND THOMPSON. RECEIVER BRIAN KELLY WENT ON TO A HALL OF FAME CAREER IN THE CFL, WHILE ASSISTANT COACHES MIKE PRICE AND JIM WALDEN WOULD LATER SERVE A COMBINED 23 YEARS AS COUGAR HEAD COACHES.