MINNEAPOLIS — Cedric Thompson speaks with pride when talking about just how far he’s come.
And knowing where the Minnesota Golden Gophers sophomore safety came from, it’s easy to understand why.
Thompson grew up in Compton, Calif., a city notorious for high crime rates. While Thompson was living there, his 16-year-old cousin was killed in a gang-related shooting. After that, Thompson’s mother told him to pack his bags and live with his father in Bombay Beach, nearly three hours east of Los Angeles. The tiny town is nestled on the shore of the Salton Sea, one of the largest inland seas in the world, and has the lowest elevation of any city in the United States at 233 feet below sea level.
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When Thompson arrived in Bombay Beach, the town had less than 100 residents, he said. Thompson was among the youngest people living there, and residents lived in run-down or abandoned houses and impoverished conditions.
It certainly wasn’t a glamorous life. In fact, it could be painfully boring. But boring was better than the alternative, the surroundings Thompson left behind in Compton. Crime. Danger. Violence. Even if you weren’t looking for trouble, trouble could find you.
“In Bombay Beach, it was a store, a bar and probably about 70, 80 people,” Thompson said. “I had nothing to do, so all I did was work out.”
Thompson spent his final three years of high school living in Bombay Beach and attending Calipatria High — which sometimes took an hour and a half via bus to get to. While in Bombay Beach, Thompson was approached by a filmmaker to be one of the subjects of a documentary titled, fittingly, Bombay Beach. The movie, which runs 80 minutes, follows three of the town’s residents: a young boy, an old man and Thompson as each attempts to make it in the small, isolated town.
In the film, Thompson speaks about his aspirations to play in the NFL — a dream he’s now one step closer to achieving thanks to a scholarship from the Gophers. When Thompson set foot on the University of Minnesota campus, he became the first member in his family to attend college.
These and more facts of Thompson’s winding past — including a love story — are revealed in the film, as he is the subject in a study of one of America’s most peculiar towns.
“It wasn’t really planned or anything. I was just walking down the street and they asked me if I wanted to be filmed,” Thompson said. “It was definitely a different kind of experience. I think it was good to see where I grew up at and see where I had to come from, where I was at and where I went to get to where I am now. That’s why I actually like it, to see what I had to go through to get here.”
“Here” is a Division I football program, a chance to escape Bombay Beach and see what else the world has to offer. So far, Thompson has transitioned well to life in Minnesota — and he’s also transitioning to a change on the football field.
At Calipatria High School, Thompson was a running back who also played a little defensive back. Now, he’s fighting for a job as one of the Gophers’ two starting safeties along with junior Brock Vereen and sophomore Derrick Wells — two cornerbacks turned safeties this past offseason.
As a true freshman in 2011, Thompson appeared in seven games and made 16 tackles. His playing time may have been limited, but Thompson gained valuable experience during his first year on campus.
“Obviously, he had to learn it, but it helped him to get thrown in the fire last year,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “He made some great tackles in space on his high school videos. Those natural tacklers that’ll get after you, I think they have a chance to play on defense.”
Added Thompson: “Now I have the defense down pat, so I just have to worry about consistency and discipline and things like that.”
Claeys said he wasn’t aware of the type of environment Thompson left behind in Bombay Beach and hasn’t seen the documentary. Some of Thompson’s Gophers teammates have, though.
“A couple of them have seen it. Some of them make fun of me,” Thompson said. “. . . I guess it’s just funny to see a teammate on film.”
The Gophers can poke fun at their teammate’s 15 minutes of fame on the big screen, but watching himself on screen reminds Thompson of where he came from, how hard he worked to get here and where he hopes to go.
Bombay Beach is part of Thompson’s past. He’s doing what he can to make sure it’s not part of his future.
“I really pushed myself to get where I am now,” Thompson said. “I think me moving (to Bombay Beach) really helped me get to where I am now. I never had anything to do. Living there made me see that I wouldn’t want to live a life like that, so it pushed me harder growing up there.”