Ted Thompson a hometown legend in Atlanta, Texas Michael Cohen | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
On a Wednesday morning in late April, nearly two months removed from his last news conference, the general manager of the Green Bay Packers settles in behind a lectern in the media auditorium at Lambeau Field. He stows the notes he brought but will not use and eases into a story set in Washington, D.C., on the eve of a playoff game last season.
"I'm trying to dodge traffic and, you know I'm just a country bumpkin, thinking I'm going to go for a long walk," Ted Thompson says. "But I get out and there's a grass area, and there's cars going this way and cars going this way, and I'm on this grass area. I look up and right there is the Capitol. ... I didn't go out for a particular purpose, but when I got there, I said, 'This is the reason I went for a walk.'
In the same way, he continues, "Hopefully we'll go through this draft process, and I'll get to a point and say, 'This is the reason we did all the work.'"
Related: Complete Packers draft coverage
From a football sense, his metaphor was a bit of a stretch. But the imagery of Thompson, the "country bumpkin," maneuvering through traffic in a bustling metropolis, captures the dichotomy of where he's from and where he is now, his journey from a rural farm boy who dreamed of leading the Packers — yes, seriously — to a suite atop an NFL shrine.
At 63 years old, Thompson recently completed his 12th draft in charge of the Packers. But despite his high-profile position in the nation's most popular sport, his fleeting public appearances and a well-known reticence with the media shroud him in mystery.
Which makes the memories of those who knew him before the fame so fascinating, so pure. Those who knew Thompson growing up in Atlanta, Texas, his hometown, remember a five-sport star, a student council president and class officer, an usher for senior activities and actor in a school play. They remember him as someone who never smoked or drank, who led by example.
"Just one of them fellas that everybody liked," said Johnny Rosser, a teammate in basketball and football. "You could call him your friend whether you was or not."
These are the stories you've never heard, from the place Thompson proudly calls home.
U.S. Route 77 leads into Atlanta, a farming and forestry town of 5,600 people hard by the Arkansas and Louisiana borders. Signs of spring straddle the road in early April; a shirtless man throws fertilizer, and a yard sale advertises tractors in bulk. Ted's parents, Jimmy and Elta Thompson, initially lived in Douglassville, a speck of land, with a population of 239, about 15 minutes away. They later moved to a rental home in Atlanta before building the house where Jimmy still lives almost 50 years later. The couple had four children — Frank, Debbie, Ted and Jim. A new high school was opened in 1970, and Ted's class was the first to graduate the following spring. Elta Thompson passed away in 2007.
Ted Thompson: In a small place like Atlanta we played football when it was football season, basketball when it was basketball season, then baseball, then track, and then we played golf in the summertime and for the school. It's a small school, and if you could do anything athletically, you usually got to do it.
George Jackson, varsity football coach: He just kind of stood out. He was a really good athlete even when he was in junior high. And he started growing. He was a pole vaulter and he got so big he had to give up the pole vault. ... He had a bunch of junior high records in track and the pole vault. Atlanta was a big track town. It was important that you do good in track.
Bill Dupree, class president and football teammate: I can remember — I think it was maybe our freshman year — we'd work out and then after workouts Ted would go home and lift weights. He actually overdid it. He lifted weights so much he got muscle-bound and he could hardly run. He got so stiff and everything that he got slower, couldn't move and everything. The doctors looked at him or the trainers looked at him and said, 'Look, you're just going to have to back off the weights. Working out at school is enough.' ... But that's just how he was — he worked.
Roger Sessions, assistant football coach, track coach, JV basketball coach:Ted ran the high hurdles. Within the last few years, I was looking through some old files, and Ted and (former Chicago Bears coach) Lovie Smith were in the same heat in hurdles one time in one of our home meets. Lovie went to Big Sandy, which is not too far away. I believe Ted beat Lovie. Neither one of them was a great high hurdler, but they were fairly good.
Danny Harp, football and track teammate: During track season our coach told us to sit down and take a rest. We got to talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up. When it came to Ted, he said, 'When I grow up I'm going to be the general manager of the Green Bay Packers or the New York Yankees.' That's exactly what he said. We all laughed, and he looked at us like, 'I'm not kidding.'
