Darian Thompson’s life goal is simple. Be successful.
The path didn’t matter: football, a sport he loved but faced doubts about his size; baseball, where he was a left-handed pitcher with an 85-mph fastball; or the working world, where he hoped to have the advantage of the first college degree in his family.
Neither did obstacles. He knew his family couldn’t afford a private high school or college, but he attended both with grants and scholarships because of his academic and athletic performances.
And there’s little doubt that his life to this point has been a success. At 22, the Boise State senior safety is a college graduate (health science), second-team All-American, Mountain West career record holder (19 interceptions), two-time defensive team MVP and NFL Draft prospect.
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He’ll play his final college game Wednesday against Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl and showcase his talent for scouts next month at the Senior Bowl.
“Anything that he wanted, he worked for,” said Shannon Thompson, Darian’s mom. “Since he was 7, he wanted to play in the NFL, and now it looks like he’s going to get there. He’s just driven.”
His motivation increased in October, when Thompson became a father. His high school sweetheart, Chelsey Washington, gave birth to their daughter, Novah. Washington also graduated Saturday with a marketing degree.
Family always has been Thompson’s inspiration.
“I have people looking up to me,” he said. “With my immediate family back home — brother, sisters, mom, dad — they would love and they want me to be successful. But if I wasn’t successful, it’s not the end of the world. But if I’m not successful with my daughter, then it could be.”
Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said he learned more about Thompson’s journey during a recent conversation with Paraclete High coach Norm Dahlia while recruiting than he did in the two seasons that Thompson played for him.
Dahlia and Thompson weren’t specific, but it’s clear Thompson needed to build, rather than follow, a path to success.
“He’s never let anything drag him down,” Dahlia said. “He’s battled through life to get to where he is. ... I’m really not surprised. I’m just so darn proud of him.”
Thompson grew up in Lancaster, Calif., in north Los Angeles County. Shannon was determined her four kids wouldn’t get sidetracked by the nearby drugs and violence and found a way to get them a better education than they would have received in the local public high school.
She emailed Dahlia to inquire about sending Thompson, her oldest, to Paraclete, a Catholic school with a zero-tolerance policy for fighting and dogs that search for drugs. It’s also a college preparatory school, so Thompson had to meet the academic requirements.
“When he got accepted to Paraclete, it changed everything for him,” Shannon said.
That’s where Thompson met Dahlia, who was instrumental in getting him to Boise.
Former Boise State running backs coach Keith Bhonapha visited Paraclete to scout a different player. Dahlia recommended he study Thompson, too, and Bhonapha was intrigued enough to suggest the 6-foot-1, 160-pound cornerback attend the Broncos’ summer camp.
Dahlia and the Paraclete principal drove Thompson to Boise. Former head coach Chris Petersen met him, listened to his story and took him for a walk. When Petersen returned, he told Dahlia, “If you can put 25 pounds on him, we’ll take him.”
Dahlia solicited help from a friend who knows nutrition and began inviting Thompson to his house for breakfast every morning. He’d feed him six to eight eggs, eight pieces of sausage, eight pieces of bacon and French toast.
“And I’d make sure he ate every bit of it,” Dahlia said.
By October, Thompson was up to 181 pounds. He received his first — and, as it turned out, only — scholarship offer from the Broncos on Oct. 31, 2010. He committed on that phone call.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Shannon said of the Boise State coaches. “They came out and weighed him themselves.”
Five years later, Thompson has filled out that once-scrawny body, and nobody doubts his place on a football field. He’s 6-foot-2, 212 pounds, with 42 starts as a college safety. He has been named first-team All-Mountain West and second-team All-American each of the past two seasons and is a captain for the Broncos this year.
He’s tough, physical and instinctual — a player trusted on and off the field.
“He’s a guy you want to be around all the time,” senior wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes said. “... He’s an easy person to talk to and he leads by example.”
Teammates have shared Thompson this season with Novah, who was born the week of the Oct. 10 game at Colorado State. Thompson elected not to enter the 2015 NFL Draft not long before he learned he would be a dad but says he doesn’t regret that decision.
“I felt like that was right and best for me and my family,” he said. “And it has benefited me. Regardless of whether I left or came back, my daughter, she’ll still have everything she ever wanted.”
That would be a different childhood than the one Thompson experienced, not that he’s complaining or even disappointed.
He received what he needed. And he worked for what he wanted.
“Life wasn’t perfect,” he said. “My mom always made sure we had food to eat, clothes to wear, and that’s all that really matters. We didn’t have the luxuries of a lot of the other kids, and I truly believe now that I’m thankful for that because I think that plays into why I work so hard and why if I set my mind on something, I go and get it. It’s because I never had anything handed to me.”
He enjoys a tight bond with his mom, who felt like she forgot something when she dropped him off at Boise State as a freshman.
“I was forgetting my son,” Shannon said.
She always told him to reach for the stars. She has built on that message with inspirational texts before every game and reminders of how proud she is of what he’s achieved.
“He’s becoming a wonderful man,” Shannon said, “and now, a father.”
A success story, too.
“There’s been so many instances where things didn’t look so well,” Thompson said. “... If you want something, just go get it — no matter what anybody else says.”
Editor’s note: Three of the most productive players in Boise State football history will play their final college game Wednesday. We featured cornerback Donte Deayon on Monday and wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes on Tuesday. You can read those stories at IdahoStatesman.com.
Poinsettia Bowl: Boise State vs. Northern Illinois
▪ When: 2:30 p.m. Wednesday
▪ Where: Qualcomm Stadium (71,500, grass), San Diego
▪ TV: ESPN, Beth Mowins, David Diaz-Infante, Shelley Smith
▪ Radio: KBOI (670 AM) and KTIK (93.1 FM), Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
▪ Records: Boise State (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West); Northern Illinois (8-5, 6-2 Mid-American)
▪ Coaches: Boise State, Bryan Harsin (20-6, second year; 27-11, third year overall); Northern Illinois, Rod Carey (31-11, third year)
▪ Series: First meeting
▪ Vegas line: Boise State favored by 9 points; over/under is 56
▪ Kickoff weather: Low 60s and mostly cloudy, with 7 mph winds and a 10 percent chance of rain.