EUGENE — To Chip Kelly, they were the Thompson Twins.
OK, Blake and Grant Thompson are separated by three years, but the path they have taken through the Oregon football program has been identical.
Blake joined the Ducks as a walk-on linebacker in 2007 and earned a scholarship as a senior. During his final two years with the Ducks, Blake was joined at linebacker by his younger brother, Grant, who also arrived as a walk-on before coach Mark Helfrich informed him recently that he would be on scholarship as a senior.
“Oh man, at first I couldn’t believe it,” Grant Thompson said. “Since day one, this has been my goal. It’s one of those things that’s almost too good to be true.”
Bill Thompson has that same feeling as he prepares to spend the eighth year in a row watching one of his sons play football at Oregon.
“It’s been surreal from the standpoint of watching not only a team that you love but to have children involved also,” Bill Thompson said. “Our family is very proud of these two boys and what they’ve done. They’ve also contributed to a history that will never be matched in Oregon football. It’s one thing to go to a Rose Bowl, but to go to two and a national championship game and the other bowls those kids have gone to, that’s really something. It’s been a blessing and a lot of fun.”
Blake Thompson now refers to himself as “double Duck” as he begins his second year in the MBA program at Oregon.
“We grew up Duck fans, and it was a dream of ours to play at Oregon,” Blake Thompson said. “Our grandpa told us about the time he played there and our dad said he had a great time too. It has been a fun experience.”
The Thompson legacy at Oregon dates back more than 75 years to Butch Thompson, Bill’s dad, who played football and basketball at Oregon in 1938-39 before serving in World War II. Butch Thompson’s freshman basketball team scrimmaged against the Tall Firs during their championship season.
Bill Thompson arrived at Oregon in 1969 as part of a freshman class that included Dan Fouts. He played one year on the offensive line and one year on the defensive line before injuries ended his career.
Like his sons, Bill Thompson was a walk-on.
“I always told them, be part of the galaxy,” Thompson said. “You are going to have some stars out there like LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner and Casey Matthews. Support those stars. Shine it up.”
Blake Thompson played in 18 games at Oregon, compiling seven tackles. Grant Thompson has played in 13 games with four tackles.
“I talked to coach Helfrich about my role this year, and he and I both agreed that I can step into more of a leadership role because I’ve been around the block for four years,” Grant Thompson said. “I know what it takes to be successful, how hard you have to work in the season and out of the season to win these games.”
Defensive coordinator Don Pellum praised Thompson’s role in Oregon’s program.
“Grant’s strength is that he’s a great teammate, he does everything he’s supposed to do on the field and off,” said Pellum, who is also Thompson’s position coach at inside linebacker. “He knows what we’re doing on offense, so when we’re on the field, he’s good at communicating with others. He’s a great mentor for young guys, and we need guys with those abilities. ... You need to have some foot soldiers that can step in and do a lot of the work for you.”
Grant Thompson’s older brother was his mentor.
“Blake paved the way for me my whole football career, starting when I was in seventh grade and he was dragging me to the high school to lift in the morning,” Grant Thompson said. “Coming to Oregon and seeing what Blake was doing to make this team better just from a walk-on standpoint, he definitely showed me the path.”
Grant got a head start learning Oregon’s defense from his brother.
“A lot of people think its easier for him because I did it first,” Blake Thompson said. “But he’s worked his butt off as much as anyone. Maybe he picked up the defense a little quicker because I helped him, but he’s been motivated and worked hard.”
Grant Thompson, who has a double major in General Science and Family and Human Services, has spent five years practicing full time while playing sparingly on Saturdays.
“Everything like this comes with some hard times,” he said. “There were times I thought about being done, hanging up the cleats, but I just couldn’t leave my teammates. I made too many good friends on this team, and it was all about my teammates. They were the guys that got me through, day in and day out.”
Thompson and running back Kenny Bassett spent the past four years working out together as walk-ons. After Thompson was awarded a scholarship, he found out that Bassett received one as well.
“I was more excited when coach Helfrich told me to call Kenny down to get a scholarship too,” Thompson said. “We know what it takes, what you have to go through to be a walk-on.”
Blake Thompson also knows the journey of a walk-on to earn a scholarship.
“I’m proud of Grant,” Blake said. “That is such a great feeling to start from the bottom and work your way up to get a place on the team. It’s a long process, and at that age it’s hard to think long term when your mind is set on the short term in so many things. It’s a five-year process, and in the first year or two, after you played every down in high school, maybe you don’t even get on the field.”
In many ways, they are the Thompson Twins. Blake Thompson was the defensive scout team player of the year in 2008 and 2010, an honor Grant earned on special teams in 2011. Grant is listed at 5-feet-11 and 230 pounds, the same size as Blake when he was a senior.
The brothers are undersized by NCAA linebacker standards and are among the few players from Class 4A football programs in Oregon to earn a college football scholarship. They learned their work ethic growing up in Cottage Grove, where their dad was a longtime teacher and coach.
“I told them that it’s not about starting, it’s about being a part and contributing,” Bill Thompson said. “At practice every day, you can be the first in line and the last out. Ask a lot of questions. Make sure you show up every day. Blake paved the way for Grant, and at the same time, Grant is his own guy.”
Bill Thompson thanked Helfrich for rewarding his son with a scholarship this year.
“Don’t thank me,” Helfrich told him. “Grant earned it.”
Bill Thompson, who coached his boys in football and wrestling at Cottage Grove, is a regular at Oregon practices.
“I come off the field and he always asks me how things went, what did I think,” Grant Thompson said. “He gives me little pointers here and there. He’s always been around my whole athletic career and I’m just blessed that I can have him around now, still coming out to practice and seeing how we’re doing.”
Grant Thompson is the youngest of Bill and Sheryl’s three kids, so the family tradition of playing Oregon football is coming to an end. As a member of the fourth-ranked Ducks, Grant will be part of the final chapter in the Thompson family history at Oregon that includes the greatest moment in basketball history with the 1939 NCAA championship as well as the height of the football program with three Pac-12 Conference titles, two Rose Bowls, a Fiesta Bowl, and a trip to the BCS National Championship.
“They’ve done things that their grandfather and I never did,” Bill Thompson said. “They earned varsity letters and went to bowl games. It has been a great run for them.”
Butch Thompson died in 2007 and Blake honored his grandfather before the 2010 Rose Bowl, Oregon’s first trip to Pasadena since Bill and Butch attended the 1995 game together. As the Ducks prepared to face Ohio State, Blake went to Butch Thompson’s grave and placed a rose on the site.
“Getting to the Rose Bowl was a big thing, to make it to that stage,” Blake Thompson said. “You can’t stop thinking about family.”