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August 25, 2012

Thompson fights for his dream of being a Gator



It took Katilia Hall three days to soak it all in.

On a Monday, she sat in Florida head coach Will Muschamp's office with her youngest son, Chris Thompson. She listened to Muschamp tell her son why he wanted him on his team.

She watched Muschamp and three assistant coaches extend a scholarship offer to her baby, and watched him commit without a second thought.

She sat in shock, emotionless.

"With all five of my boys, I look at trying to raise a Gator," Hall said. "To finally get this offer was a dream come true."

It all came to her three days later: the journey her son had been on since starting football at 7 years old, the thought Thompson will be on Florida's roster in less than a year.

Hall started to cry.

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Gainesville is a boring place to grow up. Hall knows this. It's why she has never left.

"Boring" isn't a bad thing for a single mother with five boys. Trouble isn't as easily attained for a child in a college town as it is in a big city. Hall put all her children in football at a young age, hoping sports would give them something to do.

Thompson was born at Shands Hospital, a four-minute drive from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It didn't take long for him to add to the chaos of an already "busy" house. By 7, Thompson was running track for the Gainesville Striders and playing football for the Baby Gators. Hall was happy to have anything that would burn some of his energy. He initially found the most success in track, but his biggest competition came at home.

"Sometimes we would play football in the house in the dark, just to have something to do," said Micguel Johnson, Hall's second-youngest child.

They played "throw-up, tackle" when the numbers didn't work out. The rules were simple: Throw the ball up, whoever catches it gets leveled. "Sometimes you don't want to be the person to get the ball."

The competition carried over to college football. Hall has been a Florida fan for as long as she can remember and tried to raise her sons the same way. It didn't always work out. Her household included one Florida State fan and one Miami fan, but Thompson and Johnson always stayed true to the hometown school. Johnson remembers listening to the 1996 Fiesta Bowl loss to Nebraska on the radio and crying in his room. Hall kept a board in her house where her sons could write things about their favorite teams during football season.

Thompson didn't attend his first Florida game until he was being recruited by the Gators but remembers wanting to be like the players he watched on television. Hall imagined her son playing for Florida.

Micguel always made a point of having Chris on his team in pick-up football games. He had to make sure the baby of the family could score touchdowns. He brought him everywhere, even though he admits he wasn't too happy when Chris first came around. Micguel liked being the youngest.

"Everything he did I wanted to do or do better," Thompson said. "I always wanted to do something a step ahead of him."

Thompson watched all his older brothers leave. The living room football games gradually evolved into college careers. When Thompson steps on campus at UF, Hall will have sent five sons to five different colleges to play football: Miles College, Alabama State, Troy, North Carolina Central and Florida.

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Gainesville High football coach James Thomson was told about Thompson when he first got the job.

"They told me about a freshman kid who was fast, but he dropped everything," Thomson said.

Thompson wasn't just a spotty pass-catcher. He also had maturity issues. His speed (4.3 in the 40-yard-dash) gave him an unwarranted ego. Starting on varsity as a freshman didn't help.

Hall and Thomson both believe a lot of his maturity came naturally as time went forward. Thomson now talks about a 17-year-old he'd trust with anything. He trusts him on and off the football field.

"I'd give him the keys to my house," Thomson said.

Florida first started talking to Thompson the summer after his freshman season. He caught the eye of then-head coach Urban Meyer when he held his own against highly-touted prospects at Florida's summer camps. That didn't mean things would come easy.

Thompson was fast but not an ideal wide receiver prospect for a top-tier program. He got his first offer from Utah - where Thomson's cousin is defensive coordinator - but Florida was much tougher to crack. The Gators strung Thompson along for two years, asking him to attend camp after camp for further evaluation.

It became frustrating. The never-ending camp cycle was tiring for Thompson. He got to a point his sophomore year where he decided he didn't want to go to Florida. The Gators weren't talking to him much and it didn't feel like there was mutual interest. Hall and Johnson intervened. They told him not to settle for a smaller school if Florida was what he wanted. They told him he would regret it later.

"I said, 'You put something on coach Muschamp's mind,'" Hall said. "If it's not, 'I want to take him today,' it's, 'Man, I wish I would have got that boy.'"

Added motivation came when Rivals rated Thompson a two-star prospect. He called Johnson, who told him he was better than that and it was his job to prove it. Thompson ran stadium steps in his spare time and lifted weights with a personal trainer. Florida took notice but still didn't offer.

Thompson didn't know what to expect when he showed up to Florida's Friday Night Lights camp last month. He spent the week before debating whether or not he would work out. Muschamp told him it wasn't a big deal, but Johnson told him otherwise. He told him it was another chance to show he had improved since the previous camp he attended.

His mind was cluttered. He didn't know if an offer was possible that night. He didn't know if they thought he had improved since the last camp he attended. Thompson called Johnson in North Carolina afterward to tell him he did well. Johnson had already heard from Gainesville friends his brother had "killed 'em."

Thompson's name was now known outside of UF football offices and Gainesville High. Spectators had seen his speed highlight Florida's signature camp. His name headlined Friday Night Lights stories Saturday morning.

"In the middle of him talking to me, somebody wanted to interview him, so I said, 'You must have did pretty good,'" Johnson said. "He told me, 'Muschamp might want to talk to me a little later.'"

"A little later" was the following Monday.

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UF wide receivers coach Aubrey Hill was in the room when Thompson got his Florida offer and promptly committed. Hill and Thompson were close, so when Hill resigned four days later, Thompson's phone lit up.

He told reporters you pick a school because of a program, not because of a coach. He reiterated his commitment to the Gators.

"There's something about hometown kids that a lot of colleges miss. A lot of college coaches forget about recruiting the kids that will die for their program," Thomson said. "He'll be a Gator forever. That's real."

Thomson believes Florida is ahead of the curve. He doesn't see Florida being the only major program to offer Thompson by the time National Signing Day approaches.

Johnson is in town from North Carolina for the first time since January. Saturday, he was playing "NCAA 2013" with his little brother when Thompson pointed something out to him: "Next year, y'all will be able to play with me on the game."

"I thought to myself, 'You're right,'" Johnson said.

"Seeing him so excited gets me so excited."

Watching Florida will change for Katilia after this season, too. It will become personal. The time for imagination is almost over.



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