Inside Octavia Jones’ Westover High School office lies a piece of football treasure. Although it’s not protected in glass casing just yet, the head coach of this Albany, Georgia, program has already mapped out this next step.
This piece of football treasure is in fact a football, but it’s not just any football. Jones has plenty of those at his disposal, although he won’t bother showing those off. This one is different; it’s actually one of a kind.
Scrawled across this pigskin resting comfortably on his desk are familiar rallying cries that could be qualified as gospel for some. On one side there’s a giant “Roll Tide.” On the other—as if to make the ball perfectly symmetrical and balance out the tremendous metaphoric weight—is an even bigger “War Eagle.”
Flip it over, and you’ll see “Go Tigers!” and “Go Rebs!” claiming ownership to this valuable real estate, although these familiar sequenced words are only a small portion of its worth.
Below these letters and an off-center depiction of the Georgia High School Association logo are the calling cards of some college football giants: Alabama’s Nick Saban, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and others who have visited Westover, met Jones in his office and proudly signed this ball.
Each did not simply come out of the goodness of his heart. Each came with one definitive purpose in mind: to convince Trent Thompson, the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the class of 2015, according to 247Sports—a gargantuan, disruptive defensive tackle with more than 20 scholarship offers from the nation’s most elite programs—to commit to his program for the next three or four years.
It’s one of many gestures to make a small impression—any impression—and a lasting reminder of the magnificent, extreme and unusual life of a can’t-miss college football recruit.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
There are four giant garbage bags inside the Thompsons’ house, each one filled to the brink. Inside these bags are handwritten letters, brochures and other mailers that they have collected from countless universities over the past few years.
There were so many items that the Thompsons threw out a good portion recently only because they were taking up too much space. They plan to save the rest as keepsakes.
When asked approximately how many letters Trent had received, Bridgette Thompson—Trent’s mother—could only laugh at the prospects of providing a legitimate estimate.
With tremendous talent comes tremendous interest. With tremendous interest come mailings, phone calls, text messages, visits, messages on social media and other means to communicate with the player. If there is an avenue to communicate with a recruit, a coach will find it. There simply aren't many 313-pound human beings capable of moving the way Thompson can.
“In the summertime of my junior year, it picked up,” Thompson recalled on the recruiting process. “I got invited to a lot of camps, a lot of coaches came to visit, and it started getting crazy. This year it got even crazier.”
Imagine being wooed by a celebrity every week. Imagine fielding calls from football idols to the point of boredom.
Being told you are the best at what you do is one thing; being told you are the best at what you do on a daily basis for years, all the while being sold a similar sales pitch each time, can be another. His coach heard very similar pitches, enjoying the process from a far different perspective.
“I think it got tiresome for him at times,” Jones said of his star defensive tackle. “One of the things about Trent is he’s a people pleaser. He likes to make people happy. And when you have that many people who are recruiting you, you’re going to have to tell a lot of people no. There’s only one person you’re going to be able to tell yes. I think that was one of the hardest parts he had to go through.”
“He’s handled it a lot better than I could have handled it at his age,” Jones added. “At no point in time has he ever let this go to his head. He’s been humble throughout the whole experience. I’m really proud of how he’s taken it all in stride.”
The Making of a Superstar
It was during Thompson’s sophomore season that his head coach saw a glimpse into the future.
Jones watched Thompson, who was blessed with incredible physical gifts long before he added extra weight—the good weight, the kind of weight that makes college coaches salivate—deliver a play against Cairo High School that will be forever ingrained in his brain.
“He was playing defensive end, and he crashed down inside right as the quarterback was handing the ball off,” Jones said. “Trent ran right through the fullback, and then he tackled the running back and the quarterback at the same time. At that moment, we knew we had something special.”
Other moments followed. Jones spoke of other plays in which Thompson—now a mammoth 313 pounds—grabbed a running back with one arm and brought him to the ground as if he were a teddy bear.
Voyage to YouTube, search for Trent Thompson, and you’ll unearth a treasure trove of spectacular moments. They are endless, each seemingly more physics-defying than the next:
There’s an inexplicable smoothness to his game, one you can’t quite put into the appropriate context. Thompson routinely and violently tosses aside normal-sized high school linemen who were given the unfortunate and impossible task of trying to prevent him from moving forward.
While you gasp out of pure sympathy for the young men playing the role of traffic cones, there’s a beauty in this destruction. It’s football art.
“His first step is unreal for someone his size,” Johnson added. “He gets off the ball so quickly. He can be a bull-rush-type player, but he has the speed to finesse you as well. He has the best of both worlds.”
