In the early afternoon on a Monday in May, Eric Thompson is at his home in Marion, Illinois, getting ready for work. The door is unlocked and he scurries from his twin daughters' bedroom to wave me inside. His daughters, Avery and Emersyn, a year and a half old, follow closely with their bright blue eyes and giant smiles. Nickelodeon cartoons play on the TV near the door.
We go over the day's plan while Thompson, 28, cuts up a salameat sandwich for the girls. We're going to drive the 55 miles through southern Illinois to the coal mine where Thompson works. By the time we figure out the logistics, the meat is cut into bite-sized pieces and served in Tupperware so the girls can eat on the run.
Thompson changes out of his morning Under Armour leisurewear and into his work clothes: dark jeans, a gray undershirt, and a bright yellow top, all trimmed with reflector tape. By now his girlfriend Haley Williams is busy corralling the girls as they zoom around the house on little scooters, falling and laughing. At one point, Thompson picks up both his girls and puts one on each shoulder, bouncing up and down the house.
By 1 PM, it's time to leave. As we step out the door, Avery and Emersyn start crying in unison, as if it is choreographed. Thompson says they do this every time. It's the main reason he hates working the second shift. On first shift, he leaves before they wake up.
Thompson's drive to work takes a little more than an hour down two-lane roads through small towns like Pickneyville and Desoto, all populations under 5,000, some in the triple digits. Road signs warn of horses and buggies. Some of the smaller roads off our route are still flooded from a recent storm.
When we get to the mine's office and equipment area, Thompson introduces me to a few of his coworkers; he told them I'd be coming. When Thompson goes off to get his equipment, one of the older guys jokes that he doesn't know why I singled him out. "Everyone here is a has-been. We were all good at something." A big banner hangs from the wall to our right: 140 Days Without An Accident.
At 3 PM, Thompson and most of the others load up into small school buses for the 45-minute drive down the mine. Thompson is a roof bolter, meaning it's his job to secure the seven-foot-high tunnel so it doesn't collapse as the drilling machines go deeper. The crew stay underground for nine hours, emerging just shy of midnight, coated in black, and visibly exhausted. But upon seeing me, Thompson still manages a tired version of his typical enthusiastic greeting: "A.G.!" It takes him about a half-hour to wash the coal off in the shower, which he likes to do before he gets home. He pulls into his driveway at 2 AM.
On the short walk from his truck to his bed, Thompson passes two road signs hanging on his porch that used to be displayed on the edge of town, reminders that this isn't the life he envisioned. "Eric Thompson USATF Junior Olympic HJ National Champion," one boasts. The other begins, in big block letters, "HOME OF ERIC THOMPSON." He stole the signs almost a decade ago. By then, he was no longer the pride of his hometown. For all he knows, no one even noticed the signs were gone.
In 2007, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, better known as USADA, tested 3,350 athletes during competitive events. Approximately 15, depending on how you count, tested positive for a banned substance. Eric Thompson, then a high school athlete, was one of them.
It often gets lost in the flurry surrounding the press releases announcing a positive test, but behind every one is an athlete who has put his or her entire soul into a sport. Regardless of the circumstances, a positive test can, and usually does, derail a career. For every prospective Olympic athlete who tests positive and then gets another opportunity to compete at an elite level, there are people like Thompson who never make it back to the heights of their sport. They're branded cheaters by the black-and-white anti-doping authorities who push binary rhetoric despite a rulebook filled with gray areas.
When I asked Thompson's father what he wanted people to learn from his son's case, he simply said, "Imagine if it was your kid."
Thompson grew up in Herrin, a southern Illinois town of about 11,000 surrounded by farmland and coal mines. His dad, Larry, left school in his early teens and worked as a roofer; his mom, Barbara, worked for a local business. They were always able to put food on the table, but money was a constant worry. Starting in seventh grade, Thompson made a little extra cash by helping his neighbors, the Brandons. Every morning until the day he left Herrin, he would wake up at 6 AM and head over their house to do chores like scooping chicken shit out of the coops where the Brandons' 40 show chickens lived.
