Long road to Gainesville complete for Cheltenham’s Thompson

CHELTENHAM >> For a very long time, Mark Thompson had envisioned himself in blue and orange, running through SEC defenses.

Wednesday morning, Thompson made it official when he completed his signing to play football at the University of Florida back at Cheltenham High School. A 2013 graduate of Cheltenham, Thompson took a long path to Gainesville that included stops in New York and Kansas that saw him become one of the top juco players in the nation.

Now, he has a chance to make the same mark on the biggest stage.

“It feels right, it feels good,” Thompson said. “I put in a lot of work. Those two a half years were long but I stayed steady through, kept my head up, never got discouraged and now all that hard work is paying off.”

Thompson was by no means a bad kid, but he had a few moments of impulsiveness during his high school career that netted a couple of game ejections. His time away from home not only propelled Thompson to the top of the juco recruiting rankings but helped him mature. Thompson wanted to do his official signing back where things started.

It was a way to say thanks to two of his earliest mentors, Panthers football coach Joe Gro and track coach Dr. John Beale. They imparted plenty of wisdom, even if it took Thompson to take a few years to realize it.

“I wanted to make sure I left on a good note,” Thompson said. “I wanted to be remembered as Mark Thompson, the guy who got a full ride to Florida on a scholarship who made the right decisions on the field and academically and got to where I wanted to be.”

Even at quick glance, Thompson looks the part. His arms stretched the sleeves of the Gators polo he wore and at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he’s got the size to handle the rigors of college football. But he’s not just a big back, Thompson is quick and that blend of speed and power helped him standout at Dodge City Community College in Kansas.

Thompson actually began his juco career at Nassau Community College in New York, but it wasn’t a good fit. Once he set out to the plains and settled in, his play did a lot of talking. And Division I teams took notice.

One of the teams to take some initial interest was Colorado State and its head coach at the time, Jim McElwain. While McElwain moved to Florida to take over the Gators program, he and his assistants, specifically Tim Skipper, kept tabs on the back.

“They were talking to me during that season and it’s crazy that they ended up a Florida, which is where I wanted to be,” Thompson said. “Tim Skipper told me I was his guy back then, and that’s when he was a linebackers coach. Now he’s the running backs coach and I’m still his guy and that’s real big. A lot of other schools were in the hunt for to come out this past year instead of going back to Kansas because that was an option for me as well.”

Thompson committed to the Gators in May, but an SEC rule required that he wouldn’t be able to make the transfer until after the fall semester. However, the back said that was actually a plus. If juco players leave after the spring semester, then can lose scholarships, so it benefits Thompson to start at Florida in January.

Plus, that gives him the entire spring to get acclimated to his new coaches and teammates. Thompson figures to slot into a backfield stable where his mix of size and speed should be an asset. The back described his style as “explosive,” which prompted a sudden onset of coughs from father Jeff that sounded conspicuously like “Eric Dickerson,” though it could have been the acoustics in the room.
Thompson believes his path to Florida helped set him up for success.

“It helped me be more independent for sure,” Thompson said. “There were a lot of things I probably couldn’t face by myself right when I graduated high school. It was a learning experience for sure, a growing experience too. I’m happy I took that route.”

In high school, Thompson admitted he didn’t see himself as an SEC football player and that the juco route was basically a last-minute decision. The tailback recalled a moment at the end of his first season with Dodge City where he checked his email and saw a scholarship offer from ArizonaRemove featured image State and said that was the point where things took off for him.

Thompson, who was named a juco All-American this week, is ranked as the top juco running back for the 2016 class and carries a four-star rating from scouting service Rivals. When he saw his rating, Thompson said it was a feeling of accomplishment that all of his hard work in the summers, the nights and weekends spent in the weight room or on the field and not out partying had paid off.

The runner said he quickly realized that he would get far by acting like he had been there before and not making a scene on the field, the thing that had gotten him in trouble in high school. Thompson felt like he was able to recognize times and situations where it was best to take a step back.

“There was nobody holding my hand, I had to step up to the plate I wanted to get somewhere,” Thompson said.

Since leaving Cheltenham and realizing what it takes to be successful, Thompson has reached out to a few current Panther athletes. His main message has been to listen to the coaches and practice what their messages are.

Thompson couldn’t pinpoint one thing he’s most excited for at Florida. He’s anticipating a quick transition when he gets there and wants to help the team return to the SEC title game again next season. Thompson will have two years of eligibility at Florida, so his goal is to start making an impact from Day 1.
He plans to major in Family, Youth and Community and possibly minor in management.

“I think I’ll be comfortable Day 1,” Thompson said. “I’ve been down there twice already so I think by this third time, everybody’s going to be on the same page.
“There have been a lot of nights were I couldn’t sleep thinking about everything I’ve been through and how I’ve made it. There have been a lot of those moments.”

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