OGDEN, Utah (ABC4) – Erik Thompson was born to be a football coach.
His father, Fred, is a legendary figure in Utah high school athletics, having coached at Roy High School for 19 years, followed by a six-year stint at Fremont.
Erik was a part of his father’s squad as a high schooler himself and was known as a two-way star as both a safety and wide receiver. His playing days continued at Snow College, where he served as a captain on the football team before going on to a short stint at Colorado Mesa University.
Once he hung up the cleats for good and looked for a career in life after football, he realized he couldn’t escape from the game. He knew what his “calling” in life was, his sister, Jennifer Funk tells ABC4.com.
It helped that he hadn’t enjoyed his time with a poor coaching staff at Colorado Mesa, Funk says.
“It was one of the experiences that helped him realize, ‘I’ve had these amazing coaches my whole life, I see what it’s like when I don’t have an amazing coach,’ and it solidified for him that he wanted to come back and coach,” she explains of her brother’s career choice.
Determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, Thompson finished his degree at Weber State before taking a student teaching job at Fremont. The next year, he was hired at Northridge, where he ascended the ladder to become the Knights’ head coach.
Like his old man, who had won a state championship with Roy and sent BYU and NFL quarterback Jim McMahon on to greatness, Thompson was a natural on the sidelines. Over a 13-year stint at Northridge, his teams consistently overperformed, earning trips to the state playoffs 10 times.
At the same time, he had built a reputation as a coach who was even more interested in the well-being of his players outside of the gridiron.
“That’s a thing that’s underrated with Erik is how hard he works to help kids be eligible, to help kids feel success in the classroom so that they can play football,” Ogden School District Secondary Education Executive Director Luke Rasmussen, who coached with Thompson at Northridge for a spell, states. “It doesn’t matter if they’re star players, it doesn’t matter who they are, he wants them to be able to have that experience and better their life.”
Rasmussen and Thompson’s careers have been intertwined for years. When Rasmussen, who was working as the principal at Northridge and an assistant on Thompson’s staff took a position at Ogden High, his head coach ribbed him, asking him why he would take a job at a school in a much more difficult socio-economic situation than the one at his former school.
Eventually, Thompson realized what Rasmussen had seen in Ogden High School; an opportunity to make an impact. Halfway through the 2016 school year, with a position to coach football and teach physical education and health at Ogden opened up, Thompson jumped ship. He left a program that had been a consistent playoff contender for one that hadn’t won a game in three years.
“That’s the thing about the Ogden community, they’re amazing people and they were so ready for that for that person to come in and create some excitement,” Rasmussen recalls. “Erik really saw that opportunity and when he came in, they started having success.”
It didn’t come easy. Due to the Tigers’ lack of victories and waned enthusiasm towards football, they barely had enough players come out to fill out a defensive and offensive unit, Funk recalls her brother lamenting.
Thompson had his work cut out for him.
Little by little, by challenging a kid in his class to a game of basketball or racquetball – if Thompson won, the kid would have to play on the football team – the culture shifted at Ogden High. The wins came back, and the attitude shifted.
“Those kids would run through a brick wall for him,” Funk says, using a well-known expression for a coach who is beloved by his team.
Thompson would likely literally run through a wall for his team as well, by all accounts from friends, family, and colleagues.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to.
Recently, Thompson was diagnosed with a rare form of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that is increasingly robbing the hyperactive 49-year-old of his mobility.
Funk explains that her brother has already lost much of the function of his right arm. Lifting weights with his team is no longer possible. Even small things, such as clicking the lock button on his car’s key fob, have become strenuous.
However, in his typical determined fashion, he has continued to find ways to stay on the sidelines and remain the happy, competitive member of his family and friend group.
Unable to shoot a basketball with his right arm, he taught himself how to shoot with his left. Challenging his basketball-playing niece to a free-throw shooting contest, Thompson beat her, making five out of five with his left hand.
“He really is one of the most determined people that you’ll ever meet,” Funk gushes. “He’s trying his best to hold on to whatever he can do physically for as long as he can.”
Knowing the time before the deadly disease eventually overcomes him may be approaching, Funk and the many others who love Thompson have been doing all they can to show their appreciation to him.
This week, for the Tigers’ home game against Grand County, the school is hosting the event as “Erik Thompson Night.” Funk and her family, along with friends, fellow teachers, and members of the state’s athletic community are planning a number of surprises to remind Thompson of the impact he’s made in his career.
T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Thompson Tough,” as well as a commemorative program, filled with memories of lessons and experiences shared by dozens of his former players, will be given out at the game.
The Thompson Tough team also has a few surprises up its sleeves for the coach but says the tricky part will be getting him to take a detour from his typical gameday routine to enjoy them.
“He’ll be coaching that night, so we’re asking him to please adjust a couple of these things so that we can make sure people can talk to him after,” Funk laughs. “The community support has been great and people love him there. I think it will be a really fun night and I think it will have a really great turnout.”
In his time at Ogden, Thompson has revitalized a program and a school that had seen difficult times with his enthusiasm and concern for his team, not only as players but also as students and young adults. A team that hadn’t won a single game in the three years prior to Thompson’s arrival has now won 14 in his short tenure.
More than anything though, the kids in Ogden have been given a new hero to admire, even as his physical powers slowly diminish.
Rasmussen, who was a former college football player before beginning his career in education, says the impact a coach can have on a teenager is immeasurable.
“It’s hard to even put it into words. You have kids in that environment where they’re their authentic selves, they’re out there doing something that they love. They’re there, their guard is down, and you’re able to reach a kid at a level that is really hard in any other setting,” he explains.
Thompson, who coaches his own son, as well as Rasmussen’s, is one of the best, even as works with the crippling effects of ALS.
“It’s a way of life for him, it’s not a job. I think that’s hard for some people to understand. Why would he still be coaching when he’s dealing with what he’s dealing with? It’s because it’s his way of life. It’s just who he is and, and he treats it like that, and it’s pretty special to watch.”