James “Squirt” Thompson thought the doors to the Gordon Wood Hall of Champions never would open for him.
It didn’t matter that he played on two state championship teams in 1967 and 1969 for the late, legendary Brownwood High School football coach.
Or that the 5-foot-7, 142-pound Thompson rushed for 99 yards in the 1969 state championship win over West Columbia and averaged 100 yards and two touchdowns per playoff game that season.
Or that longtime Brownwood radio broadcaster Dallas Huston called Thompson “an all-state-caliber running back” in 1968 and ‘69, even if there are no statistics handy these days to support such a claim.
Thompson just figured the Gordon Wood Hall of Champions was for former Lions players who became company presidents and CEOs, doctors and lawyers, or household names as Division I college players and professional players.
“I didn’t think a guy like me could get in there,” said Thompson, a maintenance worker for the Brownwood Independent School District. “I thought I was as good a player as some of those guys that were in it, but I thought it was for, you know, the money-makers.
“When Royce Blackburn came and told me I was selected, I thought he was joking at first.”
Blackburn helped coach Thompson in junior high and high school. Years later, when Blackburn was an administrator with the Brownwood ISD, he hired Thompson for the maintenance staff. Blackburn tracked down Thompson at the elementary school where he was mowing to tell him about his selection.
“He said, ‘Aw, Coach, that’s not for me. That’s out of my league,’” Blackburn said. “I said, ‘Squirt, Coach Wood’s Hall of Champions is designed for guys just like you that were good players and stand for everything that’s right.’
“When he realized I was serious, big ol’ tears ran down his cheek. It made me cry.”
Once the 55-year-old Thompson wiped away the tears, he pulled out his cell phone and called his wife of 27 years, Diane; his mother, Minnie Rudd; his 24-year-old daughter, Nicole Thompson; and his closest friends.
Thompson last month joined Steve Cutbirth, Jimmy Piper, Shae Southall and Kevin Taylor in the 2007 Gordon Wood Hall of Champions class — the eighth class since the hall was started in 2000. Cutbirth has been recognized by Texas Monthly magazine as one of the best dentists in Texas. Piper is president and chief operating officer of a large insurance company in Waco. Taylor is general manager of a county-wide water district.
“Being in the Hall of Champions is meaningful to all those guys. Their plaques will go on the wall with all their other awards and achievements,” Huston said. “But Squirt will sleep with his plaque. That’s the difference. This meant everything to him. He had never gotten anything like this.
“He was telling everybody (at the induction) that this was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.”
Thompson felt that way because he realizes everything football has done for his life.
“Without football, I’d be one of those guys on the streets, not knowing how to get along with people or how to interact with people,” Thompson said.
Starting in junior high and high school, football provided a diversion from growing up poor in the predominantly black neighborhood in Brownwood on either side of Austin Avenue between Melwood Avenue and Commerce Street. It was a place that flooded when it rained, and the neighborhood where African-Americans lived when Thompson was growing up.
Despite attending an all-black elementary school in the early 1960s, youngsters would attend Brownwood’s newly integrated junior high and high school. So they grew up wanting to play football for Gordon Wood and the Brownwood Lions, the same as the Anglo kids living in other parts of town. Thompson began playing football on playgrounds against future Lions such as fullback Kenny Ephraim, defensive backs Jan Brown and Aaron Blake, defensive end Lawrence Thomas, tackle Odell Crawford and running back Gary Barron.
All were teammates on the 1969 state championship team.
“All we had was each other,” Thompson said of the Brownwood players who lived in his neighborhood. “The feeling from winning stopped the pain — the pain of not having money or clothes. I went to school with holes in the knees of my pants.
“But back then, we didn’t know we didn’t have anything. All we cared about was playing ball and winning and having fun.”
By all accounts, there were few problems in blending the Anglo and African-American players in Brown-wood — even if there were some uncertainties.
“When those (African-American) kids first showed up, they didn’t know if they would be accepted,” Blackburn said. “When they realized they would be part of the program, everything just came together. The winning didn’t hurt things. I can’t ever remember any of our players showing discrimination or racial bias.”
When the 1969 season opened, Jimmy Carmichael, a blue-chip Anglo quarterback eventually bound for Texas Tech, shared the backfield with Thompson, Barron and Brown.
“Maybe we were na•ve back then, I don’t know, but we just did what the coaches told us,” said Carmichael, now president of Brownwood Bank. “Race wasn’t an issue, which is the way it should have been. That’s a real compliment to Squirt and Kenny Ephraim and Jan Brown and Odell Crawford and those guys. It (integration) was a challenge for them, not for us (Anglo players).”
Thompson said, “Jimmy and (end) Perry Young were on the same page as we were. We were all about winning. Once we figured that out, nothing else mattered.”
The No. 1 thing Thompson learned as a running back was not how to carry the ball, but how to block when others carried or Carmichael passed. Even today, Thompson will talk about his blocking before his rushing yardage or touchdowns. He’ll jump from his chair to demonstrate the blocking technique taught him by the Brownwood coaches almost 40 years ago that enabled him to block defenders weighing 100 pounds more.
“You cut ‘em at the knees or the ankles,” Thompson said. “Without their knees or ankles, where are they going? You block ‘em with your inside shoulder and you block ‘em inside, toward the middle of the field.
“People ask me how I blocked guys so much bigger. I tell ‘em ‘Coach Wood said to cut ‘em down, and he had faith in me to do it. I had no choice but to get it done.’”
