Anthony Thompson has won his share of trophies and awards.
The Terre Haute native was All-Big Ten and All-American — twice. He was runner-up for the 1989 Heisman Trophy. He’s the only football player in Indiana University’s history to have his number retired. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007. Those are just the highest of highlights in a storied career.
Thompson has always humbly accepted the accolades that have come his way. So it likely comes as no surprise that when Thompson had an award named after him by the Big Ten Conference this week, he accepted it with the same aplomb as he has for all of his previous honors.
Only maybe … just maybe … this honor means a little bit more than the ones he’s earned to date. Those previous honors all celebrated his considerable place in the world of college football.
Thompson’s latest honor marks what he’s done as a man.
As the Big Ten embarks on its 12-team era, it announced its new division names (more on that another time) and its rebooted awards, each of which are now named after Big Ten legends.
In Thompson’s case, he will be immortalized with the Dungy-Thompson Humanitarian Award. Thompson shares the honor with Tony Dungy, who was a standout quarterback at Minnesota in the mid-1970s, long before he earned wider acclaim as a Super Bowl-winning coach with the Indianapolis Colts.
For someone who has put just as much energy into being a positive role model off the field as he did in building his considerable on-field résumé, Thompson being the Big Ten’s choice to have his name on the Humanitarian Award is different, and perhaps even more humbling, than any other prize he’s previously received.
Thompson’s then-NCAA-record 5,299 rushing yards at IU from 1986-89 put Thompson into a position to be bestowed with the accolade, but the football accomplishments merely opened the door for Thompson.
Perhaps no other high-profile athlete has embodied class off the field as much as Thompson has since his playing career ended in the early 1990s. Thompson is a minister, he’s run youth football camps for underprivileged kids and he’s devoted much of his adult life to helping people. Plenty of Big Ten legends have had a chance to make such a lasting positive impression after their careers ended.
But Thompson is the man the Big Ten chose.
“First, having a big trophy named after you, that’s sweet in and of itself. Then to have it the Humanitarian Award? I think it’s kind of my life story to help people out. I had a lot of people help me along the way — my uncles, Dan Tanoos — I never thought I’d be able to give back, but thank God I’ve been able to give back. There’s no other award I’d like to have my name on,” said Thompson from Bloomington on Wednesday night.
Thompson knew he’d be honored before the public did. He was informed about six weeks ago that he would join Big Ten luminaries as diverse as Red Grange, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bubba Smith, former IU quarterback Antwaan Randle El and former President Gerald Ford as a select group to have awards named for them.
“My first reaction was to give glory to God. It seemed like a lifetime ago since I played on the gridiron, and the honors keep coming. I was really, really excited. You think of all of the things I experienced at IU and what it’s done for me growing up becoming a young man,” Thompson said.
Sharing the award name with Dungy was icing on the cake. Thompson has been a minister at Bloomington’s Lighthouse Community Church for nine years. He got to know Dungy when Dungy was coaching the Colts, and he has administered pregame prayers a few times for the Colts for both Dungy and current coach Jim Caldwell.
“Having your name on the same trophy as Tony Dungy? He has great character, he’s a great mentor and he empowers people. It’s like, ‘Wow,’ ” Thompson said.
Thompson, who is part of IU’s athletic department in a fundraising capacity, might have the chance to give the honor out personally on an annual basis. That has yet to be determined.
Thompson has never been shy about his Terre Haute upbringing, his close-knit family and his Terre Haute friends who helped him along the way. It’s a large group that shares Thompson’s pride.
“You can see such great pride in that family,” said Tanoos, who was Thompson’s sixth-grade teacher and who is now the Vigo County School Corp. superintendent. “His mother was focused on church and family. He’s never changed. He’s always had the demeanor of respect. The award honors his work as an athlete, but it also honors how he’s been as a man.”
To Thompson, it might be his name on the award, but there’s a lot of names behind his name that got him there.
“When I found out about the award, I texted my brothers Ernie and Randy. The Thompson name … God is still doing great things. They both knew exactly what that meant,” Thompson said. “Growing up on Liberty Avenue, we didn’t have much at all, but one thing we did have was love. And that was from my mom. It’s shared with the Thompson family.
“I think of all of the people who made it happen in my life for me. Carl Riddle [former Terre Haute North principal], who just recently passed away, I could go on and on naming people. I think about those people who took a chance on me. I think about the people who were patient with me. I always brag about being from Terre Haute. To put Terre Haute’s name out there with mine, it’s just an honor,” Thompson said.
Terre Haute is lucky. One of its most famous sons is one of its best people. The Big Ten knew it, too, and now Big Ten fans from Lincoln to State College will associate Anthony Thompson with the best of what the Big Ten represents for perpetuity.
One would be hard-pressed to find an award that was more aptly named.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please check out Golden’s Down In The Valley blog at blogs.tribstar.com/