Brownstown grad excels in first season with Franklin College football team


For The Tribune

Derek Thompson experienced a strange emotion as he watched a couple of Brownstown Central High School football games last fall.

“It made me jealous,” he said.

That’s because the Braves were playing and he wasn’t. Thompson was sitting in the stands, and his new football team, Franklin College, was sidelined because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Franklin College freshman Derek Thompson finds open running room during a home game against Anderson University on March 6.  Courtesy of Franklin College
Franklin College freshman Derek Thompson finds open running room during a home game against Anderson University on March 6. Courtesy of Franklin College

It was supposed to be the former Brownstown all-star quarterback’s freshman season, but small-college football was shelved, postponed from the normal time of falling leaves to now, the spring, when vegetation is blooming.

And so is Thompson, who is swiftly making a mark at the next level as a running back for the NCAA Division III Grizzlies.

Spring football is commonplace in college. Playing games that count in March and April is not. The Grizzlies transplanted the fall of 2020 to the spring of 2021, and Franklin is 3-3 with a game remaining on a condensed schedule.

“It’s definitely a completely different feeling,” Thompson said. “We waited it out.”

Grateful to play and not miss an entire campaign of his college career, Thompson said it isn’t clear just would have happened if the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference pursued the original schedule during the coronavirus’ height.

“We had a little scare in the fall,” Thompson said. “We had a few positive tests.”

Everything has been positive playing now, however. Thompson was such a standout for Brownstown that he is already a member of the program’s Hall of Fame. He was a two-time team most valuable player, rushed for 2,617 yards, averaging nearly 10 yards per carry, and scored 47 touchdowns.

Still, longtime Braves coach Reed May warned him to be prepared not to play right away.

“I told him as a freshman, I wouldn’t expect to be playing much,” May said. “Be patient. Playing as much as he is, that’s outstanding.”

Then May made a self-deprecating joke on the order of “See what I know?”

That’s because the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Thompson has been a starting running back from Game 1. That surprised even him, especially since initially, Thompson thought he would play defense in college.

Franklin coach Alan Hensell told players he would give everyone opportunity, and it was up to individuals to distinguish themselves.

“He said everyone was going to get reps, will get the chance,” Thompson said.

When he learned he was going to be first on the depth chart, he said he “was pretty hyped, pretty excited.”

After six games with the seventh and last game coming up today versus Defiance, Thompson has 607 yards rushing for a solid 5.3 yards per carry average and six touchdowns. He also has returned 19 kickoffs for a 19.6 per try average.

In a 50-3 victory over Manchester on March 13, Thompson erupted for 234 yards on the ground, a performance that made him the league’s player of the week. It was just his second game, and for some reason, he had more jitters than he did for the opener.

“I was more nervous about that game,” Thompson said. “Then I had a 75-yard run. And a 40-yard run. It was, ‘Hey, they can’t stop us.’ I didn’t know I had that many yards. It was, ‘Wow!’ That boosted my confidence.”

It was an eye-opener for the coaching staff, too.

“Derek has been tremendous,” Hensell said. “He was a quarterback who ran a lot who is now a running back. It was evident he was going to be a running back from the start.”

The 234-yard game was a milestone breakthrough for a young player.

“It was a special day for him,” Hensell said. “You get him in the open and he can run. He’s also done a great job running back kicks.”

Franklin did plan to play football in the fall. At first. But the pandemic changed the world, not merely sports.

“It’s wild times,” Hensell said.

Much like all sports teams that managed to adapt, the Grizzlies are happy to play but will be happier when daily life reverts to the old ways. It is expected Franklin will have a 10-game fall schedule later in 2021.

“I think we’re going to be normal,” Hensell said.

Thompson believes he benefited from the fall workout time and an extra spring week of practice that shifted the Defiance contest from the start of the season to the end. He was grappling with the transition from high school QB to runner, a shift he hasn’t minded.

“I think I like this a little bit better,” Thompson said. “It’s a lot less pressure.”

Thompson said playing for May helped prepare him for the faster style of play.

“Intensity-wise, coach May was on you at all times,” he said. “Here, you need to know what you’re doing.”

There seems to be more individual responsibility at the college level, Thompson said. If you mix things up, there is someone waiting to step in and replace you in the job.

May said the main advice he gave Thompson was to “just have fun. It’s more a business than high school. And do well in your academics.”

Thompson apparently listened well, saying, “I’m having a great time up here.”

Which is easy to do when a player is playing great.

Last June, when Thompson was chosen for the Brownstown football hall class, he said all he hoped to do was get on the field for Franklin’s Grizzlies.

Now, they can’t get him off of the field.

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