In the 1969 state championship game, the 142-pound Thompson and Ephraim, Brownwood’s 146-pound fullback, consistently blocked West Columbia’s much larger defensive ends Charlie Davis and Charlie Johnson. Davis eventually played Division I college football for Colorado while Johnson played in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I remember one play in that (West Columbia) game when Coach Wood was running down the sideline yelling at me, ‘Cut him down! Cut him down!’” Thompson said. “I cut the defensive end down, and Coach Wood kept yelling at me, ‘Get up and cut another one down!’ So I got up and blocked another one.”
Brownwood beat West Columbia 34-16, earning the state title after starting the season with a 2-3 record. Five Lions made all-state that year, and Carmichael and Young gave them big-time star power. But Thompson and Ephraim epitomized the undersized players who Wood coached to overachieve, and those players separated Brownwood from the pack during the seven state championship seasons in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
“To me, Squirt Thompson is what high school football is all about,” Blackburn said. “He didn’t have the size you’d like in a running back or a defensive back, but he had the heart. All he needed was a chance. You told him what to do and, whatever it took, he’d get it done some way, somehow.”
After high school, it appeared Thompson’s playing career was over. Even prior to scholarship limitations, there were no offers for a 142-pound tailback and defensive back. But Brownwood assistant coach Morris Southall never gave up trying, and eventually landed Thompson a junior-college scholarship with Navarro College in Corsicana.
In 1970, a year after helping Brownwood win state, Thompson helped the Navarro Bulldogs win the Texas junior college conference championship. Football opened more doors for Thompson. Navarro traveled to Roswell, N.M., where on Thanksgiving Day, the Bulldogs beat Grand Rapids, Mich., 21-0 for the Wool Bowl championship to finish an 11-1 season.
Afterward, Navarro traveled to Mexico City and beat a Mexican all-star team 59-0 in an exhibition game in Azteca Stadium. Thompson is quick to point out that he played in Azteca Stadium some 24 years before the Dallas Cowboys played the then-Houston Oilers there in a 1994 NFL preseason game.
After laying out of football for a year, Thompson returned to Brownwood in 1973 and played defensive back for Howard Payne of the Lone Star Conference. There, he lined up against players bound for the NFL, including Abilene Christian’s Wilbert Montgomery (Philadelphia Eagles) and Texas A&I’s David Hill (Detroit Lions).
Thompson played much of the 1973 season with an injured shoulder. Other injuries were mounting as well, and it became obvious his 165-pound body had taken all the hits it could withstand. He was unable to play his final year of college ball.
“I know if I had been 180 pounds, I could have stayed healthy and run back punts and kicks in the NFL,” Thompson said. “I just didn’t have the size. But I’m not upset about it. The game was good to me.
“I got to go places and meet people that wouldn’t have happened without football. Being in football taught me how to meet and greet people.”
Thompson still is meeting people today because of his football connections — from former NFL player and Olympic gold medalist Johnny “Lam” Jones to University of Texas football coach Mack Brown to future NBA player Kevin Durant.
Although Thompson loves to relive his football-playing days, he’s hardly one of those men who lives in the past. He’s up at 5:45 a.m. each weekday and reports to his maintenance job by 7 a.m. He has been married to Diane for 27 years, and the couple live in a well-kept, middle-class house at the corner of Fourth Street and Avenue J in Brownwood.
At work, Thompson applies the same work ethic as he did playing football for the Lions four decades ago. He mows and edges grass, trims trees and shrubs, moves furniture, replaces doors — whatever is needed.
“A lot of times, people at different campuses request him (Thompson) to do their grounds work because he does such a good job,” said Joe Brandstetter, who has been with the Brownwood ISD maintenance department for 23 years. “He takes pride in his work. He pays attention to detail.”
Thompson has found a happy middle ground between being a fierce competitor when he played sports and a smiling, happy husband, father and grandfather.
When Brownwood lost its 1969 opener to Abilene Cooper, a reporter for the Abilene newspaper tried to console Thompson by saying the Lions had a nice team and could still win district.
“District! Hell, we’re gonna win the state championship!” Thompson apparently replied in a quote that friends still remind him of today.
The competitiveness still pops out today when the conversation turns to the past. But what most Brownwood folks see today is a kinder, gentler Thompson — a man who’s always smiling and happy.
“Squirt has done more with what he has than anyone I know. That’s the mark of a real winner,” said Carmichael, a member of the first Gordon Wood Hall of Champions class in 2000.
There still are plenty of Brownwood residents who remember his athletic feats, not only in football but basketball and track as well. Kids today that don’t know of Thompson’s athletic background are attracted to his infectious smile and outgoing personality.
Adults and kids still call him Squirt, a nickname his father, Albert Thompson, gave him at age 6 because of his small stature. Thompson loves the nickname because when somebody says it, there’s no mistaking who they’re talking about.
Thompson insisted the school kids call him Squirt, even after administrators encouraged the kids to call him Mr. Thompson.
He’s living the good life as a mini-celebrity in his hometown. When he mows his yard at home, several passers-by will honk. When he shops at Wal-Mart, several shoppers will stop him for a visit. It doesn’t matter that he’s a maintenance worker and not a CEO or a doctor. What matters is that he approaches life every day with a smile and runs with it, just as he ran with the ball for the Lions in a previous life.
“I’m living a dream and I hope I don’t wake up from this one,” Thompson said. “My life is work, watching sports and being with family and friends. There ain’t nothing in my life that I don’t like. I’m the luckiest man I know.
“And it’s all because I played football for Coach Wood and the Brownwood Lions.”