UCLA’s Danny Thompson Can Return to a Natural Progression

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Danny Thompson of UCLA used to subscribe to the common belief that a freshman year in college is something a person should endure only once, like a tonsillectomy.

When considered from a safe distance, memories of a freshman year may even become a source of nostalgia. Nonetheless, it’s not an experience most people would opt to repeat, particularly not back-to-back.

That goes double for Type-A personalities such as Thompson, for whom the word achiever might have been created, especially as it applies to athletics.

One of the state’s leading football recruits in 1984 and a decent student, Thompson never doubted that the status of sophomore would follow that of freshman--as smoothly as 1985 followed 1984, as smoothly as the tailback follows his fullback.

But the practicalities of big-time college football have a way of muddying such natural progressions, even in the case of an athlete as exceptional as Thompson.


He had a shock in store when he got to UCLA. Almost as soon as he arrived, the Bruin coaches asked him to redshirt, to sit out his freshman year and prolong his eligibility.

To understand why Thompson took that news so hard, you need only look at his, and others’, expectations.

Followers of the athletic scene at Huntington Beach High School have their own set of expectations for any kid named Thompson.

It’s sort of like bearing the surname Osmond in Provo, Utah--it’s generally assumed you were born and reared with the ability to carry a tune. With the five boys and one girl in the Thompson family, the thing to carry was a ball, and they did it rather well.

Rico Thompson was a Division 3 Academic All-American in basketball at Stanislaus State, Bobby played football at Sacramento State and Billy plays basketball at Biola.

You can imagine that the coaching staff at Huntington Beach will be happy to see the youngest Thompson, Andy, enroll next year.

The last Thompson to grace the Oiler playing fields, Danny, left the school with a new self-image.

In 1982, he scored 3 touchdowns and gained 220 yards on 23 carries against Ocean View. That victory concluded the Oilers’ six-year, 35-game Sunset League losing streak.

The next season, he scored twice and gained 209 yards as Huntington Beach beat Edison, an Orange County powerhouse. The last time the Oilers had beaten the Chargers--1969--Thompson was 3 years old.

He was named Times’ Orange County Player of the Year, Southern Section Back of the Year and an honorable mention All-American.

California Coach Joe Kapp came to his house and assured him that if he chose Cal, his talents would make an immediate impact with the Bears.

But Thompson had dreamed about becoming a different sort of bear since he put on his first football uniform at the age of 8.

Even the knowledge that 1984 might be the worst possible year to join UCLA as a new running back could not deter him.

“I knew the (UCLA) coaches, and I knew there were some All-Americans coming here, and I wanted to see how I’d do,” Thompson recalled. “I thought I’d regret it if I took the easy way out, and didn’t face the challenge that was presented.”

Unfortunately for Thompson’s personal prospects, running backs settled on UCLA in 1984 like a plague of locusts.

Thompson, who might have been the No. 1 recruit at tailback at most any other school, came in with two of the country’s best, Eric Ball and Gaston Green.

Not to mention the caliber of the fullbacks in the same recruiting class--Ken Norton, Jr., and Mel Farr, Jr. The talent was so deep that Norton was switched to linebacker.

“That class of backs was one of the best in the country,” said Norm Anderson, Bruin running back coach. “It probably is one of the best in school history.”

Red was always one of Thompson’s favorite colors, but redshirt was one of his least favorite concepts.

“My freshman year, the stress really got to me,” he said. “I was really upset and depressed about what happened.

“It was not what I had planned for me, although it was probably what they had planned for me all along. But it was not what my goals for myself were.

“It was a brush with reality. You feel like you’ve got everything going for you, and then all of a sudden, it just drops.”

In the heat of the moment after learning he would have to sit out the year, he told a newspaper reporter that the coaches had not given him a fair chance to show what he could do before the decision was made.

He says now that he spoke impulsively, out of disappointment and without reflecting enough on the situation. But he never considered transferring.

“It was the same old story: a high school star coming in and nobody knows his name,” he said. “That has an effect on a lot of kids, especially at a big university like this.

“It’s a critical time until you know your role and get your part to play. It took me a whole year to overcome that. It wasn’t until this spring that I got through it.

“Now I look back on it and it was something much needed. It definitely lets you grow. I’m happy with my role.”

When he had come to accept the first jolt to his plans--just when it seemed safe to go back on the football field--he was presented with another adjustment to weather.

Instead of being a tailback, the position for which he was recruited and the one he had practiced, he was moved to fullback last week.

The fact of the matter is, the Bruins are in a pleasant dilemma. They simply have too many good tailbacks.

Thompson is one of the fastest players on the team and a very good receiver. The Bruin coaches think they can permanently employ those qualities at fullback, if he improves his blocking skills. At 6-feet, 195 pounds, he also will be expected to add weight and strength.