It wasn’t long before the state of Georgia learned of Thompson. Word quickly spread to the rest of the SEC, and Jones watched the best player he has ever coached become a star in recruiting circles. In short order, the interest and offers began pouring in and recruiting outlets such as 247Sports advanced Thompson up their player rankings.
His play improved, he added more mass to a mass-filled frame, and the buzz grew louder. Over the past two seasons, Thompson totaled a combined 74 tackles for loss, according to MaxPreps. Thompson also flashed his versatility, intercepting two passes in his high school career.
His impact on individual games and matchups—the plays that won’t show up on stat sheets but are celebrated wildly in a coach’s office—were evident on almost every snap. Plug him in the middle of a defense and everyone around him is immediately better.
In 247Sports’ most recent (and final) composite ranking—which is a formula that tabulates its player rankings as well as other popular sites for a particular recruiting class—Thompson finished as the No. 1 player.
“He's lightning quick off the ball both with his feet and hands, two things you look for in an elite prospect at his position,” 247Sports’ national recruiting director JC Shurburtt said of the ranking. “He also has a high drive, meaning he loves football. He steps on the field with something to prove each and every snap.”
It is exhaustive, extreme and not something any player or family can ever truly prepare for. It is a tremendous, overpowering machine that sucks up time and invades privacy. And while Thompson and his mother are happy to see the recruiting cycle turn to someone else, both are incredibly grateful they had a chance to see it through.
“It’s something new,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t happen every day down here. I got to meet some great coaches, and some of them came to my school. It was great to attend football games and take some of my teammates and my mom.”
His mother, having heard every pitch as it pertains to school and football, is completely satisfied with where they’ve been—and more importantly—where they ended up.
“Go where you think you feel home at,” Bridgette Thompson said. “I stand behind Trent."
Football is giving Thompson an unspeakably positive opportunity—one that could ultimately translate into unspeakable wealth if the plan plays out. It’s not evil by any means, but it can be unrelenting and show its teeth every now and then.
Being the nation’s No. 1 recruit is a label millions of other high school football players would love to wear. But there is an anchor tied to this prestigious crown that Thompson and his mother are excited to be free from in short order.
That’s partly why Thompson decided to commit to Georgia on August 12 of last year. The thought was that an early decision would alleviate some of the inquiries from coaches and programs hoping to secure his commitment.
The reality, however, is that the calls still came. The visits still happened. The mailbox was still full.
“It’s not an easy message to get across,” Thompson said. “They were still coming after me, but I told a lot of them to stop because I wasn’t interested.”
Thompson didn’t rush his decision to Georgia. In many ways, this was a decision that was years in the making. A Georgia native and a fan of the program, the match between player and program was perfect before the Bulldogs ever showed any interest and Thompson flashed his incredible ability on film.
Gradually, these two came together, and the early matchmaking stages only confirmed what both hoped would be an ideal fit.
“From day one, I think he knew where he wanted to go,” Jones said. “His first trip to Georgia was very comfortable. He grew up being a Georgia fan, and he has pride in his state.”
With a clear choice in mind, Thompson and his mother took other visits. They voyaged out of state, acquiring as much knowledge when it came to football and academics, something Bridgette Thompson focused on almost exclusively.
With the knowledge necessary to make a decision, Thompson verbally committed to Georgia as his senior season was only getting started. He picked August 12 not only to hopefully slow down the ungovernable recruiting cycle, but also because it was his grandparents' anniversary.
With a photo of his grandparents on the table and his mother by his side, Thompson emotionally announced that he was committing to Georgia as the university’s fight song boomed over the speakers.
“That day was special,” Bridgette Thompson said. “That was the day of my mom and dad’s anniversary, and they are both deceased. My mom played a big part in Trent’s life. She always told him to never give up on what you want to do, and don’t let nobody tell you that you can’t do it.”
It didn’t stop there. Recruiting never truly does. Until Thompson faxes in his letter of intent and his commitment to Georgia is finally official, there will be a coach who believes he can change the player’s mind.
However, don’t expect any surprises from the Georgia native on national signing day on Wednesday. The suspense is dead. All visits to other campuses have been canceled; Thompson will head to Athens once more before officially ending his recruitment.
The football sitting on his head coach's desk can be be tucked behind glass, although the signatures and rallying cries from those who made the trip will remain. One journey is ending, another will begin soon enough.
“I’m 100 percent,” Thompson said. “That’s where I wanted to go.”