As the United States Football League worked toward returning to competition for the first time in more than three decades, USFL commissioner Daryl Johnston mentioned to me that he thought running back Mark Thompson could be a breakout player for the league.
Not a whole lot of people know more about football than "Moose" Johnston. So I followed his nudge and texted Thompson to ask if he would talk for a story.
Nearly an hour later, he replied: "Hey, RJ! I really appreciate the offer, this is huge. However, I’m really focused on being the best product of myself I can be when the lights cut on. When the season begins if you’re still interested feel free to reach out again. I’ll lock your number in now."
That was March 2, 2022.
In many respects, Thompson was the kind of player the USFL, as a spring league designed around the NFL’s regular season, was created to showcase. As a standout high school player in the Philadelphia area and a junior college All-American, he’d only flashed his athletic brilliance a handful of times at Florida where self-inflicted problems tarnished an otherwise budding talent.
As he was beginning to find his footing in the NFL, though, the impact of the pandemic halted his football career. As a former Super Bowl champion fullback for the Dallas Cowboys, Johnston was impressed by what he saw from Thompson on film as he helped locate, scout and sign more than 400 players in 2022.
Thompson was "a running back who kind of got lost in the shuffle a little bit with COVID," Johnston told me. And with a hamstring pull, when he did have some opportunities to go to a [NFL training] camp, he was one of the running backs that I looked at that just said, ‘OK, why is this guy not in the NFL?’"
There were also some off-field issues. Johnston and the USFL, though, recognize there are those that deserve second chances, chances to show maturity, good citizenship, community engagement, and to showcase their ability as football players.
In fact, 2022 USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin was such a player the USFL took a chance on. Seven months after the New Jersey Generals first signed Turpin, the Cowboys invited him to training camp. His ability as a punt and kick returner led the Cowboys to sign him to their 53-man roster. By the end of the 2022 season, he had been named a Pro Bowler and an NFL All-Pro by his peers.
Johnston called Turpin’s story "unbelievable."
"You know, that's what the hook is here in this league," Johnston said. "Giving these young men another opportunity. Sometimes it's a non-traditional path back to the NFL. Sometimes it's just changing the narrative that's out there about you. Sometimes it's just showcasing your skill set."
Thompson, now 28, was held back by injuries in 2022, though when he is healthy he is the USFL's closest comparison to Derrick Henry. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, it’s not uncommon to see Thompson running by defenders and over them — as one Birmingham Stallion experienced last week in the Gamblers’ 27-20 win at Protective Stadium.
Thompson is tied for the league lead in rushing TDs this season, having already notched eight. Reigning Offensive Player of the Year Darius Victor rushed for nine TDs in all of 2022.
The Gamblers, who are riding a three-game winning streak, are 3-0 this season when Thompson plays, 0-2 when he does not.
Against the 2022 North Division champion Generals on Sunday at Simmons Liberty Bank Stadium (4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), Thompson figures to play an important role. But he’s taking the days as they come, grateful to play pro football, and looking to put together a complete season.
On May 16, 2023, I asked to talk to Thompson again.
"I feel like last year, there was a lot of hype going into the season," he said. "And those first few games, I was definitely doing what I needed to do to showcase my talent, but I didn't have a strong finish. And overall, the team didn't do well. And if the team doesn't do well, everyone's not gonna get looks. When we all play well, we’re all gonna get looked at. So I think I just need to keep playing the way I'm playing. I have to do the little things right."
He is. He’s playing with fury on the field, remaining focused, humble and team-oriented on it. In that way, he’s showing himself to be the man Johnston sought out personally.
"I reached out to him and spoke to him directly," Johnston told me. "This is somebody who's learned from his mistakes, knows that he's missed an opportunity and knows that the clock is running on him. I'm excited to see what Mark Thompson does with this opportunity because I think he's one of those guys that knows that there's not a lot of time left for him. And if he's going to have that opportunity to get to the NFL level, he's got to have a breakout season in the USFL. And when you watch him on film, he is fully capable of doing that."
The USFL isn’t just a spring football league. It’s the way back, and Thompson is walking it.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The Number One College Football Show." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to "The Number One College Football Show" on YouTube.