In his fifth year with the Redskins, running back Chris Thompson is finally breaking out as one of the team’s most dynamic playmakers. On a recent October afternoon, the 5-foot-8 speedster reflected on how his positive mindset paved the way for his long journey through adversity to attain national acclaim.
By Jake Kring-Schreifels
Chris Thompson is making headlines, though not the ones he’d prefer.
Two days before the Redskins visit Lincoln Financial Field on Monday night for an important division battle with the Eagles, and a day after turning 27 years old, Thompson has inherited impassioned resentment from the social media contingent of soured Philadelphia fans based on a few words he said during an ESPN 980 radio appearance earlier in the week.
To summarize: When asked about the impending game by host Bram Weinstein, Thompson expressed that, “Philly fans are some of the meanest fans I’ve ever experienced,” citing one incident a couple years ago, and that, based on advice he received as a rookie, he wouldn’t be letting his family members -- in town to celebrate his birthday -- drive up to the game. The well-reasoned and calm manner in which Thompson -- a well-reasoned and calm person -- relayed these thoughts was understandably, though disappointingly, warped on the sports blog circuit. Suddenly, Thompson had become persona non grata for a fan base less than a couple hundred miles north.
His mother and stepfather, Cynthia and Maurice James, sitting inside of their son’s Dulles Town Center apartment, know nothing about this mild controversy until I break the news to them. Thompson doesn’t seem too bothered that I have brought this to light, but it also doesn’t seem like it’s his priority to share that he’s been affected by internet trolls and attacks. “They called me everything in the book,” he says later, before reflecting on the journalistic structures that editors have built around splashy headlines and the damaging misunderstandings that 280 characters often bring.
“I get how it is,” Thompson says. “Writers have to give people headlines or something to click on that story. Everybody gotta make their money. So it’s like, I get it. But my thing is, I’m never in drama…If I wasn’t who I am now, that wouldn’t have been an issue, it wouldn’t have been a problem. It would have been just a regular interview. For me it was a learning experience. I got to be more conscious of what I say.”
This is the new normal for Thompson, who has finally earned the NFL spotlight in his fifth year as a running back with the Redskins. Thanks to a variety of factors – his natural ability, a fourth year with his head coach, an offense catered to his strengths, no lingering injury issues, a multi-year contract he signed in early September – Thompson has broken out as the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon. This is no small feat, especially considering his role in the backfield is usually limited to about one-third of the offensive snaps, which mostly require him to block blitzing linebackers.
That he has upended expectations, become a fantasy football darling and received national recognition isn’t exactly a surprise to those who know him best. But for Thompson, it remains a challenge adjusting to how his sudden success halfway through the 2017 season has already turned his previous, regular life a different direction. Like why, on a Saturday afternoon in late October, he’s still digesting the influx of messages from Eagles fans, which for the last four years hardly knew his name, his number or his position. He wasn’t somebody worth messaging at all.
Thompson says he received one note from a Philadelphia fan apologizing for the way Thompson felt about the fan base, that he would look out for Thompsons’s family the best he could if they entered the stadium and that he’d even make them a home-cooked meal. Thompson appreciated the message, but refused to engage with a full explanation for his thoughts.
“I even told the guy, I understand,” Thompson says. “You have to be passionate as fans, you have to try to trash talk, try to get players out of their game, try to get guys to start arguing with you because then you notice they’re not focused on the game. I talked to a couple of guys through messages. They understand, it’s not my place to explain to everybody what I said.”
Had Thompson been afforded fame at the beginning of his career he may have taken to social media with retaliation, but his kindness, his humility, his compassion persists. “Maturity-wise I think I’m on a different level than I was a couple of years ago,” he says. “At this point I’m just going to keep quiet. People are still going to say what they want to say to me.”
Cynthia chimes in. “I used to tell Chris, one week the fans will love you, the next week they’ll hate you, and you can’t take it personal. Take it with a grain of salt, because you can’t take it with you out on the field.”
Two days later the Redskins will lose to the Eagles. Thompson will lead the team with 38 rushing yards and catch five passes for 26 yards and a touchdown.