Eric was the middle of Larry and Barbara's three sons, and all three boys' lives revolved around sports. The Thompsons converted the large field next to their house into whatever playing field the season demanded. Football in the fall, baseball in the spring, basketball whenever. Larry was a Little League coach for all three of his sons.
While all three Thompson boys were outstanding athletes, it was clear to Larry that Eric was gifted, even from a young age. In baseball, Thompson officially played shortstop but unofficially covered left field, too, because he knew that the left fielder couldn't catch. He could dunk by the time he reached high school. During his junior year, Herrin's baseball coach asked him to throw a few from the mound just to see if he could help the team. Thompson hadn't played on a baseball team since eighth grade, but he clocked 90 miles per hour on the radar gun while staying in the strike zone.
Thompson was a football guy until eighth grade. He started on the football team at wideout and safety; his combination of speed, vertical leap, and big, muscular hands made him impossible to cover. "There's no doubt in my mind … he had a future in college football," his high school football coach, Jason Karnes, recalled when Thompson was inducted into Herrin High School's Hall of Fame in 2013, adding Thompson was tough to bring down once he had the ball, calling him a "hard-nosed player." In high school, Thompson won a meet with a sprained ankle swollen so severely it was thicker than his calf. Another time, he competed just after getting his wisdom teeth pulled, with the gauze still stuffed in his gums, cheeks the size of a golf ball.
But everything changed a few days before the Illinois state track and field championships in eighth grade. At the time, he was a good high jumper, but not a great one. He won meets jumping 5'8" or so, nothing spectacular. Before states, his middle school high jump coach, Eric Smith, asked him to try a different approach that took advantage of his raw athleticism. Rather than approach the bar as if following a giant "C" on the ground, Thompson followed a "J," tightening his angle so he could generate more speed and power.
Thompson felt the improvement immediately. His new approach was smoother, natural, and explosive. The first time they practiced it, he cleared six feet. At the state championships, he and his coaches further tweaked his approach on the fly. Maybe a step back, see how that feels. OK, go with it, maybe another step back again? He jumped 6'5", shattering the previous state record of 6'3 1/8". He went on to win the 2003 Junior Olympics a few months later with a jump of 6'4.75".
Thompson didn't improve as much during the track season his freshman year of high school, perhaps because he didn't have a high-jump coach. After the season was over, Smith, who previously didn't coach at the high school level, resumed coaching him and took him to the 2004 Track City Internationals in Eugene, Oregon, that summer. Working with a modified approach that included 12 steps toward the bar instead of the more common eight, Thompson won the meet with a new personal best of 6' 9.1", beating the runner-up by a full seven inches. If he had competed in the Junior Olympics that year and jumped a similar height, he would have won that, too. After that, Smith became the high school jumps coach so he could resume coaching Thompson full-time.
By his sophomore year, Thompson's jumps overshadowed every other event at local meets. At an indoor meet in January 2005, Thompson attempted seven feet. The local paper reported that, prior to a Thompson jump, the gym erupted in such a fervor that the 1,600-meter race couldn't begin; it was too loud to hear the starter pistol. Finally, the official lowered his hand, dropping any pretense the race would start, so the runners watched Thompson. He cleared it and the place went nuts. After a few minutes, everyone settled down and the 1,600-meter race began. As the runners circled the track, Thompson went for 7'1". The newspaper article cites one coach who claims to have seen a runner, Max Schloemann, stop completely so he could watch Thompson's attempt; Schloemann denied this, but did admit to slowing down and losing his focus (he finished 44th). Either way, Thompson missed the jump. "Should've had it," Thompson still says.
Some high jumpers psyche themselves up before their jumps, bouncing around, getting the crowd pumped up, taking a few seconds (or, in some cases, much longer) to mentally prepare. Thompson eschewed the theatrics. Instead, he would simply walk to the bar, look up at it, then walk away and begin his approach. In official event materials for the 2005 Junior Olympics, Thompson was quoted as saying, "You have to stay focused on the bar and nothing else."
The college letters started coming after Thompson cracked seven feet. At first, he got together with his track coach, Chad Lakatos, to review them every Friday. Before long, Lakatos's mail cubby at Herrin High filled up before Friday, so they'd have to do it every few days. Then every day. By his junior year, the school didn't know what to do with all the letters, so every Friday Lakatos handed Thompson a tote bag full of the week's letters and recruiting materials.
Despite the flood of offers, Thompson only considered going to two colleges: Arkansas and Florida. He anguished over the choice. Florida seemed like a place he could enjoy his college experience more, but Arkansas had a better program and both of his coaches thought it was a better fit. Ultimately, he chose Arkansas so he could work with Dick Booth, the field events coach since 1988 and a legend in the sport. With Booth's instruction, Thompson thought he had a real shot to add a few inches to his personal best and perhaps make the 2008 Olympic team. His coaches agreed. This wasn't some mere adolescent pipe dream.
After committing to Arkansas on a full athletic scholarship, Thompson wrapped up his high school career in style, taking three individual medals—in high jump, triple jump, and long jump—plus one relay at the Illinois state championships. In total, Thompson won 11 state medals during his high school career, set the state high jump record at 7'2", his personal best, and won multiple Junior Olympics.
On a warm summer night in 2007, Thompson celebrated his career by going to a graduation party at a friend's house. He played beer pong and Call of Duty. A little after midnight, someone proposed getting some cocaine from a hook-up. Everyone chipped in five bucks, just enough for each person to take a small bump off the tip of a key. Thompson barely felt anything. Five bucks wasted, he thought.
The next day, Thompson left with Lakatos and an assistant coach for Indianapolis, where the Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championships would begin the following morning. Thompson and his coaches had debated whether he should compete in that meet or the 2007 Junior Olympics which were held simultaneously. Smith wanted Thompson to compete in the Junior Olympics again, since it was the last year he would be eligible for the Under-18 event; he could still enter the Outdoor Championships the following summer as a 19-year-old. Lakatos preferred the Outdoor Championships because it was a more prestigious event and offered qualification for the biennial IAAF World Junior Championships (now called the World U20 Championships). It wasn't a consideration for anyone at the time, but the Junior Olympics didn't do anti-doping testing (they started in 2009). The Outdoor Championships did.
Thompson didn't perform particularly well in Indianapolis, but his final 6'10.75" jump was good enough for second place. Afterward, a man came up to him. He said that he was from USADA, and that Thompson had been selected for an in-competition drug test.
This was Thompson's first drug test. He had never been selected in the random tests at his high school or at any state meets. His coaches—a part-time high jump coach who worked for free, and a young, talented but then-inexperienced head coach—knew almost as little about anti-doping protocols as he did and, according to both coaches and Thompson, they never spoke about drug use beyond vague D.A.R.E-inspired platitudes. Thompson barely even knew what USADA was.
Thompson informed Lakatos that he had been selected. "We don't have anything to worry about, do we?" the coach asked. Thompson assured him they didn't. By then, it was too late to say anything. Once a doping control officer makes contact with an athlete, he or she cannot leave the officer's sight without providing a sample.
There are differing accounts about when this conversation took place. After the USADA hearing for Thompson's case, the arbitrator wrote that it happened in the car on the way to Indianapolis as Thompson reviewed event materials that stated the first- and second-place athletes would be tested, which piqued his concern, and that he didn't say anything about cocaine to his coach because of "youthful nervous embarrassment," not the presence of a doping officer. But that's not how Lakatos remembers it—both he and Thompson insist today that the conversation occurred at the meet, after Thompson was approached about the test. Regardless, Thompson told me he didn't think he had anything to confess. He hadn't doped. His performance wasn't enhanced. He barely even did any coke. If he didn't feel anything, surely it wouldn't show up in his sample.
A month later, the test results came back. One of Thompson's brothers brought in the mail and put the envelope on his bed, where Barbara, his mom, found it while cleaning his room. Thompson was out fishing with a friend when he got a call to come home. He walked through the door to find his mom in tears. She's not the type to yell or get angry. Instead, she cries, which for Thompson is so much worse. He knew the second he saw her what had happened.
Thompson tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine. He and his family remember it as "benzo-something." As a signatory of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Anti-Doping Code, USADA enforces a ban from virtually any high-level sports competition for up to two years for a first-time anti-doping offense for stimulants.
