HOUSTON — It was Christmastime 2014 and Monica Thompson could hardly wait to get home for holiday break from the University of Tennessee. Time with friends awaited her, as did quality time spent with family, including her younger brother, Eldridge Thompson.
But the scene when she arrived home in Memphis was not what she had in mind.
Thompson was not alone at the house. There were new faces with him, those of Toyous Avery and Tyler Johnson — two teammates from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College. He had brought the pair home to Memphis, inviting them for the holidays without giving any warning to the rest of the family.
“He was like, ‘Well, they didn’t have any way to get home, so I just invited them to come home for break,’” Monica said. “It’s like, ‘You just invited two other young men that we don’t even know and you didn’t discuss it with us at all?’”
The thought hadn’t crossed Thompson’s mind. The South Carolina linebacker saw teammates that had nowhere to go for the holidays and offered up a place to without a second thought.
His logic was equally simple: If there’s enough for me to eat, there’s enough for them to eat. Forget figuring out where they might sleep or any other logistics — there were teammates that needed a place to go for the holidays.
“That’s Eldridge’s heart,” said Jimmie Thompson, Eldridge’s mom. “If he sees that there is a need and he knows he can fill it — or we can fill it — he will make it happen.”
Really, Monica should not have been surprised to find Thompson had shown up with friends in tow. It’s not a new thing for the Thompson household to be the recipient of friends, expected or unexpected.
That’s the way it goes and that’s the way that Jimmie and her ex-husband, Eldridge Sr., liked it to be.
“It goes back to our parents,” Monica said. “They are very welcoming.”
The root of that household approach drifts back to how Jimmie was raised. She grew up with parents welcoming in her friends and friends who embraced it. Her house was the house where all her friends hung out, leaving her wanting the same environment for her children.
The reasoning was compounded by concerns about crime in Memphis, putting the Thompsons in a position of letting their kids know “I just want you to make it home.” Having the children at home with their friends meant they always knew where their kids were — safe and sound.
So Monica would serve her role as a cheerleader at football games, while Eldridge played in the game. Afterward, while others may go out with teammates or friends, the Thompson kids headed home — always welcome to bring along friends and that’s usually how it went.
“From when they were little kids because they weren’t allowed to go inside other people’s houses to play,” Jimmie said. “They can come to our house from when they were little kids, so their friends would always be over.”
And it wasn’t so much just a situation of having friends stop by for a half-hour or glass of water. It was friends coming over for dinner, being welcomed as if they were at their own home and sometimes even beyond.
Monica’s best friend, Kiki, was over constantly. Likewise, Thompson’s close friend, Cedrick Wilson — now a player at Boise State — once stayed at the Thompson house for three weeks during the summer. It wasn’t out of need, as Wilson’s family also lived in Memphis. It’s just how things went.
Wilson slept on the couch or on the floor in Thompson’s room, with breaks in the lengthy summer sleepover taken merely to return to Wilson’s house to get clean clothes for the next leg.
“Eldridge was like, ‘Well, he just wanted to hang out,’” Monica said. “He is very giving and he definitely is that guy who will give his last for his friends and his family.”
Thompson steadily emerged on the football field when he wasn’t at home with friends. The person who has “the softest heart” in the Thompson family — Monica’s words — had the tough exterior and hard-nosed mentality on the football field.
He was lightly recruited to play at the next level out of high school, but the Thompsons knew that junior college was his landing place. And when it came time to choose from many options, Coffeyville emerged as the best spot for Thompson.
Wilson already was there, an immediate pull of familiarity. But seeing the school’s reputation for seeing students through to graduation and onto Division 1 football made it a no-brainer.
“They have a very strong reputation for turnaround with their student athletes,” Monica said. “I think that was really attractive for Eldridge. … He knew, we all knew and the people at Coffeyville knew that Eldridge would go on to play and be great. We were looking for the best opportunity to get to the next level and Coffeyville was definitely that.”
Thompson, who played wide receiver and safety in high school at Memphis White Station, found a home at linebacker. And he soon started getting attention for the physical, fast player flying around the field. South Carolina got involved, as did the likes of Florida State and Mississippi State.
But in his second year at Coffeyville, everything changed. The first time he had his sister in the stands for a game in junior college, Thompson tore his labrum. He played through the game, but missed the rest of the season and was battling concerns about what would happen next as he lost weight and was sidelined for an extended time.
“He hated it,” Monica said. “He didn’t even want to go to practice and watch.”
There was a saving grace through the hard times: The Gamecocks stood by Thompson, still wanting the linebacker who excels in space to be part of their future. Both Jimmie and Monica said that pushed Thompson through the times when the injury and not being on the field got to him the most.
After all, Thompson had long held tightly to the dream of playing in the SEC one day and South Carolina was giving him the opportunity to realize that dream.
“There was something at the end of this that he was working toward,” Monica said. “It was like, ‘Now that I have to get to this end goal and push through my classes and push through the pain and my shoulder injury.’
“It was a good opportunity for him to see that everything isn’t always going to be automatic and there are going to be hurdles that you have to jump through and jump over. But you can do it.”
Said Jimmie: “I think it was a good lesson for him to see he can persevere.”
Texas … for a short time
By the time Thompson wrapped up his fall semester at Coffeyville, Jimmie and Monica had relocated to Houston. Monica was working as an ambassador for the University of Tennessee in the area and Jimmie jumped at the chance to escape a job she wasn’t fond of in Memphis.
Thompson soon joined them, leaving behind Kansas and heading for Houston. He spent the following months rehabbing his shoulder injury at the IronMan Sports Complex and taking an online class to finish his final requirements at Coffeyville.
He headed for Columbia at long last in early May. But a month earlier, a typical Thompson moment flashed again — the side of Thompson that is “mushy on the inside” showing again.
A friend, Cordell Burse, had recently moved to the Houston area to work as an airline mechanic.
“Eldridge was like, ‘Hey, mom, Cordell moved to Houston,” Jimmie said. “Then he said, ‘He is coming to dinner for Easter.’”
Burse came, as did another friend who had nowhere to go. That’s just who Thompson is — and how he was raised, with open doors and a more open heart.
Jimmie has leaned by now to always have extra food ready, knowing that her son could show up with extra mouths to feed at any time.
And with 100 new teammates at South Carolina, it won’t be a surprise to the Thompson family if there’s new friends becoming family at the holidays this year.
“When he comes to Houston for Christmas,” Monica said, “I would not be surprised if he brings someone.”