After walking into the end zone untouched, Thompson will celebrate with his teammates, walk up to edge of the field and place the scoring football into the arms of a young Eagles fan.
Just moments after Thompson lets me into his two bedroom apartment, his mother, Cynthia, as if on cue, tells her husband, Maurice, to give Chris his present, which they have been waiting to share with him since arriving the previous night. They’re hanging around an island countertop in Thompson’s shared living room and kitchen space. The walls are bare (Thompson hasn’t committed anything to them yet. He’s thinking about buying a house later, so keeping the walls empty, he says, motivates his search this offseason) and a couple of electric drum kits line his back wall. Maurice hands Chris a USB thumb drive, and Thompson’s girlfriend, who prefers the name Cash, trouble-shooting a printer problem for her online cosmetics business, suggests it’s a collage of birthday wishes from people he knows.
She is right. Thompson turns on his big screen television and syncs up the video, 10 minutes of his biological brother and six other siblings by affinity, middle school and high school friends, extended family members, his Florida State coaches, pastors, mentors and former teammates sharing variations of congratulations, stories, blessings and hellos. Cynthia quietly explains to me who most of these people are – “That’s his sister. That’s his oldest friend. That’s our minister.” -- as Thompson stands by the T.V. absorbing it. The video messages, most of them shot on iPhones with choppy, vertical angles, represent the diverse tapestry of people that Thompson has impacted in his young life, and also the people that ground him, that have seen his journey through adversity and feel honored to bask in his recent achievements. None of them feel this more than his parents, who express “amazement” each time they see their boy on another SportsCenter highlight.
This season, he’s made a lot of them. Thompson is currently in the midst of a record-breaking year, not only in his own career, but in the NFL as a whole. He is at the forefront of a growing niche of small (he stands at 5-foot-8, 191 pounds) running backs – often referred to as scat backs – that have maximized their opportunities in nearly every facet of the game because of their immense speed and catching ability.
Through nine games, Thompson leads the team in rushing with 277 yards, receptions with 38, receiving with 494 yards and is tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns with three. He also leads the league in yards after catch with 462. The second and third highest totals in that department – running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Golden Tate – have 20 more receptions and close to 100 less yards. Thompson is first or second among running backs in just about every other pass-catching statistic available, too.
If it seems as though Thompson, oddly the elder statesman of a very young running backs unit, is seeing defensive players in slow motion this year -- envision Quicksilver from X-Men navigating the dimensions of his super-speed -- he will confirm your suspicion. At this point in his football life, Thompson has graduated from seeing plays as they are unfolding to seeing plays before they occur. Instead of remembering just the colors of jerseys, he says, “I go to the sideline, now I can tell coach, ‘I saw No. 52 was here, so I made a cut and went back this way’…The better players in this league, they see things before they happen.” Then he offers an example.
He highlights the screen pass (arguably the play he’s nearly perfected) that he turned into 74 yards in the third quarter of the Redskins’ 27-10 victory over the Raiders in Week 3. Thompson caught the pass in the backfield, hesitated a second, cut to his right and squeezed through the creases developing from his offensive linemen.
“It was like I saw and I knew where everybody was going,” Thompson says. “I knew you were going to have to take your time. Catch it, go underneath Trent [Williams], let Shawn [Lauvao] get in front of you, let Spencer [Long] come on and make a play, and it was like every guy – [Raiders safety] Karl Joseph gets cut, I saw Spencer come try to lead the way to help me down the field…” Then Thompson jukes his thoughts to an Eagles game during his second year in the league. “I had that same play and I got two yards, I think. It was designed the same way, and I caught it and I just ran straight. This game I caught it and I took it at an angle because I knew what was going on, so it was more of understanding the scheme and the plays and what everybody is doing. And because the game has slowed down, I’ve slowed my play down, so I’m not rushing a lot of plays.”
“I call it being in his niche,” Maurice offers from across the room. Cash, sitting at the kitchen counter, has her own analogy.
