An appreciation for Fred Thompson, OSU defensive tackle and Tech Bulldog

Fred Thompson with his mother, Cora Wilcots, on signing day in February, 2010. Photo by Ryan Phillips.

Fred Thompson with his mother, Cora Wilcots, on signing day in February, 2010. Photo by Ryan Phillips.

Fred Thompson was 18 when I met him, and I had never seen a body so large move so fast, and with such agility. He was what makes quarterbacks wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.

Sunday would have been his 20th birthday.

I can still vividly recall him running speed ladder drills on the sidelines of a football practice, his feet churning through the openings of the apparatus like the arms of a locomotive; or sitting and watching old college game tape in the thrown-together weight room at the back of Oakland Tech’s rickety gym, constantly laughing and joking with former teammates. The spirals we zipped back and forth near the end of another Bulldogs practice—his throws much better than mine—are a memory I’ll preserve forever.

Fred Thompson, a freshman defensive tackle at Oregon State, would have turned 20 years old on Sunday. Photo courtesy Oregon State University Athletics.

I learned of the terribly premature death of Thompson, a freshman defensive tackle at Oregon State University and former standout at Tech, shortly after he died late Wednesday night. Stories posted on countless websites reported that he had collapsed suddenly in the middle of a pickup basketball game in the college rec center, from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. For the next few days, #FredThompson showed up prominently on Twitter.

The outpouring of articles and comments about him was staggering, but not surprising. Neither were the makeshift memorials promptly assembled on both the Tech and Oregon State campuses. Thompson just meant that much to so many.

I first came across Fred early in fall 2010. I had landed in the East Bay in August, a young reporter operating a little outside his comfort zone, working with nothing more than a general knowledge of Oakland. I stepped onto the Tech field to cover the Bulldogs forthcoming season. Fred was hard to miss, and it had nothing to do with as his hulking 6’4″, 300-pound frame. When we shook hands, his massive mitt wrapped around mine completely. As big as he was, it was his enormous, beaming personality that drew me to him, helping to ease most of my concerns about this new and sometimes dangerous place.

Fred, who grew up in Richmond but moved with his family to Oakland after the sixth grade, had actually graduated from Tech the previous year. But after following in professional football player and fellow Tech grad Marshawn Lynch’s footsteps, by committing to a Pac-12 conference university—Lynch attended Cal, while Fred chose Oregon State—Fred hit a snag with his eligibility. His grades fell just short of the NCAA’s requirements. But he quickly overcame the setback by boosting his SAT score and enrolled at OSU as a true freshman the following term. In the meantime, he stuck around the Tech football program, continuing to help out the de facto family he had developed within.

During and after practices, Fred and I used to talk about Oakland and its wealth of problems. Like many of his peers, he wanted to make it, by leaving and one day returning to help the others who might follow. He gave me hope and belief in a city that can sometimes be a vicious place to call home.

“You kind of have to branch out to make it in life,” Fred told me last October. “It’s like you know where your roots are, and you know where you came from. But it’s kind of like getting away to better yourself, and then coming back, and helping however you can. It’s just how I was brought up … to want to be able to go make it and help somebody out whatever way you can.”

Fred embraced the fact that he was a product of his environment, and he proudly represented the community he loved. His massive arms, like his role model Marshawn Lynch’s, were almost completely covered in tattoos. He often sported a metallic grill—a removable metal sheath that covers the teeth and is worn for cosmetic purposes—and also a “Beast Mode” T-shirt, which pays tribute to Lynch’s legendary nickname.

Thompson, left, takes part in a Beavers spring practice on the Oregon State campus.Photo courtesy Oregon State University Athletics.

Fred was by no means perfect. Our heroes often aren’t. But he took great pride in where he came from, and where his promising future might eventually lead. In the course of his shortened life, Fred reached so many people. I merely had the good fortune of being one of them.

“I just feel bad for the thousands that he touched during his short life,” said Ryan Murphy, Fred’s friend and teammate at Tech and Oregon State, to Bay Area News Group reporter Jimmy Durkin. “I feel so bad that they lost somebody. He [was] just so happy all the time. He was a gentle giant. He had no enemies. Everybody looked up to him.”

Murphy was with Fred in the gym when he collapsed, and rode with him in the ambulance to the emergency room. Fred was pronounced dead shortly after reaching Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, Ore. Murphy said Fred had been planning to travel back to Oakland on Thursday, the day after he died.

An autopsy conducted Friday revealed that Fred died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. This condition is marked by an enlarging of the heart caused by a thickness of the heart muscle, which causes an irregular heartbeat, especially during physically demanding activities. It is often genetic.

Trying to comprehend this inconceivable loss, his coach in Corvallis struggled to find the words the day after Fred’s death. “This is a devastating and tragic event for all of us here,” Oregon State head coach Mike Riley said last Thursday, clearing his throat and repeatedly tapping the press conference desk in front of him. “I just enjoyed him. Those of you that know him, he was fun. He was a great, great kid. This is just one of those things you never want to be a part of.”

Fred loved football. His Facebook profile listed the game as his major. Like many in the Tech program, from longtime head coach Delton Edwards on down, he lived and breathed the sport. He dreamed of playing in the NFL, which seemed like a real prospect.

But in order to reach such heights, Fred had to manage a number of forceful blows that life delivered. He lost several members of his family throughout the years. His father Freddy died of a heart attack in May 2006—it remains unknown whether his dad’s heart condition was related to the one that caused Fred’s death. A couple months after, Fred’s 14-year-old cousin was gunned down on 45th and Market Streets. Not wanting to lose anyone else, Fred used to keep after Coach Edwards, whom he said he looked up to as a father figure, to take care of his own health. Edwards was supposed to wear an oxygen tank to combat a chronic bout with walking pneumonia, a condition Fred’s own father also battled.

“That’s how I kind of lost my father,” Fred told me. “It would really hurt me to have to lose him the same way I lost my dad.”

Instead, the tight-knit Oakland family lost Fred.

In a conversation with Edwards, he told me that his goal in life is to see young men from Oakland make it out and succeed. He also mentioned how much it hurts when he sees a kid choose the wrong path and fail, and sometimes even die. Fred was one of the good ones—a motivated young man who made it out, and had what will now go down as ambitious and unrealized aspirations. It’s why this one hurts so badly.

Fred was much wiser than his years—wiser than me in many ways, despite the almost decade difference in our ages. Once last fall, following the shooting death of another close friend just a few weeks prior, he explained his mindset for managing these recurring difficulties of Oakland.

“When it happens, it just hits you hard,” Fred said. “You’ve got to learn how to cope with it and just take what you can from it—the learning experience, and make sure that you just keep your head up. And you’ve just got to stay strong. Nobody likes taking a loss when it comes to family, but it makes you stronger and makes you keep your head up and appreciate what you do have.”

Though the grieving process will be a grueling one for the many in Fred’s life, we must take comfort in knowing that in only 19 years, Fred did make it. For this reason alone, he was a success. Everyone around him was exceptionally proud and I just feel blessed I had the chance to build a friendship with him. His death is a tragedy through and through, but bitterness would not have been his wish. He was much wiser than most of us in that way, too.

“No matter what goes on here,” he told me that afternoon in October, “we have to be able to hold each other up. You never know what can happen. Tomorrow is never promised.”

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