Nobody in the Thompson family knew exactly what any of this meant. It seemed absurd to Thompson that a bump of cocaine that seemingly had no effect on him two days before the meet would jeopardize his college scholarship and athletic future. He knew it would carry consequences, but couldn't imagine it ruining his career.
Barbara, however, had the opposite reaction. Athletic scholarships are awarded on an annual basis. Why would Arkansas give a scholarship to someone who couldn't compete? She demanded Thompson find out the next steps. So he went into his room, locked the door, and called USADA.
Thompson was suspended immediately, but he had the option to appeal and have his case heard by a neutral arbitrator. USADA recommended several lawyers who could represent him, but Thompson remembers being quoted an estimated cost upwards of $20,000. Not that they could have afforded those fees under normal circumstances, but Barbara had also recently lost her job. Without her income, they were barely making ends meet as it was. Eventually, Thompson was connected to the Valparaiso University Sports Law Clinic, which provides no-fee legal services to amateur athletes who cannot afford representation, and with their help he filed for an appeal.
That January, Thompson began classes at Arkansas (having deferred enrollment for a semester for academic reasons unrelated to his ban), but on January 22, 2008, he took the bus up from Fayetteville and met his dad in Indianapolis, where the appeal hearing was held. From there, they went to a hotel; a Clarion or Holiday Inn, they can't remember which.
There's a lot from that time Thompson has blocked from his memory, but he can recount for me with exact precision how he got from the hotel entrance to the conference room that had been booked for the hearing. "You walk in through the doors"—he jabs his hand forward while recalling what he calls the worst day of his life—"turn left"—his wrist swivels accordingly—"and there was a cafeteria. You turn right right before you walked into the cafeteria, and then took another right. And there was a big conference room."
Inside, tables were arranged in a rectangle: USADA on one side, Thompson, his dad, and their lawyers on another, the arbitrator on a third, and the fourth side empty.
"Something like this ain't about to happen to me over what I did. There's no fuckin' way. It just ain't how life is."
Over the next several hours, lawyers questioned Thompson and his father; Lakatos, Booth, and a toxicology expert were also questioned over the phone. The expert testified that cocaine could only provide a performance-enhancing effect if ingested minutes before a meet. There was no debate over the idea that Thompson's cocaine use had no positive effect on his jumps. USADA's lawyers accepted it as fact.
Instead, the success of Thompson's appeal hinged on the question of whether he was at "significant fault" for taking a banned substance. The legal definition of "significant fault" was as vague as it sounds. At the time of the hearing, a situation like Thompson's had never occurred in the four years that WADA's anti-doping code, of which USADA was a signatory, had been in place.
So with nothing else to go on, the hearing became about Thompson's character. Were his parents around for his games growing up? Were they involved in his life? Had he used drugs before? Did he get in trouble at school? Was he was a good student? At one point, Thompson was overwhelmed by the proceedings. His past was being scrutinized to determine if he had any future. Feeling light-headed, he put his head in his hands. "Mr. Thompson," he remembers someone at another table saying, "I think you need to pay attention to what we're saying right now."
"What I couldn't get over," Thompson recalls now on his porch, "was how small of a decision that I made will change the rest of my life." He thought this kind of thing happened to other people. Bad people. People who hurt others or cheat or steal.
"Something like this ain't about to happen to me over what I did," he remembers thinking. "There's no fuckin' way. It just ain't how life is."
For more than four hours, lawyers for both sides bickered over technical definitions. IAAF ADR Rule 40.3 and 40.1(a). Was Thompson at "no significant fault" or "significant negligence"? "When viewed under the totality of circumstances…" "Only in cases where circumstances are truly exceptional…." What does that mean? Articles 10.5.1 and 10.5.2 of the WADA Anti-Doping Code? This was all legal jargon to Eric and Larry Thompson. Yet, it was Eric's future. The people in the room with the most at stake were also the ones who had no idea what was going on.