“To be a good driver is you’re anticipating the other drivers. So now he’s not just driving like this” -- she makes a stern face through her pretend windshield -- “now you’re seeing three cars up, somebody has their brakes on, so I need to slow down. So that’s what he’s doing now. It’s just anticipating everything around you. That’s just his confidence.”
Could Thompson have anticipated this success? Certainly he dreamed about this moment, this season, breaking records, living comfortably, earning fame. He also knew his size might limit him, that he’d have to work twice as hard, make twice the impressions and endure twice the pain to get there.
You have a greater perspective of being small when you have four older brothers and two older sisters. Thompson was born in Escondido, Calif., Cynthia’s second child from her second marriage. She divorced when Thompson was just a baby and moved to Houston briefly before settling in Greenville, Fla., an hour outside of Tallahassee. There she met Maurice, and just six weeks later they married. Thompson was just three years old when they hitched, so his earliest memories belong to his stepfather, who introduced football to him in the backyard, molding him into the player he dreamed of becoming.
Thompson’s speed was always apparent. Maurice wanted to train him as a wide receiver, and in sandlot games, where coaches and parents would play quarterback, he and his son would pick on neighboring teams. “Every time I needed a touchdown, I’d get in the huddle, I’d say, ‘Chris, run!’ I knew he could catch it,” Maurice says with a laugh. But then the trait that began to follow him emerged. Pee-Wee coaches thought he was better suited for the backfield based on his size, and were quickly proven right. Thompson tells me about his sixth grade team that went undefeated. He was never tackled until the championship game, a fact that deserves exclamation, certainly more than the casual manner in which he describes it. Later that year, in a local Pop Warner All-Star game, Thompson ran for six touchdowns, the star-in-the-making results that were forged by Maurice’s training, pushing Thompson to run hills and routes along the train tracks in the summer.
He didn’t switch his pace once he got home. “You see him doing chores, he’d run, all in the house, just run,” Cynthia says. She saw her son’s drive -- his kind, mellow, obedient nature that remains present today, like his other four brothers, really, she says -- and enforced strict rules in the house.
“My requirement was schoolwork, and if they didn’t do their schoolwork what happened?” she asks Chris, who is in the middle of helping Cash with her printer.
“Off the team,” his head perks up. Then his tone changes to incredulous. “For a C!”
“Because he was smart,” Cynthia interjects, defending her rules. “He wanted to do football, so he had to figure out how to make sure his grades stay up. He figured it out.”
Cynthia, who speaks slowly and deliberately like Thompson, has run a childcare facility five minutes from home for the past 20 years, watching over newborns and toddlers from her tightly-knit community. Thompson helped his mother as a kid and still keeps in touch with those that came through the center when he visits in the offseason. Maurice, who has lived in Florida his entire life, began work at a meat-packing plant and now does armed security for concerts, colleges and local events.
Together they raised Thompson and his siblings as a faith-oriented family. For the last 15 years, they’ve attended Pentecostal Church of God, where Thompson used to play the drums and would help run the soundboard with Maurice, who still operates it today. “The one pastor we have has really been a huge asset in our family,” Cynthia says. “Even for him helping [Thompson] decide which college to go to, and we seek advice from him in our personal life -- huge blessing in our family.”
Throughout the afternoon, Cynthia invokes God a lot. She talks about God putting Thompson on a platform, about how God has blessed him to pursue his dreams, about how God has guided him through his injuries. It’s impacted Thompson in the way he sees the world – half full. Maybe it’s a required gene for a football player to have an optimistic point of view. Each play could be his last.
For Thompson, this positive perspective was formed through trauma; the kind that could have steered him down a new path in life and changed the entire outlook of his future. It gave him a lesson in gratitude.
Thompson still doesn’t know exactly how he survived. The car accident that nearly took his life has never really been solved or fully explained to him. His own memories of the night are extremely detailed until they’re extremely hazy. Thompson shakes his head and offers nothing but amazement as to how he avoided tragedy.
