ROCHESTER, Minn. — How good would Darrell Thompson have looked in the Nebraska backfield in the 1980s?
Considering that he went on to become Minnesota’s all-time leading rusher, probably pretty good.
The Rochester John Marshall running back was an elite player and heavily recruited when he played for the Rockets back in the mid-1980s. He had plenty of options from high-powered football programs such as Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska.
“The Big Red Machine (Nebraska) was a powerhouse back then, and I loved the way they ran the ball, and I loved their offense,” Thompson said. “There’s nothing more that a tailback wants to do then dot the ‘I’ for the University of Nebraska, especially during the 80s and 90s.
“There wasn’t any better place for a running back, in my opinion.”
Thompson, a 1986 John Marshall grad, had plenty to sort through as he contemplated his college choice. And his recruiting trips played a major impact.
“It was overwhelming, quite honestly,” he said. “It was an interesting time because we didn’t have all the things, like now I’m sitting in front of my computer, I’ve got my cell phone. We didn’t have that.”
When Thompson was being recruited, his parents were divorced, but they only lived three blocks apart.
“I would get like five to eight letters a day from different colleges,” Thompson said. “I didn’t really know what to do. It was a different time. People came by and they had a three-ring binder. (Nebraska coach) Tom Osborne would come and he would give me a little flyer and talk about the offensive line.”
Coaches such as Osborne and Minnesota’s Lou Holtz were among the many who either came to visit Thompson, watch him play or were in contact with him.
‘A different time’
Thompson ended up taking official visits to Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. He didn’t take his fifth and final official visit.
“I didn’t take the last one and it was interesting,” he said. “I was playing basketball and we had a pretty good team. … I was going to visit UCLA and the (JM) basketball coach said, ‘OK, we have basketball practice on Saturday morning and I wouldn’t want you to miss practice.’ So I didn’t go, and it was that simple. Now it would be like, ‘Why wouldn’t I?’
“It was just a different time, priority wise,” he added.
Heading into his visits, Nebraska was the top school on Thompson’s list.
“Actually, I loved Nebraska until I went on my visit,” he said. “I would have gone to Nebraska, but when I went there my visit was very, very mediocre. I said, ‘I don’t really have a lot going on with my family as far as finances so I need a summer job.’ They said, ‘We got that.’ And I asked about tutors and they said, ‘Yeah, we got that.’ That’s all they said. Every other school went on about it for about 45 minutes. So I was like, ‘It doesn’t seem like education is too high of a priority here.’ But the football would be awesome. And it was awesome. We played them and they knocked our blocks off my senior year in college.”
With his lukewarm trip to Nebraska on his mind, Thompson decided to play at Minnesota.
“I really felt like, and I still do, that Minnesota was the best fit for me in case football didn’t work out,” he said. “Their might have been schools that were obviously stronger football schools that recruited me.”
The right choice
Going to Minnesota proved to be a solid move for Thompson. After four strong years with the Gophers, he was a first-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers. Thompson played five years in the NFL. Since the end of his playing career, he has been a businessman in the Twin Cities and has also been doing radio broadcasts of Gophers football games for more than 20 years.
“It’s a city, it’s a community, businesses, jobs, Fortune 500 companies,” Thompson said of the Twin Cities. “I’ve been able to raise a family, I just had my first grandchild, it’s been tremendous.”
Thompson has also been part of plenty of up-close recruiting situations as a father. All four of his children have been recruited as Division I athletes.
His oldest daughter played volleyball at Wisconsin and was an All-American, while his youngest daughter played volleyball at San Diego State. His two sons are currently playing college ball. His oldest son is a walk-on wide receiver at Minnesota and his youngest son plays basketball at Indiana.
Thompson said technology has changed recruiting, as it’s easier to stay in contact with recruits. But the human element hasn’t really changed.
“That part is still the same, just from watching my kids,” he said. “They (college coaches) want to get to know you. Always the goal is to get to the mom, get to the dad. … there’s just a big difference with technology and social media.”
And the recruiting visits are much the same, although Thompson said parents now play a bigger role. He said he always went alone on his official visits.
“You still meet with an academic advisor, you maybe meet with the athletic director and get a tour of the campus, and you hang out with the players at night,” he said. “But to have the parents engage in it, too, to get a real feel for the family is important. I believe it does help the young man make a more sound decision.”