Over a dinner of barbecue chicken with the Thompson family this spring, I ask Larry what he thought of the hearing. "I thought it was such a fucking piece of shit," he begins. "I was so pissed off. I didn't understand." He follows with a minute-long tirade filled with so much venom he can only get out a few words at a time. "There was nothing that… and they were making a bunch… I was just so frustrated… nothing meant anything… it didn't enhance… it didn't enhance"—he stands up—"didn't enhance nothing! His performance. Anything!"
Both Eric and Larry came away from the hearing with one overarching impression: this wasn't about them. They were caught in a system meant for something or somebody else. "We just wanted an answer," Larry says as his monologue comes to an end. "I don't know what you guys are talking about or why you're talking about or what you're even doing and why. Does. My. Son. Get. To. Jump?"
At the end of the hearing, a USADA representative gave Thompson a copy of Quiet Strength by Tony Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts head coach—an inspirational book written by about "the principles, practices, and priorities of a winning life," heavily influenced by Dungy's fervent Christianity. The Thompsons are not religious. They still have the book, but not because they enjoyed it.
Nine days after the hearing, the arbitrator—who said he remembers the case well but declined to comment for this article—made his decision. "Mr. Thompson is a naive young man, a virtual stranger to national athletic competition, who wandered briefly onto that stage without any material guidance from support personnel," he ruled, adding that Thompson "is a humble and contrite person who recognizes the magnitude of his mistake and accepts its serious consequences." He found that Thompson's youth and inexperience with anti-doping rules were "relevant mitigating circumstances in the case of a young athlete with no available informed guidance." Therefore, he reduced Thompson's ban from two years to one, the minimum length allowed under WADA's sentencing rules. Thompson would be allowed to compete again on July 18, 2008.
USADA accepted the decision. When asked about Thompson's case, Ryan Madden, a spokesperson for USADA, said that Thompson was fully cooperative throughout the process and quite obviously regretted his decision. "At the end of the day, everyone makes mistakes and this was just an unfortunate situation where a high school athlete made a bad choice and ended up having to be held accountable under the (WADA) code."
But WADA didn't agree. Three weeks after the arbitrator's decision, WADA appealed the ruling. Either party had the option of appealing the case one last time to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), akin to the Supreme Court for sports. And although WADA didn't participate in the first hearing, USADA is a signatory of the WADA code, so WADA is technically a party to any decision that affects its enforcement.
However, WADA didn't ask for another hearing. They wanted to submit the exact same evidence to CAS for consideration by three new arbitrators and revert the ban back to its original two years (USADA declined to take part in the appeal). WADA believed that accepting the reduced sentence would "create a loophole" wherein any athlete could claim "no significant fault" or "significant negligence" by blaming their coaches or being under a certain age. In addition, WADA argued that because the substance in question was an illegal street drug, Thompson shouldn't be allowed to claim negligence.
As the WADA appeal moved forward, Thompson returned to Arkansas. Since first learning about the positive test, Booth assured Thompson that his scholarship wasn't going anywhere for the 2007-08 season. The arbitrator's decision had been a relief—Thompson could compete again in the fall of '08—but WADA's appeal put his future seasons in jeopardy again.
Thompson already had encountered some issues not long after arriving at Arkansas. Even if he couldn't compete, Thompson thought he could still be part of the team, but the head track and field coach, John McDonnell, told him that would not be the case. Thompson could use the facilities, have his Arkansas gear and apparel, but he couldn't participate in team functions or practices. He'd live with football players, not track guys. He checked in with Booth every day, but otherwise his link to the team was tenuous at best. Thompson didn't know why this was happening, yet he felt he had no choice but to accept it. The University of Arkansas Athletic Department declined to comment for this article or to make McDonnell or Booth available for interview. Other attempts to reach McDonnell and Booth, both of whom have since retired, were unsuccessful.
What Thompson hadn't realized coming into the program was that Arkansas track and field was dealing with a scandal of its own. In October 2007, the NCAA sanctioned Arkansas for impermissible benefits provided to sprinter Tyson Gay by a former assistant coach. The NCAA stripped the men's program of two national championships and placed it on three years' probation. Arkansas had also stripped itself of three track and field scholarships when it first self-reported the violations to the NCAA.