Thompson does not recall a specific conversation with Harp about the Packers but acknowledges it could be true. He made a similar statement when Bob Harlan hired him as general manager in 2005. "It's almost a dream-come-true-type job," he said at the time. "You think about, when you're a young kid, some of the things you'd like to do when you grow up and you think maybe manager of the New York Yankees or maybe the general manager of the Green Bay Packers. So it's a thrill, it's an honor."
When news broke of Thompson's promotion, Harp immediately remembered their conversation from 35 years prior.
Danny Harp: I was really proud for him. I just thought, 'My God, I can't believe that.'
Golf was Thompson's second-favorite sport. He and his younger brother, Jim, were both terrific players and spent hours at Indian Hills Country Club, a 9-hole course. The brothers often return to the course when Ted visits, and an employee at the country club said they are known to play their rounds in virtual silence.
Barron Christensen, football and track teammate, student council member:There's a club championship every year. I remember Ted played in that when he was a junior or senior in high school. I wasn't much of a golfer, so at the club championship I said, 'Ted, why don't you let me carry your bag for you?' So I caddied a round for him. It was great fun. He hits the ball a long way.
Jimmy Thompson, father: When he got in pro ball, he had been in there about two years (with the Houston Oilers), and I think in Florida they had a golf tournament I guess for pro ball players. I don't know what hole, but the one that got the closest to that hole got to drive an Excalibur. It's got things out the side, kind of a convertible fancy thing. Old Ted got closest to the hole, and he drove that (car) a year.
In Atlanta, Texas, every football game was a sellout, and fans without seats packed the edges of the field to see the Rabbits. By kickoff on Friday night, former players estimated the attendance was nearly 5,000 — essentially matching the population of the town. Thompson made the varsity team as a sophomore and played both sides of the ball during his final two years, starting at linebacker and fullback in a run-heavy offense. As a junior, he carried the ball 129 times for 910 yards and made 139 tackles on defense. As a senior, he carried the ball 219 times for 957 yards and eight touchdowns. He also handled the kicking, sometimes without a shoe.
Ted Thompson: It was a typical small-town football stadium. We thought it was the neatest thing in the world because when you're 14 or 15 that's how you think. You think if I could ever get to play on that field and play with the varsity and that sort of thing it would be the neatest thing ever.
Bill Dupree: Even back then they were lined up on the fences three deep all the way around the field, standing room only most of the time. That's what they did on Friday nights in East Texas is go to high school football games.
Bobby Christensen, football teammate and student council member, younger brother of Barron: I always kidded with people that if you ever wanted to rob somebody, you would rob them on a Friday night. No one would know.
George Jackson: I coached '69 through '72. We put on the wishbone while I was there. I can remember the first time we scrimmaged. We were scrimmaging a real good team. Our first play from scrimmage we ran the inside veer with Ted and no one took him. So the quarterback handed him the ball and he ran about 30 yards before anybody could stop him. We went back to the huddle and we were running option, and the same thing happened again. The coach of the other team was a really good coach. He came up there and he put his foot on the ball and wouldn't let the center snap the ball. He said, 'What in the hell are y'all doing?' And I explained the veer to him, you know?
Sidney Harrist, football manager and current superintendent in Atlanta:(Ted) was the captain of the team. I can see him standing right yonder giving a speech at the pep rally the week it was his turn as captain. He did a good job.
Bill Dupree: Ted was what our team was built around, pretty much. When we were seniors, especially, it was Thompson right or Thompson left or Thompson up the middle. He was our best player.
Tommy C. Coats, football teammate: Ted was always just a stalwart guy. You could count on him as a middle linebacker. He could hold that line. My junior year I was a defensive tackle and I always knew that if I could just hold my guy up, Ted could get through.
Barron Christensen: His nickname in high school, we used to call him Ted the Toe. He kicked extra points and field goals for us.
Ted Thompson: I realized I could actually kick it farther without a kicking shoe. Most of the time, 90% of the time, I was using a square-toed shoe. ... I kicked with just a sock a couple of times when we were rushed to get a kickoff. I can't recall the exact reasons. And like I said, I could kick it farther with just a sock.
Roger Sessions: He was always an intelligent football player. Paid a lot of attention to the brain end of the game as opposed to just playing football. ... We graded people on each play, whether or not they did their job. Ted probably made 80% or better probably every game for three years. He was that good of a player.
Many of Thompson's former teammates and coaches repeated a story about the final game of his career, a 9-6 victory over the De Kalb Bears. The starting quarterback for Atlanta left the game injured, and the backup struggled to protect the ball. Thompson, according to his coach, devised a plan to preserve the win and force a three-way tie for the district championship.