Understandably, he doesn’t like to talk about it much. He tweeted about the experience last year, but nobody had ever documented his account. The only tangible effects from Jan. 4, 2008, the middle of his junior year at Madison County High School, remain some scars, the permanent reminders of his brush with death. That night, Thompson was returning home from a U.S. Army High School combine in Dallas with his teammate Jacobbi McDaniel and three coaches. After stopping at a rest area, McDaniel stole the back seat from Thompson, so he claimed the middle row. Thompson started to watch Apocalypto on a portable DVD player and soon after heard a voice telling him to turn the movie off. He kept watching -- he was enjoying the movie. He heard it again and dismissed it again. Then he heard it a third time and decided to try to sleep. Maybe that would please this voice.
When Thompson woke up he was walking down the interstate. It was night. He saw ambulance lights flashing and stumbled towards them. He realized he didn’t have shoes on as he approached the scene. Down in a ditch he saw the van and his door wrapped around a tree. He saw two of his coaches, who survived with just minor injuries, looking feverishly for him in the woods. They rushed to hug him once he managed his way down. The third coach, who was sitting beside him, suffered lower extremity injuries and was rushed to surgery. McDaniel’s head had burst through the back windshield but his dreadlocks had saved him from any severe brain injury.
Thompson only knows -- based on his coach’s recollection -- that a tire came off a car in front of their van, which ended up spinning off the road and flipped into the ditch. “I’ve had dreams and visions every now and then about what happened,” Thompson says, trying to understand how he escaped the scene of the wreck. “It’s almost like I remember the car jerking or something and then somebody pulling me out, but I mean, no coaches did it, so I don’t know how it happened.”
The trauma never leaves Thompson, who escaped with some scrapes and a little back pain, but nothing too severe. He still doesn’t like taking long car trips with another driver and he occasionally thinks about the hypotheticals – what if he hadn’t heard the voice and gone to sleep? What if his seatbelt hadn’t buckled? What if he were in the other bucket seat? What if his legs had snapped? The picture of the accident in the newspaper a year later damaged Cynthia. She saw the blood on the windshield from Jacobbi’s head and “it just messed me up,” she says.
For Cynthia and Maurice, this was, in some ways, an introduction to the emotional roller-coaster of watching Thompson compete at the college level, where hard-hitting tackles are themselves referenced as car crashes for their damaging effects, physically and mentally -- two bodies of armor colliding at full force, leaving everything up to fate.
First came his back injury in a 2011 loss to Wake Forest. Thompson broke his T-5 and T-6 vertebrae but knew after impact he wasn’t paralyzed based on his ability to move his fingers and legs. It took him nearly a year to recover, in time for his senior season. It began at a prolific rate, and through seven games Thompson was on pace to become the first 1,000-yard rusher for the Seminoles since 1996. It ended the next game against Miami. Thompson tore his left ACL and was lost for the season, the second major injury in a year’s time. And that doesn’t even count the fractured elbow Thompson had suffered two games before playing the Hurricanes, when he told trainers to wrap it up so he could return to the field. He needed to be there for his teammates.
“I guess that’s how I am,” Thompson says. “I think about everybody else before I think about myself. If I stop, how’s it going to affect everybody else?”
These aren’t minor scrapes or sprains. The car accident, the potentially career-altering and ending blows, they’re supposed to make you reconsider the future, especially when you’re Thompson’s size. When I ask Thompson how he thinks about his body, he pauses and looks at Cash.
“Cash tells me all the time I’m a machine,” Thompson says. “When it comes to pain I don’t really feel it any more. It’s just like something happened and it’s like, alright.”
That’s why the torn labrum in his left shoulder near the end of his rookie season didn’t deter him from losing faith in his game. He began the next year on the practice squad but was called up to the active roster that December and scored his first professional touchdown in a late-season game against the Giants. He gained the trust of head coach Jay Gruden, one of his greatest champions through his young career, and emerged as a reliable third-down running back.
“He is a great human, person,” Gruden said back in May. “He is a joy to be around, he works extremely hard, he cares about the details. To be in the position he is in, a third-down back, it’s a very important position… It’s a very, very hard position to play and if you can master that position – which I think he is really close to getting to that point – it’s a very valuable guy to have.”
