In Washington, where he lived with his mother through the eighth grade, Thompson said he played "all day, every day." So did most of his friends, who hoped to be the next hoops stars in a city overflowing with them. This season, five D.C.-area schools have appeared in ESPN's top 25 prep basketball poll.
"You see the football fields those guys play on in the D.C. area, it's really bad," said Thompson, who became a standout guard for his middle school basketball team. "Nobody really cares. But the basketball gyms for the top programs are great. I was always playing."
Then he moved to Ohio.
Today, the Central Catholic senior is among the nation’s top football recruits — a result nudged in part by the changing culture around him.
While the South’s growing monopoly of elite high school football prospects threatens the long-term viability of the Big Ten, Ohio remains a striking holdout to the trend. A state where football is the religion that transcends denomination remains the last one in the conference’s traditional geographic footprint to produce Division I recruits at a per-capita rate above the national average.
The story of Thompson’s rise from a high school freshman who only picked up football as a way to pass the time before basketball season to a four-star prospect committed to play for Ohio State is one of ability and year-round sweat but also of the broader influences keeping this industrial state as the North’s foremost factory of elite gridiron prospects.
Above all, most agree, those influences are the state’s coaching and tradition. Football simply matters more here than most most places, a way of life passed through the generations and evidenced from the 81 Ohio natives that began the 2012 season on NFL rosters to the state’s outsized presence on national signing day.
This year, Ohio ranks fifth behind behind California, Texas, Florida, and Georgia with 123 senior football players already committed to Football Bowl Subdivision schools — including 84 to BCS programs — and fifth with 18 players among ESPN’s top 300 prospects.
More telling, Ohio players filled FBS rosters last season at a per-capita rate of 1.61 times the national average — higher than California (0.97) and about even with Texas (1.63) — according to an analysis by Theodore Goudge, a sport geographer at Northwest Missouri State. No other state north of Arkansas and east of Nebraska even met the national average.
For comparison, the depth of football talent in Ohio, the nation’s seventh most populous state with 11.5 million inhabitants in the 2010 census, vanquishes its competition from larger neighbors Illinois (population: 12.8 million) and Pennsylvania (12.7 million). Ohio’s 174 scholarship players who signed with FBS programs last year were more than Illinois and Pennsylvania produced combined (158), according to a review of commitments on MaxPreps. Michigan, with a population of 9.9 million, produced 74 such recruits.
"You see that Ohio’s the one state up north that's still holding it's own nationally," Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey said. "When you speak with recruiters, they're going to hit up Texas, Florida, Georgia, California, and Ohio's always in there."
A Buckeye tradition
To understand why, start with the history of Ohio. It is intertwined with the history of football.
Before it became the nation's pastime, it was Ohio's. Nowhere did this rugged sport matter more than the Buckeye State, where mill towns shut down on Friday nights, Ohio State opened a 66,000-seat monolith in 1922 — then the largest poured concrete structure in the world — and the National Football League planted its roots.
The Ohio League, a loose alliance of semi-pro teams from cities big (Cleveland) and small (Ironton), from Youngstown to Toledo, directly preceded the NFL. (The Toledo Maroons played in the modern NFL in 1922 and 1923 before the franchise moved to Kenosha, Wis., in 1924.)
The game only grew from there in this state, producing two enduring NFL teams in Cleveland and Cincinnati, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and a booming amateur scene. Ohio kids often begin organized football in elementary school, suit up for high school teams that are the pride of their towns or district, and dream of playing on Saturdays — perhaps for one of the state’s eight FBS programs.
In the north, the culture is an anachronism.
When recruiting guru Tom Lemming began scouting prospects in the late 1970s, he said the split between elite northern and southern football recruits was about equal. But over time, that trend has disproportionately favored Texas, where the Friday Night Lights culture was only ramped up when Allen High opened a double-decked $60 million stadium last season, and what Goudge calls the "Pigskin Cult of the South."
Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida all supplied FBS rosters at a rate at least 1.74 times the national average — and it is no wonder why to those who have experienced Friday nights there.
Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network, recently interviewed a quarterback prospect and his parents at the prospect’s hometown McDonald’s.
"And there were pictures of the kid on the wall," Lemming said. "You don't see that up in the north. In Chicago, there would be pictures of Michael Jordan or Sammy Sosa."
Not surprisingly, the Southeastern Conference is regarded as the runaway top football league in the country. Its teams have won the last seven national championships.
"A lot of the kids in the north, in the big cities, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington D.C., they play basketball. They don't play football," said Lemming, a Chicago native. "But in the south ... those towns, from the beginning with their youth football league, everything is football. If you're not quite good enough, then you go to baseball and basketball. Up here in the north, it's the reverse, especially the kids in the inner cities. They want to play basketball right away. You see them with a basketball in their hands when they're 5 years old.
"You don't see them much with footballs in their hands unless their dads are the coaches and put them in leagues. A lot of the kids in the big metro areas in the north can't afford football because it costs too much money for football equipment and to join these leagues. ... In the south, everything's paid for by the local businessmen. No matter how poor you are, somebody's going to give you the equipment, the pads, the helmet, the cleats, the travel expenses, they'll take care of you. It’s been engrained in their culture for the past 30 years."
A cradle of coaches
Yet tinges of that culture endure in Ohio.
Though the state diverts from the south in not having spring high school football, the sport indisputably remains king.
Take Ohio’s tradition of coaches as another measure.
A legacy that includes Hall of Famer Paul Brown and Woody Hayes, who respectively got their breaks as the coach of Massillon Washington High and New Philadelphia, continues to strengthen. It is almost easier to name the elite college coaches who do not hail from Ohio than those who do — the current roster of Ohioans includes OSU’s Urban Meyer, Michigan’s Brady Hoke, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, LSU’s Les Miles, Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, and Nebraska’s Bo Pelini.
Though admittedly biased, Meyer calls Ohio’s high school coaches the best in the country and said in-state players are noticeably more prepared to begin college football than recruits from elsewhere. He hired two former Ohio high school coaches to his first staff. Tight ends coach Tim Hinton led Marion Harding from 1993-2003, while cornerbacks coach Kerry Combs spent his first 24 seasons at the high school level, including 16 as the head coach at Cincinnati Colerain.
"The coaching is definitely a factor," Dempsey said of Ohio’s reputation as a recruiting hotbed. "You see it in the Three Rivers Athletic Conference. You have to be on your game every week as a coach preparation-wise and then in the game adjustment-wise because the guy across the sideline is just as good. Every week, you’re getting challenged as a coach. People are preparing more, they’re working at it very hard, and it shows up when you're watching film, I’ll tell you that."
While the state — and especially the Toledo area — produces top-level basketball talent, its output of top 100 hoops recruits between 1998 and 2012 ranked 14th nationally and 31st when adjusted per capita. Ohio had 41 such prospects over the span — including Toledo natives Keith Triplett and William Buford — according to statsheet.com. Among Big Ten states, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania all had more.
Thompson once planned to play basketball in college like his father, Deon, a former All-City League player at the former DeVilbiss High School. Then he began high school in Ohio.
After moving to Toledo to live with Deon, he enrolled at St. Francis de Sales, where he immediately faced a bind. His father’s job as a social worker meant Thompson didn’t have a ride home from school until 5 p.m., so he needed a way to pass the time before basketball season.
Though he had never played football, a coach noticed his athleticism and encouraged him to join the freshmen team. Thompson became a safety, he said, because the position had the shortest line at his first practice.
"As they say, the rest is history," Deon said.
Thompson soon committed to football year-round, attending camps with his father over the summer and training in the winter and spring. After transferring to Central Catholic for his junior season, he played only football and became a defensive anchor for the Fighting Irish’s Division II state championship team last fall.
If he lived in Washington, Thompson said, "I probably would still be playing basketball." In Ohio, he had another option.
"I made a great decision," Thompson said.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ DBriggsBlade.