George Jackson, varsity football coach: Ted called timeout and came over to the sideline and said, 'Coach, I can run the clock out.' We put him at quarterback. We had put him at quarterback some in case somebody got hurt, and that's what happened here. He ran the quarterback sweep from side to side until we ran the clock out. ... We didn't have any choice. Well, we did have another choice: We had Ted, naturally. He could do the job.
Bill Dupree, class president and football teammate: We just ran him all the time, ran him to death. He wanted it that way. ... And they knew it was coming every time, but they still couldn't stop him.
Ted Thompson: All I did was take the snap and run one way or the other.
Outside of sports, Thompson was revered in a graduating class of approximately 160 students. He developed a reputation as having an enviable blend of book smarts and athletic ability. He was described by those who knew him as well-built and handsome, with more friends than most. He was the embodiment of what it meant to be successful in a town like Atlanta.
Bill Dupree: Ted was good at everything he did. He was a straight-A student. Very, very smart. Very intelligent guy. He had a good head on him, always did.
George Jackson: A lot of times football players aren't the smartest guys in the world, but Ted was always up on everything. He was ahead of everybody else in his books and everything. All the teachers knew that he was one of the top kids in his class.
Jean Pratt, librarian: I only remember the library delinquents. He was not one.
Danny Harp, football and track teammate: He's just one of the most fantastic people — and a good friend — that I've ever known.
Thompson was a member of student council for three years. He became an officer as a junior and senior, first serving as vice present and eventually taking over as president for Barron Christensen, whose younger brother, Bobby, was also a member.
Bobby Christensen: My recollection is student council was more of a popularity contest than anything else. If you were on the student council, it's because you were well-liked in the school.
Ted Thompson: It was a political thing I think. (sarcasm) I don't know. I guess I was a pretty good student and because I played a lot of sports I think name recognition helped me get elected.
Jimmy Thompson, father: Well, he was kind of a shy student council president. He talked but he said some of (the guys) called him an introvert. (laughs)
Roger Sessions, assistant football coach, track coach, JV basketball coach: I would say other people pushed him to do those things more than he pushed himself to do those things. Because I think people recognized his leadership skills and expected things out of him.
Atlanta was dry during Thompson's high school years, which complicated things for upperclassmen in search of beer. The national minimum drinking age was 18 at the time — it would not be raised to 21 until 1984 — so the students often turned to their neighboring states for the chance to imbibe. But not Ted.
Johnny Rosser, basketball and football teammate: We live right here at three states, where Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas all come together. At that point right there, there's a beer joint. You could go get your beer if you wanted one. But I don't remember Ted drinking. He just didn't do it.
Danny Harp: If we got to drinking or something like that, he wouldn't do it. He was just a real good Christian guy.
Barron Christensen, football and track teammate, student council member: I don't recall ever having seen Ted smoke a cigarette or drink a beer, and we were in a lot of social events and occasions together. He pretty much had the same mindset (as me). He was taking care of his body and getting ready to play. He was always in-season because we all played basketball, played baseball, ran track. You just go from one season to another, so you're always training.
Danny Harp: The only team we could find to (complete our schedule as seniors) was in the division above us, West Rusk. And Ted all those years would get in the huddle and he'd say, 'Give me the ball, give me the ball, give me the ball!' We get in the huddle that night, about halfway through the second quarter, and the quarterback called his number. Ted said, 'Ain't there somebody else on this team that can rush the damn ball?' That's the only cuss word I ever heard the guy say.
The Thompson family had a strict curfew of 10:30 p.m. for all four kids, and Jimmy Thompson recalls only one instance in which Ted broke the rule.
Jimmy Thompson: He just graduated, and I can't think what kind of car we got. It was a Torino, I believe, Ford Torino. Brand new. Well, it wasn't like him, and for some reason, he hadn't come home. My wife, she was worried. ... Well, about 11 (o'clock) I got in my pickup and drove around, went over to the old football field. There that new car was and Ted wasn't there. I said, 'My God.' At 11:30 I came in and said, 'I'm going to ride around (again). I don't know what to do.' Well about 12 o'clock, (I went to) an old city park. There was a woman sitting in the car not too far away when I pulled up there. I saw a bunch of folks way down there, they were kind of in a circle. I said, 'Ma'am, what is this?' She said, 'That's the Baptist church youth.' Ted finally came in at 12:30. ... 'Where have you been, boy? I found your car.' He said, 'I got with a Baptist youth and they were over there praying in a circle. I couldn't get away.' I said, 'Ted I don't know a better place I'd rather you be, but you can't drive that car for one week.' I hated to do it.
