(with NFL training camps in full swing, and the Lions celebrating their 75th anniversary, OOB will profile various Lions coaches and players throughout history every Friday between now and the regular season opener)
There’s a video clip that you must have seen; it would almost be impossible NOT to. You see it on some NFL Films blooper reels, wacky promos for the league, and even for TV shows that have nothing to do with the NFL, per se.
It’s of a Lions receiver chasing an errant pass out of bounds. And when he crosses the white sideline, he gets jabbed right in the gut with the business end of an orange first down marker.
The receiver, no. 39, is Leonard Thompson. And I remember seeing that play happen, live. It was in 1983, in Anaheim against the Rams. It was a Lions loss, and afterward it led to coach Monte Clark’s famous, “See you at the cemetery” line as he spoke in funereal tones to the reporters. Clark’s Lions had fallen to 1-4; he figured he was a goner. Monte survived, the Lions finished 9-7, and won the Central Division.
But back to Leonard Thompson.
Thompson, a Lion from 1975-86, never caught a lot of passes in any one given season. But he was a big play guy. From ’78-’83, Thompson averaged 19.6 yards per reception — including an almost unheard of 26.9 ypc in 1980. Yet the most passes Thompson ever caught in a season was 51, in 1985. He wasn’t a big YAC (yards after catch) guy; Thompson simply would run down the field, and the Lions’ quarterback du jour would let the ball fly, and Thompson would often come down with it.
Thompson, making yet another big play: Thanksgiving Day, 1983
So many things about Leonard Thompson, I recall.
He was a superior punt blocker, too. I don’t know how many he blocked, but it was a lot. None was bigger than a game I watched on TV in 1977.
The Lions were in Baltimore, finishing out the string one the next-to-last Sunday of the season. They were 5-7; the powerful Colts were 9-3, after a 9-1 start. The Colts held a 10-6 lead late in the fourth quarter. And they were back to punt, deep in their own end.
Thompson, as was his trademark, used his blazing speed to rush from the outside. He timed his leap perfectly, and blocked the punt. The ball bounced into the end zone, and the Lions recovered for the game-winning touchdown. I remember Memorial Stadium being deathly quiet.
Thompson was also the recipient of Chuck Long’s first NFL TD pass — a long heave, as usual (about 35 yards) — in Tampa Bay in 1986.
And Lions fans who are old enough to recall the competitive teams of the early-1980s will remember Thompson running reverses, averaging 10 yards a pop from 1980-83.
Thompson was also an active member in the Metro Detroit community, volunteering his time for many worthy causes.
Probably few people, anymore, know who Leonard Thompson is (especially outside of Detroit), and even the funny video clip of that receiver getting jabbed by the first down marker won’t jog their memories; to them, he’s just a nameless football player who had something humorous happen to him in a game sometime, in some year.
But when Thompson touched the ball — whether as a receiver, a runner, or a punt blocker — good things usually happened for the Lions. And how many people not named Barry Sanders or Billy Sims can you say that about over the past 30 years or so?
(Pro-Football-Reference.com provided the statistics for this post)