To this day, Thompson is adamant that this was the reason for his treatment at Arkansas. He and his mother both say that Booth relayed McDonnell's displeasure with Thompson's enrollment to them. With his program already in hot water, McDonnell saw Thompson as a potential troublemaker the program could ill afford while on probation. Further, Thompson was on a full scholarship while other track and field athletes competing in tournaments were on partial scholarships. From the moment he got there, Thompson felt like he was merely taking up space.
Meanwhile, the positive drug test meant Thompson was now part of the USADA out-of-competition testing pool and, as mandated by the arbitrator's ruling, he had to join the university substance abuse program. Every quarter, he was required to inform USADA where he would be every single day for that time period. Thompson remembers getting tested multiple times a week, although USADA says they only tested Thompson once during his suspension. The other tests were likely part of a university or NCAA program. Arkansas declined to comment for this article. The NCAA did not return a request for comment.
Placed under so much scrutiny, Thompson failed to build any semblance of camaraderie with his teammates. When he wasn't living and training apart from them, Thompson says, he was being ignored by them. He felt like they resented him, like he had received a courtesy invite to a party and showed up even though no one truly wanted him there.
Not long after he started classes, Thompson was cited by his RA for having an empty wine bottle in his room. McDonnell called Thompson into his office. "This is everything you shouldn't be doing," Thompson remembers him saying. Another time, Thompson arrived 20 minutes late for a 6 AM drug test. Booth helped coordinate a test later in the day so it didn't count as a missed test, but McDonnell called Thompson to his office again.
This time, Thompson says, McDonnell concluded that he hadn't "earned" the right to wear the Arkansas logo and demanded he return every Arkansas-branded piece of clothing and equipment until his suspension ended and he proved he wouldn't give the program another black eye. Thompson also lost privileges to the Razorbacks workout facilities.
Before he arrived in Fayetteville, for the better part of four years Thompson's life was track. Both of his high school coaches attested to his unwavering dedication to the sport, with Smith at one point playfully mimicking Thompson's daily haranguing: "Let's go jump, coach. Let's go jump, coach. Let's go jump, coach."
Thompson enrolled at Arkansas because he thought it was the responsible choice for his athletic career. But now, practicing alone and working out in the rec center, Thompson wondered if he made the wrong decision. For the first time in his life, he felt like he wasn't an athlete.
He was also homesick. He missed his mom's home-cooked meals, the nightly dinners with the family, playing with his brothers. Thompson refused to admit it to his parents. It was his burden to bear, he figured. His mom, of course, saw right through the façade. She heard his voice over the phone and knew something wasn't right. More than anything, she just wanted her son to be happy, and he wasn't. It hurt her to know he had achieved so much but still felt so empty. "If you need to come home," she told him, "come home."
So during spring break, he did. Just after he arrived at his parents' house, Thompson remembers getting a call. It was from the doping control officer who had been testing him in Arkansas. No, he thought. They just tested me. It can't be. He ignored the call. His phone rang again. Ignored again. Under NCAA rules, a missed test counts as a positive result, which would lead to a two-year ban.
His phone rang again. This time it was Booth. "Where you at?" the coach asked. "We just left your dorm, we gotta find you."
"I'm in Herrin. I went home."
Click. Booth hung up.
Two days later, Thompson returned to Arkansas. Booth arranged for him to meet an advisor who worked for the athletic department. The man told Thompson, first thing, "They're probably not going to want you here anymore."
After the meeting, Thompson called his parents. He was coming home for good.
On June 25, 2008, the panel of arbitrators ruling on the CAS appeal rejected WADA's reasoning and upheld the arbitrator's original decision; the panel included Richard McLaren, who would later be called upon by WADA to investigate the Russian doping scandal in 2015. Thompson's circumstances truly were unique, they ruled, and worthy of a reduced ban.
In effect, it meant that Thompson had only a few weeks remaining under USADA suspension. But because the missed NCAA test over spring break counted as a positive test, he was still banned from NCAA competition for two years.
