BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Tom Morris and Jacob Thompson made their way onto the turf at Memorial Stadium one June morning, and the clatter of construction served as the backdrop.
On the south end, machinery was at work, raising concrete and steel to fill the venue’s structural void. On the north end, Morris was building an athlete, with enthusiasm and intensity as his tools. He watched as Thompson, a senior at Edgewood, jack-hammered his feet in and out of the squares of a speed-and-agility ladder.
“Right foot, left foot, right — eyes up!”
Jacob finished, but his right foot caught the ladder’s strings, kicking it out of alignment. He took his left hand, straightened it back out, and then tried again.
“Slowly,” Morris said. “All the way out, like it, like it — good!”
After the right foot synced with the left, Jacob took a lap around Indiana’s field, down the sideline where his father, Anthony, ran for touchdowns in the 1980s. Morris, in his wheelchair, returned to the north end zone’s weight room facility, gushing about his 17-year-old protege. Like Anthony Thompson, Jacob’s neck is thick like a tree stump. Strong like “A.T.,” Jacob can sit at a row machine and pull 220 pounds with his left hand.
“You can tell,” Morris said, “he’s A.T.’s son.”
But Jacob had yet to play a down of football prior to his senior year. Many doubted he could. When he was born, doctors said he would never walk or talk.
For 17 years — since a stroke at birth robbed strength from his right side — Jacob Thompson has been told his limits. He came to Morris to find something more.
Back in the weight room, Jacob caught his breath, then landed on a bench-press machine. He placed his left hand on the bar, and then, more carefully, his right. He pushed, his face tensing, skin glistening. Morris pushed a bit more.
“One more,” Morris said, “and then I’ll let you be.”
This is how the next Thompson became a 195-pound athlete, ready to don shoulder pads — ready to show the world he is, and always has been, a football player.
Jacob is like many boys his age. He idolizes the strongest and the toughest. He will go on and on about Marshawn Lynch going “Beast Mode” or the Seattle Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom,” featuring safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
“They are hard-nosed dudes. They just come up there and hit, they don’t even care,” Jacob said. “If you get me started on football, I’ll just keep going.”
For three years, Jacob served as a student manager for Edgewood’s football team. He filled water bottles and ran balls in to the referees. But he wanted to be like Lynch, Thomas or Chancellor. He wanted to be measured by an on-field collision, even if his friendly, often-reserved demeanor didn’t show it. Even if cerebral palsy made his goal seem unreasonable.
Jacob watches football constantly. In the basement of the Thompson home, there is a flat-screen television that envelopes an entire wall. A nearby sign reads “Thompson Family Theater,” and on an afternoon in early August, an NFL preseason game was the feature.
Anthony Thompson, who now works in IU’s athletic department, loves the game. Jacob takes it to another level.
“He’ll watch Big Ten, NFL Network. He’ll watch Canadian football,” Anthony said. “I get worn out, but he’s obsessed.”
Football is a Thompson tradition. Anthony’s family followed Walter Payton and the Chicago Bears. Growing up in Terre Haute, youth-leaguers started in fourth grade, but Thompson’s buddy lied about his age and signed him up as a second grader.
Anthony eventually claimed his place in football lore. He finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1989 to Houston’s Andre Ware, the closest any Hoosier has come to college football’s top honor. He was so strong and quick, he ran for a then-NCAA record 377 yards against Wisconsin and finished the season with 1,793 yards and 25 touchdowns.
His future wife, Dr. Lori Thompson, was a cheerleader at Indiana State. She had relatives skip ISU’s senior day events to watch IU play Ohio State.
“They wanted to see what that kid from Terre Haute was going to do,” Lori said.
Football was Anthony’s life, as a pro for the Phoenix Cardinals and the Los Angeles Rams, then as running backs coach under Cam Cameron at IU. His children entered a world dominated by football practices and bible studies.
Anthony Jr. arrived first. Athletic but more slight of build, he played football through his sophomore year at Edgewood. Ciara, the middle child, became a cheerleader, soccer player and track athlete for the Mustangs.
On Aug. 30, 1999, right before football season, Jacob was born. Lori prepared to leave the hospital the next day, but she was stopped in her tracks.
“I noticed that he was blue,” she said.
Jacob was whisked away for a CAT scan, which revealed a massive stroke on the left side of his brain. Lori, a physician, knew the possibilities. He could die. He could survive, but in a vegetative state. There was nothing to do but pray as they followed an ambulance to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
“It was just a hopeless feeling,” Anthony said. “He can’t do a thing for himself, and he’s just this poor, helpless child lying there. But, you know, we knew that he was a fighter. So, if he’s going to fight, we are going to fight.”
