By Trey Williams
Unicoi County High School quarterback Brock Thompson will enter his senior season set to become a four-year starter. Not bad for a guy that thought he’d permanently given up football during his final two years of middle school.
“My parents were against it,” he said.
They had their reasons. He broke a leg in three places and separated an ankle while playing in the sixth grade.
“It knocked me out of basketball,” Thompson said, “and growing up, basketball was the main thing. I was traveling everywhere for AAU. I was going to Myrtle Beach and Alabama. I went down to Florida a couple of times just to play on travel ball teams. That was the main focus.
“And whenever I broke my leg playing football they said that was it. They saw a future for basketball more than football. They didn’t really want me playing.”
Enter Unicoi County football coach Drew Rice, a former Blue Devils player who was young and energetic and set to begin his first full season as head coach during Thompson’s freshman campaign.
“He came down to the middle school when I was in middle school and they’d call me down to the principal’s office like once a month or once every two weeks,” Thompson said. “We’d be talking about football and stuff like that, and he’d be so excited to have me up there. It was just awesome. He made me want to play for him very bad.”
Thompson said a comfort level developed gradually.
“And I knew that I really wanted to play and I knew that it was worth the risk,” Thompson said, “because once I got back to full health after the leg break, everything just started coming back normally. I wanted to play and I didn’t have any fear going on the field.”
Thompson has passed for 3,430 career yards. And with running back Kody Lewis having graduated, Thompson’s most productive passing numbers are likely yet to come. He could surpass 5,000 career yards even if the Blue Devils are limited to an eight-game season due to COVID-19.
Lewis and another dynamic athlete, Brett Strother (a senior two years ago), brought explosiveness to the Unicoi offense. But the 2020 team should be less predictable thanks, in part, to tall, swift wideout Tracy Vanover, quick slot receiver Evan Huff and a group of young, fast running backs.
Thompson certainly has the arm strength to utilize the speed. He said he could throw a football 50 yards when he was a freshman, and can throw one between 65 and 70 yards now.
The grandson of former Blue Devils player and basketball coach Zane Whitson, Thompson has athletics in his blood. His uncle Trey Whitson was a multi-sport Blue Devils standout who signed to play football at Minnesota, and his cousin, Zane Whitson, starts in football (quarterback) and basketball at Dobyns-Bennett.
Thompson said he and Zane grew up competing against one another at their grandfather’s house. The elder Zane died in 2009 when the grandsons were seven, but Thompson said they’d already gotten instruction on the fundamentals of shooting a basketball and throwing a football.
Thompson could end up with an opportunity to play basketball or football in college. He said he doesn’t have a preference.
“I don’t really know which one I want to play,” Thompson said. “It’s mainly just like whatever’s the best offer I can get, or whatever helps my family’s situation. … I’ve talked to more people about basketball than football so far. I’m hoping this year I’ll get more attention in football.”
Thompson wants to study physical therapy, noting Unicoi strength coach Mark Peterson as an inspiration.
“I just saw how he does with all of us,” Thompson said. “He cares about our health and all that kind of stuff going into games, and he does our training and weightlifting. I think I want to do that kind of stuff. I could stay around sports like he does.”
Thompson’s bond with Rice has steadily strengthened since those middle school talks, too.
“It’s been really fun,” Thompson said. “He’s not just a coach to me, he’s a mentor. He’s one of those people I look up to and I’ve always looked up to.”
The feelings are mutual.
“More than being a great athlete, I am most proud of the young man he has become,” Rice said. “I couldn’t be more thankful for the relationship he and I have built over the last three years. He will always be very special to me. Things like that are why I got into this business.”
Thompson, Rice will tell you, is a winner. He’s 20-12 as a starting quarterback at a program where winning seasons weren’t exactly growing on trees prior to his arrival.
“I can’t say enough about him,” Rice said. “I look back on us starting out 0-2 in 2017, which was my first full season as head coach, and the move to go with a freshman quarterback who hadn’t played football since the sixth grade. It saved our season (2017) and laid the foundation for the first back to back winning seasons in 30 years (2018 and ’19). He has had so much placed on him, and he’s never once wavered from the pressure.”
Thompson added free safety duties to his workload last season, and he enjoys coordinating summertime workouts now that include playing free safety when backup quarterback Bryson Peterson’s getting in work.
“His numbers the last two years may not have grown exponentially after throwing for 1,200 yards as a freshman,” Rice said, “but when you have a back-to-back All-State running back (in Kody Lewis), there are only so many touches to go around. I think he would be the first to tell you he would take 15 wins over throwing for two or three thousand yards, though.
“Last year we had the rough start, and decided he had to start playing defense to give us a boost over there. We ended up being 6-2 in games he played free safety for us. So yet again, he played an integral part in saving our season.”
Now, Thompson wants fate to save his senior season, which seems to be threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. Barring an exemption granted by the governor, the TSSAA won’t allow contact practices to begin until Aug. 30, and the season is tentatively scheduled to start on Sept. 18.
But with so much uncertainty, Thompson knows there are no guarantees. For now, he’ll keep grinding while envisioning Friday nights in impressively renovated Gentry Stadium, which is getting a $3.2 million overhaul.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Thompson said. “I remember my freshman year looking up in the stands and stuff. You could tell it was big and you could tell there was a lot of people there.
“But now, where we’re practicing on the field a little bit, we’ll look up and see a whole new section of stands on both sides. There’s so much more room for so many more people and I hope we can get that thing packed this year as many times as we can get in it. … The main thing to do is just pray we get a chance to get out there and show what we can do.”