TERRE HAUTE —
Terre Haute native Anthony Thompson is best known for the four years he spent at Indiana University, where he was one of the best college running backs to ever suit up.
Only three men have scored more touchdowns than Thompson — the Hoosiers’ career leader in rushing yards (5,299), carries, points and touchdowns (65) — in the history of college football.
The two-time Big Ten Most Valuable Player and two time first-team All-American lifted the Hoosiers to wins over Ohio State and Michigan during the same season in 1987 — a feat no other Indiana team has accomplished.
On Thursday at the Country Club of Terre Haute, Thompson was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. Former coaches — Terre Haute North’s Wayne Stahley and IU’s Bill Mallory — gushed about Thompson’s work ethic and superhuman performances on the field.
But the memories Thompson shared were about the people that helped mold him into one of the city’s most celebrated figures. The bruising running back is already a member of the IU Athletics Hall of Fame — and the only IU athlete to ever have his jersey retired — along with his 2007 induction to the College Football Hall of Fame.
Thompson is a pastor in Bloomington and father of three children, living the dream at 46 years of age.
In addition to football coaches and former teammates, Thompson thanked the teachers from his childhood all the way through IU.
“When I think about the educators in my life, when they had to be so patient with me, I mean truly patient with me,” Thompson said. “I found out early in my elementary years that I had a learning disability, and there was this beautiful young lady, she was a student assistant at that time. I was in second or third grade. Judy Hadley, one thing she said about me, ‘you know AT, you have a beautiful smile. I love the way you smile.’
“That did something for me,” Thompson continued. “When you struggle academically, she looked for everything I did well. She knew I was a pretty good artist, that I liked to draw. Her husband was an art teacher for Woodrow Wilson Middle School, so she would have me over at her house and she just really took me in. She knew nothing about football or that I even played football. She made an investment in me at second or third grade.”
In his first teaching job, Vigo County School Corp. Superintendent Dan Tanoos enjoyed becoming acquainted with Thompson as a sixth-grader.
Thompson’s athletic talents were evident right away and Tanoos observed his drive to succeed.
“He worked hard in the classroom and on the athletic field,” Tanoos said. “No one compared to him, even in sixth grade. I was an OK athlete and kids look up to you and I would take the kids outside on a weekly basis. They’d go out for passes and I’d throw the football. One day, they said, ‘Mr. Tanoos, can Anthony throw the passes? He can throw them better than you.’ ”
The College Football Hall of Famer developed a passion for the sport at a young age thanks to a relative. Hubert Thompson introduced Anthony and his younger brother Ernie to Walter Payton.
“It all came from our uncle Hubert,” Ernie Thompson recalled last week. “We used to play tackle football in a room. I remember my mom yelling at him, ‘Don’t hurt those boys.’ But we were having the time of our lives.
“He was a huge Walter Payton fan. We used to all watch the Chicago Bears. We found out about [Payton’s] work ethic.”
And Anthony’s running style resembled Payton in that he was relentless, Ernie said.
“I ran into a guy two years ago. He says, ‘Hey, your brother stepped on my chest.’ I had one of those excuse-me moments. The guy said, ‘Yeah, I went to try to tackle him and he stepped on my chest.’ That kind of reckless-abandon, take-no-prisoners attitude.”
John Collett was a senior fullback when Anthony Thompson debuted as a sophomore for Terre Haute North in the fall of 1983.
“I was always blocking for him. Half the time, I might end up on the ground. I remember being on the ground, my head was turned to the side and I was looking Anthony in the eye, but he was still running. He was six inches off the ground and had 10 more yards in him. I never saw that before or after that and I played four years of college football [at Rose-Hulman],” Collett said. “If I was that far off the ground, I got six more inches. I knew right away he was the real deal.”
Anthony Thompson credited Collett and that 1984 senior class for helping instill in him that strong work ethic.
“I was a little sophomore and didn’t know anything about high school football,” Thompson said Thursday. “[Collett] took me under his wing and taught me everything about hard work and perseverance.”
Collett said his class knew it had to outwork opponents to succeed.
“A lot of our senior class weren’t the most talented kids, but they were really hard workers. We were strong in the weightroom and on the field they were all mentally tough,” Collett said.
Thompson was like a sponge when it came to football, whether it was quickly learning the details of reading the blocks of Collett and his North teammates or trying to emulate one of the all-time greats.
“One thing he got from Walter Payton, Walter was the guy that when he was on the goal line, he’d go up and over. Anthony wasn’t noted for that,” Stahley said. “When it got down to goal line, there was nothing anybody could do about it.”
Coaching Thompson was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“In 32 years of coaching, I had a lot of talented players and a lot of other guys that worked really hard. But very few that were both, and he was one of those,” Stahley said.
“The interesting thing about AT in high school, very coachable. Took great instruction. He’d do whatever the coaches asked him to do,” Tanoos said. “Always a humble, kind, gentle soul. But when you got him on the football field, he was a different person.”
Mallory saw those characteristics in the Parade All-American as well. On the drive back to Bloomington with an assistant coach after Thompson committed to the Hoosiers, “it was tough to keep the car on the road. We were two excited people,” he said.
After missing the first few games due to injury, Thompson ran for 806 yards as a freshman.
“After that, he never missed a game,” Mallory said.
He then went for 1,014 and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. He exploded for 1,686 yards and 26 TDs as a junior then tacked on more than 1,700 yards and 24 TDs as a senior.
“Our program was struggling. We needed to get it going in a positive direction. We wanted to win. We wanted to succeed. I was sick and tired of hearing about ‘Can you win at all at Indiana?’ You’re darned right you can. We got this young man. It helped tremendously,” Mallory said.
Ernie Thompson, who followed his brother to a standout IU career and on to the National Football League, remembers running stadium stairs with a weight vest on with his older brother during high school, so it was no surprise that Anthony Thompson was known to get better the more times he touched the ball.
That stamina was on display in 1989 when Indiana defeated Wisconsin 45-17 as Thompson ran for a then-NCAA-record 377 yards on an incredible 52 carries.
“Our quarterback, Dave Schnell, hurt himself in warmups, so I told Anthony he was going to carry it more. I remember his response: ‘Whatever it takes to win, coach.’ That’s what you want right there,” Mallory said.
Thompson told the Associated Press after that game, “I think if I was a little faster, I could have got maybe 500 yards, the way they were blocking out there today.”
Mallory said Thompson’s mentality was what sticks with him after all these years.
“He had attitude. That to me is the hub of a person. That’s where it all starts. He was a hard, hard worker. … He was willing to do the extra,” Mallory said. “He was focused and wanted to take it to the next level each year. He was going to make himself as good as he could be.”
Thompson has always been the type of person to credit those around him, but he’s been an inspiration to those close to him. Not just for what he accomplished but the way he carried himself.
“He grew up a poor young man. I think he knew that athletics, football was his key out of poverty. He had a focus on where he wanted to get in life. You can tell when you’re better than others, but he was always so humble and kind,” Tanoos said.
“As good of a football player that he was, he’s the best big brother that I could ask for as far as speaking positive of affirmation into my life,” Ernie Thompson said.