In 2015 he sustained another torn labrum that he battled through for two months into the Redskins’ January playoff game before receiving surgery. “After a broken back, you can deal with a lot of stuff after that. For me, it’s just like, because [Cash] said it so many times, I feel like a machine. I feel like over time I’ve taken better care of myself, too.”
“In his head, he doesn’t want to let people down,” Cash says. “He wants to prove to himself and everyone else, so I think that’s what drives him. When he gets hurt, it’s like, he thinks about everybody else other than himself. Machines don’t think about themselves, that’s emotional. I think with him, you’re a machine, you’re going out here, you’re going to get what you have to get done and then afterwards, then I’m going to heal myself.”
Thompson knows people have noticed. It’s the reason teammates fight for him. He refers to the final video birthday message he received from former Redskins fullback Darrel Young. In arguably the most thorough and meaningful 30 seconds of this compilation, Young provides an anecdote, a memory of Thompson struggling through practice, dislocating his shoulder, and the respect he earned for sacrificing himself during the playoff push.
“When he said that, that’s the type of thing, like, it lets me know that teammates are watching what’s going on,” Thompson says. “I know for the coaches, for the organization, they knew I tore my labrum a couple years ago, but I was still going throughout the whole season with it.”
Thompson remembers dealing with his shoulder against the Giants in 2015 while also battling a huge knot in his back. He paced the sideline for the entire game because he couldn’t physically sit down. The next day he could barely walk. Someone from the facility drove to his apartment just to bring him in for treatment. Running backs coach Randy Jordan looked at him laying down in the training room once he arrived and asked the only logical question. “How in the world did you play with that?”
Nearly all professional football players endure pain and injuries, they play when they probably shouldn’t and return too quickly. But nearly all professional football players aren’t Thompson’s size. It sometimes defies comprehension that someone so small (relatively speaking, of course) could absorb so much adversity and find a way through it. Not until you realize that Thompson has always found a way through it.
“I say it all the time, I think it might be like a small man syndrome,” he says. “I’m the smallest guy at every level I’ve played on. All the players are bigger than me, so they always try to take advantage of me. No. I just look like this. I’m way tougher than you. I’m just in a smaller body. When I’m on the field, I try to play that way as well. If you talk some noise, or you think you hit me hard, I’m not going to say anything, but I’m going to look at you so you know I didn’t feel that, instead of just turning my back.”
Cash remains inspired by her boyfriend’s resiliency, his ability to see the bigger picture in life and have an effect on others.
“I’ve never met a person that you always see it half full instead of half empty,” she tells Thompson, picking at the Chinese food he ordered us for lunch. “If it were not for him, I would not be this melancholy person. I feel like that’s his energy he puts off on people. He’s that humble person. He’s like the ultimate, nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. He would do anything for a person. He doesn’t think negative. His first thoughts are not negative. His first thoughts are something positive, or how can I help the situation? That’s him.”
The two met during a Reebok promotional function in January of 2014. Cash tells the story while Thompson listens by the sink, making sure it’s accurate. She worked for the shoe company and was introduced to him briefly there. “He didn’t talk, he didn’t say anything. I didn’t really know he was a football player,” she says. They’d later chat occasionally on social media, but nothing too serious and for two years they didn’t speak. Then one day, early in the morning, as in too late to call, Cash randomly Facetimed Thompson, who answered thinking there might be an emergency. There wasn’t, but Thompson reached her the next day to explain that her call had strangely fulfilled a dream he had the previous night.
“The next day, he calls me and is like, ‘I don’t want to weird you out, but I have this thing where if I have a dream, on the second day I ask God to reveal what happened. I had a dream about you two days ago, and then you called on the second day,’” Cash says. They’ve been together for a year and seven months now. “From there, we just became. We flourished. It was God,” says Cash, borrowing Cynthia’s language.
The positivity and optimism that Thompson spreads each day, the kind that has influenced Cash’s worldview and many others’, was returned by the Universe (in the form of the Washington Redskins) in September, when he signed a long-term contract extension with the team.
Thompson immediately called both of his parents, who “just went crazy.”
