True Grit from Will Thompson

ATHENS - No one connected to Georgia's football team has been surprised to see Will Thompson limping around the Bulldogs practice fields this season.

Will Thompson's junior season ended before the first game when he dislocated his left ankle during an August practice. The subsequent surgery left him on crutches for three months.

It's typical for seriously injured athletes to drift away from the team. Three other Bulldogs, safety Kentrell Curry, running back Tony Milton and wide receiver Cedric Haywood, also missed the season due to injuries suffered in August, and all three followed the usual pattern, popping up at practice here and there.

Thompson, a 2000 graduate of Northside High School in Warner Robins, bucked the trend.

"It seems like Will enjoys being out there a little more than the other guys," Coach Mark Richt said. "He always brought a positive attitude from the get-go. That's the kind of guy he is."

It wasn't rare to see Thompson leaning on his crutches, urging young defensive linemen through drills or schooling them on technique. The regular attendance wasn't a surprise to defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, who said Thompson didn't miss a single practice or workout in 2001 or 2002.

"He's an unselfish guy. He's not a 'me' guy," Fabris said. "Whether he's getting two sacks in the Sugar Bowl against Florida State or whether he's been hurt for two months, he's got a smile on his face."

Thompson won the Bulldogs' "Iron Man" award following the 2002 season and the "True Grit" award in spring of this year. His continued presence at practice was simply part of his rehabilitation, he explained.

"It kind of keeps me connected with the team," he said. "You don't want to stay away from the team. If I wasn't with the team, it'd be hard for me to come back next year and be a leader."

That's not to say it hasn't been a tough year.

"Long, that's about the only thing that can describe it," he said.

The injury came at a particularly poor time for Thompson, who appeared on the verge of a breakout season. He won the starting defensive ends job from Robert Geathers early in 2002 and started the final 12 games of the year. He finished the season with 59 tackles and six sacks, including two against the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl.

"He was a heart-and-soul type of guy," Richt said. "He was just a good example of how we want everybody to play."

Said Fabris: "He just brings a lot of intangibles. We knew we'd miss him as soon as he went down."

Fabris admits he was emotional following Thompson's injury, and the subject still causes his voice to crack.

"I was not in a good mood for a long while," he said. "That's the kind of guy who shouldn't get that break."

Despite the injury, Thompson earned one of the defensive coaches' highest honors this season. He is one of only five Bulldogs to have a boxing glove with his name on it hung in the defensive meeting room, an indication of work ethic and effort.

"That's a big honor," Thompson said. "I appreciate them doing that. It feels good when you get hurt and people still feel like you're an important part of the team."

Thompson got off his crutches in mid-November and hopes to be able to participate fully in spring practice. He'll enter next season as a senior, but the Bulldogs plan to apply for a sixth year of eligibility at the end of next year.

For now, he said he's most concerned with regaining his starting job. Geathers has started all 13 games this year and has 33 tackles and three sacks.

"It's going to be hard to get that position back," Thompson said. "It's going to be a struggle."

The only certainty is he'll be on the field every day working at it.

THE THOMPSON FILE
Class: Junior
Ht./wt.: 6-3/240
Position: Defensive end
Major: Sociology
High school: Northside
High school honors: Class AAAA all-state ... All-Middle Georgia ... won Eagles' Golden Helmet Award as senior
College honors: Named Bulldogs "Iron Man" for 2002 season ... won "True Grit" award for spring practice 2003.
Quotable: "My wife loves him. He's very thoughtful, very pleasant off the field." - Defensive ends coach Jon Fabris.

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