“Sports have always been a vehicle for economically disadvantage youth to come away from their problems,” former Georgetown coach John Thompson Sr. told me. “I’m not saying it’s the only way out, but it is a vehicle, so why ignore it?”
Legendary Detroit baseball and football coach, Ron “Thomp” Thompson, who passed in October of 1994, lived John’s words for four decades as a youth leagues and high school coach and mentor.
If “Thomp” was still alive when the call finally came from the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame confirming his ascension into this remarkable collective, he would have more than likely just shrugged his giant shoulders and said in that unusual, high screeching voice that did not fit his 6-foot-2, 300-pound frame, “Who me?”
Thomp’s interrogative, “Who me?” would have been delivered with humility and sincerity. The former Northwestern High football star only did the things he did because there was a need. Sure he loved coaching, but that wasn’t the only motivation for men in his era, especially at the youth level. Absolutely there was no money in coaching young men. However, in a perversely and defiantly segregated America, men like Thomp understood that they could use athletics as a vehicle to cajole, instruct, discipline and uplift young men.
“Mr. Thompson’s life did not start at DePorres,” Tigers’ great Willie Horton reminded me. “It was at the projects where he put his arms around us. He put all our bats and balls in a pile and said, ‘You have to love each other first and that’s the start of teamwork.’ When I see that statue of myself in Comerica Park, I often think of Thompson and my humble roots.”
Said Oak Park coach Greg Carter, who played baseball and football (at Mackenzie) and coached under Thomp, before he took over DePorres following Thomp’s passing: “He gave us a vehicle to do something positive. He spent his whole life working for the youth of Detroit.”
Without a doubt Thompson’s inclusion in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame’s 55th induction class is a direct result of his efforts as head football coach at Detroit St. Martin DePorres. At the time of his passing, he was second all-time in the state of Michigan having won eight state titles But for all his football success at DePorres High, in the Detroit sporting community his legend was solidified because of his tireless work coaching youth football and baseball for the only African-American or integrated team (Westside Cubs) allowed in the Detroit Junior Leagues.
His legend was etched in concrete in the early 1960s when he won a national title with a youth baseball team that had Horton, Alex Johnson, Benny Carbo, Teddy Sizemore and Rufus Hayes. In that same decade before his high school coaching days he mentored many others.
Because segregation was entrenched in Detroit’s youth leagues, the Westside Cubs were cutting too many people. So, Thompson, Leland Stein Jr., Jocko Hughes and Sam Washington Sr. founded the Saint Cecilia Beacons expecting to join the Detroit Junior Football League, but the league held to its policy of one African-American team. Undeterred, Thompson and friends entered the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Leaving his beloved Cubs clearly denotes that Thompson’s focus for the youth was always more than just about athletics. Seeing a chance to get more kids off the streets and involved was the reason the now legendary Saint Cecilia was founded.
Before Thompson started his DePorres legend he settled over at Mackenzie High, where he led the Stags to the 1971 and 1975 Detroit Public School League baseball title game and helped coach the football team to two divisional titles. He was and is Detroit’s most influential mentor and coach.
Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@ aol.com and Twitter @Leland- SteinIII.