“People say, ‘Why move a guy like Danny to fullback?’ ” UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. “Well, it would be nice to have a 230-pounder, but we don’t have one, and in our offense the fullback is a runner and a pass catcher, as well as a blocker.

“Now that he has redshirted, he’s a freshman again and Mel Farr, Jr., is a sophomore and Marcus Greenwood is a junior, so we have them lined up one, two, three, with the idea that they’ll all get the chance to be starters, and we like that.”

Donahue and Anderson betray a funny glow of uncoach-like affection when they talk about Thompson. It’s as if you had asked them to talk about their favorite little brother.

“I do like him,” Donahue said. “That’s why I moved him to fullback, so he could get on the field. Based on his progress to date, I believe he’ll be in the games this season as a backup, and on the special teams.

Said Anderson: “He’s a tough, tough football player. He reminds me of the kid with the torn shirt and the droopy pants and bloody nose.

“There’s a place for a guy like that in football because he’ll go ‘til he drops and do anything we ask him to do. That’s what’s real exciting to me about coaching him.

“He’s one of those kids who doesn’t flinch when you go to poke him in the eyes. He’s got that quality about him. He’s a wonderful kid from a great family.”

Said Donahue: “We thought that by getting Danny Thompson to come to UCLA, he would strengthen our program in that he’s a fierce competitor, fierce.

“The reason we wanted Danny Thompson is that we were attracted to the athletic skill and he also appeared to have unusual character. We think that’s a very vital ingredient, and something we believe in.”

Thompson’s character is quite unlike most of his teammates’, but he gets along well regardless. He and Norton and cornerback Marcus Turner, formerly of Long Beach Poly, were teammates on a recreational basketball team called the Tribe, after their patented pregame warhoops.

Among the Bruin running backs, Thompson has been given a special geographical identity.

“They like to tease me,” he said. “I’m kind of the Orange County-type, or that’s what they’ve labeled me.

“I’m a little more carefree than some of them. When things are messing up, I won’t take it so hard. I’ll just shrug it off and walk back to the group, and the coach will say, ‘That’s the Orange County-type.’ ”

Said Andersen: “He’s got wit to him, like a dry humor. He’ll say something and it’ll just come off funny.

“He cracks up the whole group. He comes up with dumb questions. He’s kind of naive, or he plays like he is. He’s always got a smile for you. He’s never surly or anything, and he’s never down for long.”

Said Thompson: “I’m kind of quiet, but sometimes I just blurt something out to keep everybody loosened up. It gets a little dreary out there in two-a-days.”

As a person, Thompson has changed little since the time he chose to spend the evening at home rather than going out to celebrate Huntington Beach’s upset of Edison with his deliriously happy teammates.

That night, his pals spray-painted a message on a wall at a prominent city intersection: “Huntington Beach 24, Edison 10. Eight Is Great.” The last number belonged to the uniform of the fellow sitting at home.

Thompson still doesn’t drink, and the idea of using drugs is so far from his mind that he doesn’t even mention it while discussing the party activities he forgoes.

Unlike the typical Big Man On Campus football-type, Thompson said he was not interested in joining a fraternity, and instead selected two senior teammates to room with this year.

“I don’t like to party too much,” he said. “I don’t go around saying it’s wrong to the other guys, but I like to have fun in my own special ways. I’m not a big social butterfly, but I have fun just the same.”

Nor does Thompson fit the campus mold of a future yuppie, although his father is president of Continental Hardware, and the sons have worked at part-time jobs in the business.

“I don’t like to be materialistic,” Thompson said. For example, when he was in high school, he and his brothers once casually disposed of all 160 of their sports trophies.

“They were just taking up space and my mom kept telling us to dust them,” he said. “We decided we didn’t want to spend our time dusting trophies, so one day we put them all in a box and gave them away. I think my dad gave them to a hospital.”

The Fiesta Bowl watch he got as a member of last year’s Bruin team suffered a similarly unsentimental fate.

“I gave my it to my brother, Bobby,” he said. “He needed a watch. He’s terrible about time. He misses all his appointments, and I already had a watch.

“I don’t like to keep things from the past. Looking at the past too often isn’t good. You always have to be pressing forward to a higher mark.”

On the subject of looking back, he would prefer not be called a redshirt freshman, either. He’s too polite to correct anybody, but the term makes him wince. He would rather think of his situation as the chance to have two senior seasons, not two freshmen seasons.

“I like to call myself a sophomore as often as I can, especially on the football field with all the new guys coming in,” he said.

“Last year was a time to rearrange or rebuild or change some of my goals and my attitude.

“I feel relieved now that the redshirt year is over. But not having played in a football game in two years, it’s hard to get the mental attitude back. It’s starting to come back, and the new position is like a way of turning over a new leaf and injecting a little freshness in it.

“It’s a good feeling to be on the field, and pretty soon, I’ll be in the game and that will be an even better feeling.”