In a few days, Jacob emerged from a coma. It was a few days more until he came home. Once he did, Ciara noticed how her little brother crawled — not on his hands and knees, but flat on his stomach, pulling himself along with his left arm. Then her parents brought home a sign language book.
Ciara, seeking comfort, slipped into Anthony Jr.’s room.
“We would just pray so hard,” Ciara said. “‘We wish Jacob could be normal, we pray that Jacob has a normal life, and he can walk and talk.'”
Hope came. At 16 months old, the nanny called to say Jacob was walking. Eventually, with the help of a speech therapist through First Steps, Jacob was talking.
His first word was “dah-dah,” or “daddy.” His second word was “ball.”
Through the years, it became evident Jacob couldn’t just watch football. Even then, he played.
The living room carpet was his turf. Jacob mimicked what he saw on TV, hiking the ball, zig-zagging with it, tackling whichever sibling entered the “field” of play. He didn’t understand where everyone went at halftime, but he filled in the blanks. He ran into the laundry room, reliving the player-coach interactions he saw at IU practices and games.
“I would go in, get the team all fired up,” Jacob said. “I would be like ‘Come on, guys, you got to get your head in the game. You guys gotta toughen up.’ Someone would get hurt, and I’d have to come in for them. I would get hurt and I’d say to the trainers, my imaginary trainers, ‘Tape me up, I’m ready to go back in.'”
Every year, Jacob reaffirmed his desire to play, but on an actual field. He accompanied Anthony Jr. in line when the little league handed out equipment.
“He’s always said it, at the beginning of the year, ‘I’m going to play football this year.’ I always kind of blew it off, because I didn’t think my parents would let him,” Anthony Jr. said. “I don’t think you’re physically ready, because one hit you could break your arm, one concussion and you could be hazy for the rest of your life.”
Jacob had already overcome challenges, from seizures as a toddler to years of botox injections in his right arm and leg. As a teen, Jacob underwent a procedure to release tendons in his limbs, hoping to further increase his range of motion. All the while, he proved resilient and aggressive. He challenged his brother and sister, and even his mother, to wrestling matches.
He was also an eternal optimist. He has watched “Last Chance U,” the Netflix documentary series on an elite junior college football program filled with hard-luck athletes. Jacob latched on to the story of Isaiah Wright, the brother of former Hoosier Camion Patrick, because he’s fast and tough, but also because he has struggled.
“Some of them don’t have parents to go home to and talk about their issues,” Jacob said. “My parents love me, and they are around and we are together.
“That’s what makes me say, ‘Wow, I should stop complaining about my stroke.’ I just need to get this hand working. It can work. It’s going to work in the future. I just have to keep working at it.”
Anthony, who just so happens to oversee IU’s weight room, had an avenue for his son’s optimism. Maybe there was a way for Jacob to play football, after all.
“I knew Jacob needed some personal attention, he needed somebody that could motivate him,” Anthony said, “and if you can’t be motivated by Tom Morris, then you have to check your pulse.”
Morris has his own backstory. He has been a strength and conditioning coach at IU since 2005. In May 2012, Morris fractured his C6 and C7 vertebrae in a biking accident. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
It took every fraction of Morris’ boundless enthusiasm and intensity — weeks struggling to touch his right thumb to the other fingers on his hand — to relearn how to grip a pencil. Now he races a wheelchair up and down hills in Bloomington.
In training Jacob, Morris had a base of knowledge, personal and professional. He studied at Penn State and worked with football player Adam Taliaferro, who was paralyzed on a hit in 2000 but relearned how to walk and led the Nittany Lions onto the field in 2001.
Because of his cerebral palsy, Jacob struggled to grip equipment with his right hand, placing those fingers on the bar with his left hand. Morris didn’t allow it. The right hand had to do it all.
“It took him a month, and it was every time putting his hand up and trying to grip onto that bar, and it was frustrating,” Morris said. “He’d pull it back and relax it, and he’d put it up again and again. And now he is able to come in, spread his fingers and put it on there and grip around that bar.”
A small detail, but a big lesson.
“It’s making sure the world doesn’t have to adjust to me, but I adjust to the world,” Morris said. “The truth is, no matter how many ramps are put in and how many automatic doors, there are still going to be challenges, and it’s up to me to figure out how to break those challenges.”
In about a year, Jacob gained 20 pounds of muscle. At first, a mile run had him bent over, catching his breath. Now he can go the distance in 6 minutes, 38 seconds.