“It wasn’t about the money, it was about his dream being fulfilled for me and my husband, because we were there through the struggles, when he had the first surgery, and nobody knew…” Cynthia collects her thoughts. “People don’t understand what it takes to have to encourage a child when they fall down here, and to try to build them back up and keep yourself up, too. It took a lot. But I knew God has a greater purpose for him. I’m at the point now where I’m just in awe of what God has done for him, and I’m just grateful because he’s getting the things that he desired, and to see them all come to pass, it’s like ‘Wow.’”
It’s getting dark and Thompson is getting riled up.
In the middle of recounting all the academic awards he won in elementary school and the trophies that still sit in his parents’ house, he’s stumbled upon a memory, really a word, which still bothers him to no end.
Thompson and another classmate were the last two students remaining in the fifth grade spelling bee, when he received what seemed like a simple word to spell. He had seen Spider-Man on television, so he was familiar with it. But “goblin” had never showed up in any practice books. So he went with his gut. “G-O-B-B-L-I-N.” Only one “B” would have changed the sound to “Gobe-lin,” he thought, right? His rationale was wrong. His competitor spelled it correctly, making Thompson runner-up. He cried he was so mad. The entire crowd, used to seeing him win, couldn’t believe it.
“The crowd was like, ‘He did spell it right! He did spell it right!’” Maurice remembers.
This is how Thompson thinks. More than 15 years have passed since misspelling one word and the shortcoming still agitates him. It was not enough that he took home first place prizes in nearly every subject. “Goblin” will forever itch, remind him that there’s always room to get better.
“I can tell you something in every single game right now that I did wrong, where I could’ve had 20, 30, 50 more yards,” Thompson says. Against the Chiefs in Week 4, Thompson was limited to just 23 yards rushing and one reception for four yards. “I know I left out at least 50 yards on the field, at least. So, I’m like, ‘I’m the reason we lost, because I didn’t make those plays.’”
This isn’t an arrogance thing. It’s a Chris Thompson thing. His competitive urge extends to video games – he won’t end a game until he beats it the way he wants to – and to comparing credit scores with Cash. His other passion in life, maybe his next vocation, is to work with and protect big cats – lions, tigers, leopards – for a rescue foundation. He knows he’d have to go back to school and study anatomy, but he’d love the challenge. “I’m always competing with myself. Maybe that’s weird, but that’s just how I am. I don’t think it will ever change,” he says.
In other words, Thompson hasn’t really stopped to think much about his recent recognition. That is, until someone makes a purposeful attempt to remind him. Like a couple months ago, when he and Cash went out to dinner at a restaurant they’ve visited occasionally. The manager saw them at the hostess table and immediately escorted them to a private booth, treatment they would never have received a year before. “The manager comes up and he just goes, 'I’m going to get you guys a private table, here’s my card, anytime you come, just let me know,'” Cash says. “We were like, 'He knows who you are?' We didn’t say a word. We said 'Table for two, please,' and that was it. We get to the private area and we were sitting there and I looked at him and said, ‘You made it.’”
“It’s like, everybody knows me and it was just instant,” Thompson says. “It was like three games and I’m going to the store, and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re Chris Thompson, and can I have a picture, can I have an autograph?’ It’s just amazing.”
Thompson has been waiting for this moment, but he also knows the waiting has made this moment more special. So many young players receive instant success and money, endorsement deals and marketing opportunities (things he now feels he should take more advantage of), things that he might have had as well. Had the ACL injury not happened maybe he’s in the Heisman discussion, maybe his fifth-round stock turns to first-round stock. But Thompson doesn’t get caught up in the hypotheticals now.
“I think it was just all, like, part of my journey and made me be more grateful for getting to this point now,” he says.
It’s a mature and humble response from a player that still surprises fans with autographed jerseys and jumps into unsuspecting Instagram chats, approaching life and success the same way he did as a beat-up practice squad player fighting for a roster spot. With a little less than half the season left, he has a chance to make history as a running back this year. Cynthia smiles as he thinks about this.
“I told him in high school, the talent he has, God blessed him with it, and He wants him to use it the right way. Do you remember that?” she asks.
Thompson nods and smiles. He’s never forgotten.