With his proud mom leaning over his shoulder — his picture plastered on the back of her T-shirt — Oakland Tech senior Fred Thompson put his name on the dotted line and committed to Oregon State. Smiling, he put on a Beavers cap and flashed the No. 1 hand signal.
A few minutes later, like many of the 100 people at the Oakland Tech cafeteria on Wednesday morning, the big guy was in tears.
“I can’t remember the last time I cried,” said Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle. “The last time I cried was probably at my dad’s funeral.”
Emotions ran high in the Tech cafeteria, as four Bulldogs football players—Thompson, and defensive back/running back Ryan Murphy (Oregon State), defensive back/wide receiver DiAndre Campbell (Washington) and wide receiver Eddie Gillies (Sacramento State) each officially signed letters of intent to attend schools that play at the NCAA Division-I level, the highest level of college sports. Parents, teachers and students crowded into the cafeteria to watch the four sign, thank their supporters and celebrate.
According to coach Delton Edwards, this is the first time Tech has had four players sign with Division I schools on the first day players are eligible to commit. “Right here at this table, there’s no doubt,” Edwards said of the four players seated in front of him as he gave an introductory speech. “We’re fully qualified.”
Parents and coaches took the podium and spoke of the players’ accomplishments and their struggles growing up in Oakland. A celebratory atmosphere didn’t prevent most of the speakers from leaving the podium with red eyes, including Edwards. “It’s rough, man it’s rough,” Edwards said. “It’s hard to get to this point.”
The players each took different paths to reach Signing Day. Thompson is one of the top recruits in the state and has the most professional potential in the group. Murphy is also a top-100 recruit in the state, according to Rivals.com, a popular recruiting Web site, making the list after a 2,000-yard rushing season. Campbell gave a verbal commitment to Washington as a junior.
But Gillies said he thought of himself as a track sprinter, not a football player, until his senior year. He also didn’t think too much about going to college when he was younger, and once brought home a junior high report card with six F’s. “DiAndre pushed me,” Gillies said. “Looking at him, I thought to myself, ‘That’s where I want to be.’” And, he added, flashing his braces as his face broke into a big grin, “That’s where I got.”
Campbell has two older brothers who played football at Tech, and he credited them with keeping him in line. He’s the Renaissance man of the group — he was the valedictorian of his junior high, posted a 4.2 GPA in the fall and also sings and plays the drums. When Washington offered him a full ride as a junior, he jumped at the offer and hasn’t looked back.
He said he’s been waiting for this day — when he could finally make the union official — for a long time. “It’s exciting. To hear my dad say he was proud of me, that really did something for me,” Campbell said. “I’m going to make sure at UW that I make them proud there, too.”
Murphy said it’s tough starting to say goodbye to Oakland after living in the 94605 Zip code his whole life. He said he was overwhelmed by the support of the people gathered Wednesday. “I feel welcome into any of these people’s houses,” he said. “I’ve known a lot of these people a long time and it’s nice that they came out to support me. I feel very welcome in the community of Oakland Tech, and Oakland.”
Thompson grew up in a rough Richmond neighborhood before moving to Oakland in junior high. He said tough times, especially the death of his father four years ago, caused him to grow up fast. “Me and my mom have been through a lot,” he said, holding a framed Tech jersey with his number, as his mom stood next to him, proudly looking on. “In some ways, I’m more mature than a lot of kids my age. I know how to handle myself really well in certain situations.”
As a top recruit, he had to navigate through a steady stream of phone calls, text messages and visits from coaches and recruiters. Thompson said while all the attention was fun at first — he said he had offers from nine schools — he grew tired of it as the pressure mounted to make his decision, and he longed for the whole thing to be over.
As the crowd started to filter out of the cafeteria, Thompson posed for more photographs with his mom, grandmother and great-grandmother. Each woman wore a big smile — and a T-shirt with a picture of Fred on the back. Thompson was smiling, too. Nobody was asking him where he was going to play anymore. “It’s a sigh of relief,” he said, “just to have it done.”