Oregon State football program shaken by loss of 'gentle giant' Fred Thompson
CORVALLIS - I couldn't help but notice the kind of day it was Thursday as sunshine beamed down from beautiful blue sky onto Gill Coliseum.
Calm. Peaceful. A no-worries-in-the-world type of December day.
Except it wasn't.
Inside Gill, Oregon State administrators and coaches were meeting with the media, 18 hours after the loss of Fred Thompson.
Thompson was 6-4 and 320 pounds, and if some in Beaver Nation hadn't yet heard of him, they were going to soon.
The Richmond, Calif., native had sat out this season after shoulder surgery, but OSU coaches were projecting him as a potential starting defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman next fall.
'Fred was going to be a factor next year,' said safety Ryan Murphy, a close friend and teammate of Thompson at Oakland Tech.
Thompson collapsed Wednesday night during a pickup basketball game at Dixon Recreation Center on the OSU campus.
'He was posting up, and he just fell to the court,' said Murphy, who was playing in the pickup game.
Rec center personnel attended to Thompson immediately, and fire department and medics 'came pretty quick,' Murphy said. 'But it was too late.'
Thompson was pronounced dead upon arrival at Good Samaritan Hospital.
He would have been 20 on Sunday.
Thompson was a good enough player to be ranked second among Oakland-area prospects as a senior - behind current Stanford backup QB Brett Nottingham - in a poll conducted with coaches by the Oakland Tribune.
One coach told the newspaper that Thompson had a great chance to play on Sundays some day.
OSU coaches felt the same way.
It's a loss on the football field, but a much greater loss off of it.
I never met Thompson - that was going to come this spring - so I'm relying on those who knew him to convey what kind of person he was.
The guy who knew him best was Murphy, OSU's nickel back as a redshirt freshman this season, a projected starter next season and a potential all-Pac-12 talent.
'We were together every day since ninth grade,' Murphy said. 'My mom is close to his mom. My granny is close to his granny. He was one of my best friends. We were like family.'
Oregon State coaches discovered Murphy after first recruiting Thompson. The Beavers were the first program to offer Thompson a scholarship. Then coach Mike Riley accompanied assistant coach Keith Heyward to an Oakland Tech game during Thompson's senior season and noticed Murphy.
'We'd better offer this kid, too,' Riley told Heyward, who was in agreement.
Thompson and Murphy were thrilled to get to play college ball together. Murphy liked being around his friend. He wasn't the only one.
'Everybody who came across Fred liked him,' Murphy said, choking back tears. 'He was a gentle giant. So friendly, so kind, so big, and everybody loved him.
'He was one of those people, once you came across him, he attaches to you. He had a certain glow about him.'
Fellow D-tackle Castro Masaniai didn't know what to think when he first met Thompson.
'At first, he was kind of intimidating - real big, like me,' said the 6-2, 340-pound Masaniai. 'But he's not really that kind of guy at all. He was genuinely nice.'
Thompson was a bit of a social butterfly. He liked visiting the coaches' office. He attended plenty of other sporting events on campus, especially basketball, and rooted for his school. He became good friends with basketball star Jared Cunningham, an Oakland native whose sister, Jade, was a classmate of Thompson's at Oakland Tech.
'Fred was a beautiful kid - fun-loving, good sense of humor and a beautiful smile,' football assistant coach Jay Locey said. 'He could light up a room with his personality.'
'Fred was trying to make it, to better his life,' Heyward said. 'He was the first person in his family to go to college. He had NFL potential, but his biggest goal was to get his college degree.'
Murphy wishes Thompson's death were just a bad dream.
'I couldn't accept reality at first,' he said. 'Still having trouble accepting it. That's probably the way it is with all the people who were in Fred's life.'
Including Riley. I've known the OSU coach for 45 years. I can count on one hand the times I've seen him as shaken as he was Thursday. Maybe on one finger.
There are 105 players in the Oregon State program. Riley regards each of them as extended members of his family. I can tell, though, that Fred Thompson was special.
'I'm so proud of him,' Riley said, struggling for words as he addressed the assembled media. 'He has come a long way since he got here. I just enjoyed him. He was growing tremendously. We will miss him.'
Riley said he first noticed Thompson's talent on the football field.
'Then after getting to know him, it was even easier' to be attracted, the coach said.
'Everybody liked Fred,' Riley said. 'That's the best way to say it. A big ol' guy, fun, with a great smile. He was like the perfect teammate. He was a really good kid to be around.'
Later, Riley said it was only the second time in 36 years of coaching he has suffered such a loss. The other time was in 2004, when OSU cornerback Justin Williams was killed in an auto accident on Interstate 5 south of Portland.
'It's what we always talk about to the kids in our program,' Riley said. 'In the blink of an eye, things change. I came out of a home visit (in Seattle) last night, punched my phone, and it was blowing up with messages. Unbelievable.'
An autopsy was scheduled for Friday, but Gregg Hastings, public information officer for the Oregon State Police, said at the news conference that Thompson succumbed to cardiac arrythmia.
Riley said OSU officials were not aware if Thompson had a pre-existing condition that might have caused it, or whether there was family history of heart trouble.
Jimmy Durkin, a reporter who covered Thompson for the Oakland Tribune, said Thursday that the father - Freddy Thompson Sr. - had died of a heart attack when Fred was a freshman in high school.
Birds chirped outside of Gill Coliseum Thursday afternoon. Joggers passed by, enjoying the unseasonably mild weather. Inside, Craig Robinson's basketball team practiced in preparation for Friday's game with Idaho.
Life goes on. Except, sadly, for Fred Thompson. What a terrible shame.