Through the years, the people of Atlanta followed Thompson — sometimes literally — as football carried him to a collegiate career at Southern Methodist and a professional career with the in-state Houston Oilers. When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV in 2011, the local McDonald's hung a celebratory banner. Some residents went as far as dropping the Dallas Cowboys as their favorite team, and nearly everyone points out the character differences between Thompson and Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner. Still, some of his longtime friends have trouble reconciling the Ted they know with the general manager they view from a distance.
Barron Christensen: Since the Packers have done well, Ted is not a guy that enjoys the limelight now. But that's a different Ted than I know. Back in high school and college he was very outgoing, very gregarious, pretty much the life of the party. I'm not surprised that he does a good job as GM of the Packers. That doesn't surprise me at all. I'm surprised he doesn't get into the PR part of that job a little better. ... I'm surprised that he's not a little more outspoken, a little easier in front of the camera than he seems to be. He just seems to really shy away from the camera, and that's really not the Ted I knew. I knew the Ted that was footloose and fancy-free, and enjoyed being around people.
Bobby Christensen: I just see him so serious when I see pictures of him. Obviously, that's typically during a game and he's just like emotionally all-in. I just remember a guy that had an easy smile, liked to joke around and just be one of the guys. It does paint a different picture when I see him on TV than what I remember him to be.
Jimmy Thompson: He's shy. He said a lot of times when he first started, he would tell somebody something and they would put it out of context, and he just kind of built up (a wall).
Sidney Harrist, football manager and current superintendent in Atlanta: He was at one of (his nephew) Jake's football games this year. A couple of people saw him and would go up to him. Then two or three wanted to know if I wanted him to announce it (over the loudspeaker). He really didn't want that. He's mellow, behind the scenes.
Ted Thompson: Some of these people that you've talked to I might not have seen in 30 years, but I remember conversations with them. Like anybody, you remember how you were when you were growing up, who you talk to and that sort of thing. And you cherish those memories.
On a sun-soaked Thursday afternoon in April, with Ted Thompson in the throes of preparation for the NFL draft, two dozen freshman football players sweat through a workout in the weight room at Atlanta High School. Among the varsity hopefuls is a solidly built 15-year-old with a buzz cut. He is Jake Thompson, Ted'snephew and a promising multi-sport athlete who made the varsity baseball team as a freshman pitcher.
The workout ends and players retreat to the football locker room, the epicenter of a town's passion. The cinderblock walls are filled with motivational posters, three of which quote former Packers coach Vince Lombardi. A sign above the cold tub — "48 Minutes to Play ... A Lifetime to Remember" — serves as the ethos of Atlanta, perhaps explaining why Ted Thompson returns to the football stadium and school grounds when he's in town and wants to exercise.
The following morning, at 11:15 a.m. sharp, Jimmy Thompson is waiting for a visitor in the foyer of Bryce's Cafeteria, a favorite spot for father and son whenever Ted returns home. He is wearing a Packers hat and scanning the morning paper; his 1999 Lincoln sedan sits outside.
Now 87, he still lives alone in the same single-story house tucked away behind Atlanta's main drag. When Ted returns to Atlanta, he stays with his father and sleeps in a room that used to belong to Frank, the oldest brother. After lunch, Jimmy Thompson unearths a number of scrapbooks the family made during Ted's football career. He hauls them to the kitchen table. For the better part of an hour, he flips through newspaper clippings that tell the story of his now-famous son.
Sidney Harrist: He was probably every parent's dream as a son. I know he was his dad's.
Jimmy Thompson: I wish Ted would quit and come back and live with me. But I don't know if he ever will. ... He came a little more often last year. He told (the Packers) he was going to try to spend a little more time with his family.
Ted Thompson: I don't know that my family is different than anybody else's family. If you could gather all the chicks up and put them in one place, that would be easier for me to see my nephew and things like that. I think that would probably be preferable. ...
It's not so much the place, it's the people. It's your family and your friends, all the people that you've talked to. You grow up with them, and so what if I haven't seen them in 35 or 40 years. They're still the same people, you know? I think small towns foster that sort of attitude.