Thompson, Gophers seniors take circuitous route to Citrus Bowl

Even though the Gophers' seniors, including Cedric Thompson, may never share a locker room again after Jan. 1, they will have plenty of memories to look back on from their college experience, during which they've helped rebuild Minnesota's program.

Jerry Lai/Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Cedric Thompson never thought he’d be on a stage this big.

Growing up in tiny Calipatria, Calif., playing Big Ten football was a pipe dream for Thompson. He received some offers from smaller schools, including in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, before the University of Minnesota finally took a chance on him.

Four years later, Thompson has left behind his tough upbringing and found a new family. His extended group of brothers constitute the Gophers football team, a program that Thompson and his fellow seniors have helped turn around since they arrived on campus.

"I was getting calls from NAIA schools, and I was excited just to play football," Thompson said. "I would never think that I was at a place like this. I’m definitely fortunate. I’m definitely blessed. And I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity I have now."

When Thompson arrived in Minneapolis as a freshman, the program was in shambles. The Gophers won just three games one year earlier as head coach Tim Brewster was fired before the 2010 season ended. In came Jerry Kill, a coach from Northern Illinois who flew under the radar, tasked with rebuilding a struggling football team.

The first year under Kill was a rough one. Not only did the team win just three games, but Kill suffered a seizure during Minnesota’s first home game, an episode that made national headlines. In that moment, the players were stunned as their coach — who has suffered from epilepsy for years — went through a health scare right in front of them.

Things would eventually get better for Kill and the Gophers, although Thompson and the other freshmen didn’t necessarily know it at the time.

"It was definitely hard," Thompson said of his freshman year. "Nobody wanted to quit. That was definitely something different than I’ve ever experienced."

Through the hard work of the seniors, a similar work ethic has followed in the classes that came after Thompson and Co. It’s a senior class that now has countless great storylines, with Thompson’s being just one of many. A lot of them in some ways have personified their head coach, an underdog who has continued to succeed through a relentless attitude.

Related content

That senior class’ final payoff is a Jan. 1 bowl game. The Gophers will play Missouri in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, the school’s first New Year’s Day bowl game since 1962. Given how things were when the current seniors first arrived, playing on Jan. 1 seemed like a farfetched goal.

"The first day we came in there, they probably thought we were crazy," Kill said of his senior class. "Having the death of a teammate (Gary Tinsley)", you just go over so many things this group of kids have been through. As a coach, it’s very rewarding to have them do what they’re doing. They’re making some history. We need to finish that, we really do.

"We need those seniors to really pick it up in this game because we’ll be only as good as them, their performance and what they do."

Thompson was asked to recall some of his fondest memories of Kill during his four years playing for him. The first thought that came to mind was seeing Kill in the locker room after the game following another one of Kill’s seizures. The team was surprised at the time to see their coach there after a medical scare, but knowing what they know now of Kill, it really wasn’t that surprising at all.

There were some funny moments, too. Namely, Kill’s dancing. After some of Minnesota’s bigger wins, Kill has been known to let his guard down and bust a few moves in the locker room while surrounded by his players.

"His dancing at the games is hilarious," Thompson said, "because he has one move and he does it over and over and over, no matter what song it is."

When the Gophers’ bowl game is done, the players will spread out across the country for the remainder of winter break. Some will return to campus. Others, including some of the Florida natives, will go home and spend time with family and friends.

Even though they may never share a locker room again after Jan. 1, the seniors will have plenty of memories to look back on from their four — or in some cases, five — years in a Gophers uniform. Those memories are fond ones for Thompson.

"All my life, I didn’t have really strong relationships with friends because the life that I lived growing up was one of those bad lives and everybody kind of went their own ways as we grew up," Thompson said. "I kind of learned early that when I had friends and I was close with people, that was more important to me than winning a couple games. Winning is important, but at the end of the day that’s not what life’s about."

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter