Thompson now teaching that anything is possible

Posted Dec 12, 2017

Despite facing challenges throughout his life, Bills wide receiver Deonte Thompson has persevered. With guidance along the way from former NFL running back Fred Taylor, Thompson has learned that anything is possible and has since dedicated himself to giving back.

For Deonte Thompson, it still elicits a big sigh from his lungs. Losing his nephew to murder in his hometown of Belle Glade, Florida three years ago was difficult. Not only because he was family, but because Darrel Roberts was more like a brother.

“He was my oldest brother’s son, so we were the same age,” said Thompson. “We grew up in the same house so he was really like my brother.”

Roberts was also the one who introduced Thompson to football.

“He was the athlete. Third grade he came home with some shoulder pads and that’s how we started playing football,” Thompson recalled. “He was first with it and then all of us were out there the next day playing. He played everything position-wise. He played basketball too. He was a great cornerback though. He was fast and strong.”

But like so many in Belle Glade, a town that at one time, along with nearby Clewiston, produced almost half of the country’s sugar from the cane fields in the fertile swamplands near Lake Okeechobee that were drained in the 1920’s, Roberts succumbed to the temptations of the street life.

When one grows up surrounded by cane fields and little in the way of opportunity, someone flashing a wad of cash in front of you can prove to be an overpowering draw. Most who grow up in Belle Glade never see much else. So seemingly easy money in a place where most residents are scraping by to pay rent and put food on the table can be easily rationalized as a logical decision.

“He was one of the most talented guys,” Thompson laments of his nephew. “But he fell victim to the street life.”

Fifth Street University
It used to be the street in Belle Glade where migrant workers would wait on a loading ramp for buses to take them to the sugar cane and vegetable fields for harvesting. Now it’s known as the prime location for crime and drug trade.

It’s also where so many promising athletes, in a town that has produced a disproportionate number of NFL players, are now street hustlers trying to make a fast buck.

“We call it F-S-U,” said Thompson. “It stands for Fifth Street University. Most people who don’t get out go right up to Fifth Street. There’s so much talent up there on that one street, so much talent, but there’s nowhere else to go. They don’t know any better. That’s the street life up there. It’s a high crime area. It’s a rough area man, but we’ve just got to change the mindset of the people and try to get those kids out of there.”

Thompson gets how what seems like an easy situation to avoid is so difficult for outsiders to understand. But in a town where unemployment paces close to 40 percent, desperate people can make poor decisions.

“Most of the time they’re family members,” said Thompson of those who lure the next generation of dealers. “Your older uncle, or your big brother. He just started dealing and he doesn’t have a lot of money. He’s probably got five-thousand dollars to his name, but he’s got five-thousand dollars in cash in his pocket and he’s showing you that. You’re thinking that’s so much money and before you know it you’re like him and you’re the one in and out of jail. And you’re a product of the environment.”

Seeing is believing
Thompson learned of the pitfalls around him rather quickly. Growing up in his apartment complex there was enough talk among his friends to know who and what to avoid. Football and getting good grades was his focus, but as he entered high school Thompson still didn’t know much beyond the walls of cane fields around him.

At least until his high school track coach took him and some of his teammates up to Gainesville for a Florida football game.

“After our Friday night game, he’d take about 10 of us up to Florida for a Saturday game,” said Thompson. “We’d get on the road early Saturday morning for the three-hour drive. We’d catch the 12 o’clock or one o’clock game.”

Thompson looked at the college athletes on the field and felt he would have no problem competing even then as a high school sophomore.

“Just going and seeing it and knowing that it’s possible was big because where I’m from a lot of people don’t get a chance to get out,” he said. “If it wasn’t for sports I wouldn’t have ever seen a lot. I’d be stuck in Belle Glade. Belle Glade is like a city inside a cane patch by itself. So before you’re old enough to drive anywhere all we saw was Belle Glade. The four walls of Belle Glade. That’s all we knew.”

Those Gators football games, along with the special invitation of a Belle Glade alumnus made all the difference in Thompson’s perspective about his future.

A mentor provides a path
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor grew up in the neighboring town of Pahokee, but went to Glades Central high school like Thompson and his teammates. Taylor, a Pro Bowl-caliber tailback at the time, wanted to give back to the athletes coming up behind him and would invite members of the high school football team up to a Jaguars home game and speak to the students.

Taylor’s message to the kids who grew up just like he did was simple.

“I really just told them that where we’re from football is easy,” said Taylor. “The hard part is getting out. When I say getting out, that means not being distracted and not becoming complacent. It was so easy. I like to say there were some guys who were better talents than myself. Guys back in high school who didn’t pan out. They were distracted or they didn’t have the family support to steer them clear of the stuff that was easy to get caught up in.”

“He told us, ‘Man you’re all from the muck! This is easy to play football! This is what we do. You’ve just got to do it the right way and the future is bright.’ That’s what he told us,” said Thompson of Taylor’s message. “There were probably 30 of us. When I went to the game I’m looking on the field thinking, ‘These are regular dudes man! I’m his size!’ It kind of became reality for me. I can do this. It’s possible. That alone gave me the inspiration to commit to get to the NFL. I knew then that I could do it.

“It’s easier for kids now with technology with the internet, but we didn’t have that as kids. So we didn’t see much outside of Belle Glade until we saw it for ourselves. And that’s all I needed. When I saw it I realized it was all right there. You get your grades. You go to college. You play football. You go to the NFL. You do everything the right way and then you live out your dream. That planted that seed.”

Fully committed
From his sophomore year on Thompson was fully committed to playing college football. He kept his grades up and come his senior year at Glades Central, he helped lead the Raiders to the Class 3A state championship putting up 30 receptions for just over 500 yards and eight touchdowns. This despite missing five games with a foot injury.

Come the state title game, Thompson would contribute with 77 yards from scrimmage on just two plays. Both of them went for touchdowns. The first, a 44-yard touchdown reception. The second, a 23-yard touchdown run with three minutes remaining, which proved to be the game-winning score in a 39-27 victory over Pine Forest in 2006.  

That accomplishment along with state titles in the 100 and 200 meters with best times of 10.49 and 21.29 had Florida head coach Urban Meyer offering him a scholarship.

After redshirting the year Florida won the national title in 2007, Thompson was a part of the repeat title-winning team in 2008. He’d finish his college career with 101 receptions for just over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns.

Carving out a niche
Despite a top flight pro day that included a 4.31 40-time, a 36 ½-inch vertical leap, a 10-foot five-inch broad jump and a sub-seven second three cone drill, Thompson went undrafted in 2012.

He was signed as an undrafted rookie by Baltimore and appeared mainly on special teams as a rookie. After his release by the Ravens, the Bills signed him in December of 2014, just a month after he lost his nephew back in Belle Glade. He was re-signed as a reserve future free agent in 2015, but was waived-injured by the club despite a strong preseason.

“It pissed me off,” Thompson said. “But then again I was hurt and you obviously can’t make the team in the tub. I was mad, but I realized I had to find another spot and start over.”

That other spot proved to be Chicago where he appeared in 28 games over three seasons for the Bears. Suddenly five games into the season the Bears released him.

“I was shocked,” said Thompson. “They cut me and I didn’t understand. I felt like I was contributing and having a great season. One of the leading receivers on the team. I was a leader on the team. For something to come out of left field like that it kind of messed me up and I had some doubts.

“I was wondering what I did this time. I went and talked to my offensive coach and he was like, ‘It was nothing you did.’ I don’t know what he was trying to do. He never told me why it happened.”

After working out for the Patriots in New England, the Bills called and flew him to Buffalo for a workout. Thompson was signed by the Bills the next day.

Five days later he put up just the second 100-yard receiving day of his career in a comeback win over Tampa Bay.

“As soon as I signed here that Tuesday I called my wife and I said, ‘This is how it’s supposed to happen,’” Thompson told “Even before that success I had on that first Sunday, I felt like this was how it was supposed to happen. It was a different feeling. I was here that first Tuesday with (receivers) coach (Phil) McGeoghan all night, and leaving I felt the energy here and felt like I belonged. This was where I was supposed to be. Then I came out that first Sunday and voila you saw what happened.”

Giving it back
As much as Thompson is focused on giving the Bills all that he has on the field, he remains deeply affected by his nephew’s passing. There’s a constant pull that he feels from the community that raised him. It prompted Thompson to establish the D.T. Prime Foundation with his wife Jourdan. The main goal is to provide high school students in Belle Glade to see a future beyond the town where opportunity is extremely limited.

“Seeing it made it possible for me,” said Thompson. “Even guys like Fred (Taylor) and Reidel Anthony they came back a lot. Just seeing them made a difference. That’s why I go back and let the kids see me. Let them see you and feel you and touch you. It’s one thing to see these players on TV, but if you see me in person now you know it’s real. We’re just trying to change the mindset.”

Deonte and Jourdan Thompson are in the process of organizing college campus tours for 25-30 high school students from Belle Glade and Pahokee high schools to give them a greater perspective of what’s possible for them.

“Just trying to change their outlook,” he said. “That’s home for me and it’s dear to my heart. I know it’s going to be big. I just can’t wait to see their faces when they see the college campuses. A lot of kids where I’m from don’t understand college.”

Seeing Thompson paying it forward to the next generation of Belle Glade students leaves Taylor feeling fulfilled knowing he helped to mentor him.

“That’s what it’s about,” Taylor said. “I’m definitely proud of him just because of what he’s done. It’s tough with the challenges that it takes to come out of Belle Glade. Now he’s emphasizing that to the kids behind him. It’s really about giving back.”

“I’m from here. I’m from this community. I grew up here just like you guys,” said Thompson of the message he now delivers to the students. “I went through the same struggles. Single mother, didn’t have much. I came up the same way you’re all coming up. Just give them the motivation, just planting that seed so they know that anything is possible.”