Thompson is still old reliable for Terrapins

Linebacker's career at Md. winds down

College Football

November 09, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - How long has Aaron Thompson been at Maryland?

"Sixteen years," the senior linebacker said, meaning he would have been 7 years old when he first enrolled here.

Sometimes, it feels like it really has been 16 years instead of four and change for Thompson, who will play his final home football game tomorrow night against Clemson.

Everything seems to have come too fast for Thompson - the shamble with which he moves across campus, the "Grandpa" moniker teammates have stuck him with at the ripe age of 23.

"I feel old," said Thompson, a Mount St. Joseph graduate and 42-game starter who has 51 tackles this season. "I know I feel older than a 23-year-old. And I give thanks for that to Maryland football."

Ages seem to have passed since Thompson first fought tears in Cole Field House during a recruiting visit.

His outlook has changed, his focus falling equally on grad school and the NFL (where his chances would likely be as a free agent).

And thanks to him in part, the 13th-ranked Terrapins of 2001 bear no resemblance to those he first came in with in 1997.

"He's the one guy everyone looks up to," said Marc Riley, a tailback and fellow senior who gives Thompson credit for much of the leadership that has helped Maryland go from five straight losing seasons to a possible New Year's Day bowl.

Coach Ralph Friedgen said when he interviewed to come here last year, "I could tell right away that he was the guy."

The players "know that he's a guy who's sincere, says what he thinks and is not afraid to say it to whoever he thinks," said Friedgen. "He's a lot like [fellow linebacker] E.J. Henderson. They don't say a lot, but when they say it, people listen."

Even before this season, the experience had been a dream come true for Thompson, who grew up in West Baltimore admiring John Elway.

"He used to get knocked silly, make the pass and get up again," Thompson said.

He attended Forest Park for two years before transferring to Mount St. Joseph.

"Mount St. Joseph was the step I needed to get to the next level," Thompson said. "It gave me an opportunity academically because the curriculum was so much greater."

Thompson fell in love with Maryland while visiting his uncle, Charles Green, when he got to hang out in the dorms and listen to Green and his friends tell stories about college life.

Eventually, he wanted his own stories to tell.

"I couldn't wait - I wanted to see what college life was like," Thompson said. "I wanted to tell stories. I've been telling stories since my second year here. That's why they call me old man."

Physically, he doesn't feel too young sometimes.

"I've got this karate class," he said. "Everybody's sitting on the mat. The instructor told us to get up. And everybody, like, bounced up. And I know I have to roll over, lift my knee up, push my upper body up, just to get up. And I'm like, `Damn, I'm old.' "

He'll miss college life, beyond the 45 tackles he's made for a loss, the 15 sacks, the 329 tackles he's logged in his career.

For the first four games of this season, he found his playing time curtailed a bit.

The defense was performing so well on first down that defensive coordinator Gary Blackney had to put in the extra-defensive-back packages that had less use for linebackers like Thompson.

But in recent weeks, Thompson has been put in as a pass rusher on the nickel and dime packages that come on second and third downs.

"We started to analyze and evaluate what we were doing, and felt here's a guy who needs to be on the football field," Blackney said of Thompson, whose time went from 25 or 30 plays per game to more than 50 over three quarters against Troy State last weekend. "That's helped us to be better than we were prior to his being in there."

Thompson is one of two players on this year's Maryland team who have started every game of their careers here. The other is center Melvin Fowler.

Last spring, Thompson picked up his bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He'll pick up another in kinesiology next fall, and is prepared to pursue a master's in sports psychology if his dream of a professional football career ends.

For now, he's savoring what has come so far in the 51 months he's been in College Park.

With two regular-season games left in his college career, "it means that a large chapter in my life is coming to a close," Thompson said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. I've experienced a lot of different things. I'm ready for the next phase."

Next for Maryland

Opponent: Clemson

Site: Byrd Stadium, College Park

When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.

TV/Radio: ESPN2/WBAL (1090 AM), WTEM (980 AM)

Line: Terps by 7

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