He went on to intern with Morris during the summer, waking at 5 a.m. to motivate IU’s athletes as they trained.
“He’s a huge inspiration,” Morris said. “I don’t use that word lightly, because a lot of people say that to me, and I’m like, ‘Well, how did I inspire you? What did you do to change?’
“This guy’s a responder. You give him a little bit of stuff, and all of a sudden he looks like a darn grown man.”
From the sideline of Edgewood’s practice field, the Mustangs hear a familiar voice.
“We’ve got to get focused, guys! Let’s go now, let’s go now!”
The last three years, Brian Rosenburgh has heard Jacob Thompson’s chirping. The only difference is Rosenburgh, after more than a dozen years as an assistant, is the head coach, and Jacob is wearing a helmet and pads with jersey No. 28.
“He would be pumped up before games,” Rosenburgh said. “He’d be pacing up and down the sideline. He’d be ready to go. You could have put him in then, and he would have had the most energy on the team, by far. So now that he gets to do it, he’s enjoying every minute of it and expressing it, which is awesome.”
With the Mustangs, Jacob is part of a rebuilding effort. Last year, Edgewood won one game. Attendance in the weight room dropped off before Rosenburgh was named coach.
Jacob is one of only nine seniors. When the running backs finish drills, he huddles them together for “1-2-3, RBs!” He leads as a blocker, too, on the kick return unit, or plugged in at fullback. Rosenburgh looks to find No. 28 playing time. They are making up for lost time, really.
“You want to find a spot, no matter what it is,” Rosenburgh said. “The kid has the heart. You know he’s going to give you everything he’s got, and you wish every player on your team had the same heart.”
Safeguards are in place. Jacob wears a soft cast around his right arm and ankle braces underneath his cleats. Teammates find him to adjust his shoulder pads after a hit, or check to make sure his chin strap is buckled. His friend, Joel Strickler, helps tie his shoes.
The playing part, Jacob has to figure out himself. Even with years of studying the game, on-the-field instincts come in their own time. Jacob has to learn how to position his body on a block, maximizing the power behind his pads. At linebacker, he has to read, react, then chase.
When there are struggles, the boisterous teen turns inward.
“I get frustrated all the time,” Jacob said. “If I can’t do something my friends can do, I just sit there and think about how I can do stuff differently, and if I can’t think about it real quick, I just start getting quiet.”
Rosenburgh knows that, and pulls Jacob aside when the talking stops.
In football, as in life, frustrations are inevitable. Jacob used to grow silent as his friends played on the monkey bars. In those moments, despite his faith in God, he asked the most natural question, “Why me?” Anthony Jr. and Ciara watched as Jacob developed into their father’s twin, which made his inability to play football even more painful.
They were equally concerned when Jacob took the field, but they believe he needs this. He desires the community of a team.
In early August, Jacob and his family gathered around a backyard pool for a dual birthday party with his mom, the day after a scrimmage with a talented Danville squad. He had a couple tackles, but he didn’t go on and on about it. Probably because Edgewood lost.
“He doesn’t like to say when they lose, it really brings him down,” Ciara said. “It just means a lot to him to feel a part of a team and feel a part of something bigger than himself, and I think everyone needs that experience and he’s never really had that.”
There will be challenges. In the opener against Mitchell, the Mustangs lost 36-7. Jacob played, but he didn’t come away with an earth-shaking collision. He was there to have his hair raised by the national anthem, though, his arms locked with his teammates, shoulder pad to shoulder pad. He was on the field for the opening kickoff, then back on the sideline, cheering, as classmate Tyler Calvin zoomed down the home sideline with an interception.
When the game ended, he took a knee with his teammates, his helmet pressed in the grass under his left hand. They came up short, together. But this isn’t where the story ends.
Just as he beat the odds by walking and talking, and now playing, Jacob plans to continue surprising people. He wants to become one of Edgewood’s best players. Beyond high school, Morris thinks Jacob could be an elite disabled athlete.
One day, Jacob wants to be a football coach, making those laundry-room speeches a reality.
“I really believe that some people choose their challenges, and sometimes your challenges choose you,” Anthony said. “This challenge chose Jacob, and Jacob has met every challenge. He has met everything head on and with just a pit-bull tenacity.”
Of course he did. Jacob is A.T.’s son, and he knows it.
Just ask him if he ever doubted football was in his future.
“Nope. Nooo,” Jacob said, holding that “o” to swat away any ambiguity. “I knew it was going to happen. One day.”
Source: The (Bloomington) Herald Times
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com
This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by The (Bloomington) Herald Times.