The next two years were desperate times for Thompson. He enrolled at Mckendree College, outside of St. Louis, in what he now realizes was a subconscious effort to delay the inevitable. Because Mckendree was a NAIA member and not in the NCAA, he could still compete in their tournaments. Due to a combination of injury and depression, he jumped poorly. After one year, McKendree moved up to Division II in the NCAA, meaning Thompson could no longer compete. He had nowhere else to go, no other options to explore. He returned to Herrin, got a small apartment, and found a job at Walmart.
For the better part of two years, Thompson shuffled between his job and his apartment, smoking weed and drinking himself to sleep. He's ashamed to admit what he was going through at that time, mostly because he doesn't want it to reflect poorly on his loved ones who did their best to help him. Just like at Arkansas, he tried to keep the depression bottled inside. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about what happened, but that's all anyone asked. He got tired, stopped going out in fear of those conversations, but at home, drunk and alone, he'd see the high bar. He'd think about his approach. He'd relive the 7'2" jump.
He'd second-guess everything, going over again and again in his head all the decisions that led him to working at Walmart instead of representing Team USA. He could have just thrown the jump, finished outside the top two and never been tested. He could have gone to the Junior Olympics. He could have gone to the University of Florida. And, of course, he could have not chipped in those five dollars.
Still clinging to the hope of some athletic future, Thompson made a desperate attempt in cage fighting, but it didn't take. He couldn't fit the rigorous training necessary into his work schedule. Instead, he spent most of his time figuring out how to come up with $400 a month for rent, which made him depressed, which led him to drink and get high, which made him need more money.
At one point, he called up the Brandons, the old couple whose chicken coops he used to clean. They had always thought the world of him, and he loved them back. He felt guilty for not visiting them before, but he couldn't face them. When he went to their place, they were so excited to see him, and he was truly excited to see them, but that's not why he was there. He asked them for money. They gave him $200. "It felt like shit," he says.
As he recalls this time while sitting on his porch, Thompson's voice drops to a slow mumble. He slumps in his chair and his eyes narrow, a shadow of his normal gregarious, energetic self. But he perks up, just a little bit, to make one point: He never thought about killing himself. Not once. But, "I can see why somebody would do that," he says while taking a sip of beer. "You know, somebody like me. Who is completely lost, don't have a clue, everything you thought your life was.… Then you have to literally start from scratch in a poor fucking city, a poor town, poor parents, poor everything, you don't have a degree, you don't have nothin'."
After he turned 21, a conversation with his mom made Thompson realize it was time to grow up and accept his athletic career was over. For someone like him in Herrin, there are only two options to make a decent living: work a connection to get a job in one of the local unions, or work in the coal mines. And he didn't know anyone in a union.
He called his Uncle Jerry, who worked in the mines. Uncle Jerry loaned him $150 to take coal-mining classes. He paid Uncle Jerry back with his first paycheck.
Thompson has worked in the mines for five years now. During that time, he met Williams and they had his twin daughters together. Marriage is on the way. Thompson hasn't thought much about his extinct track career recently. In fact, he had never told anyone the whole story from beginning to end until I stumbled upon his case as a footnote while researching a recent anti-doping decision. I messaged him on Facebook and, after a short phone call, he decided he was finally ready to tell his story. When we sat on his porch that warm afternoon in late April, Williams was with us, too, listening and periodically asking questions of her own.
The following day, Thompson expresses his relief as we drive over to his parents' house. Finally telling the whole story helped him sort through his complicated feelings. He harbors a great sense of personal responsibility for what transpired—"I should have made it work," he says over and over regarding his time at Arkansas—but can't shake the idea that so much was outside of his control or just bad luck. Acknowledging that tension helps him make peace with it.
Before we leave to go to his parents' house, he asks if I want to see the high school track where it all began. When we get there, the twins run around and splash in the puddles remaining from the storm. As we walk over to the high jump area, Thompson lets out a little laugh. "I didn't know they moved those here." On the front of the maintenance garage hang more road signs with his name, ones that he didn't take.
Thompson demonstrates his approach to the high jump bar, then he goes to the long jump, where his daughters are goofing around in the sand pit. He shows them how to do the jump, and one of the girls—I still can't tell them apart—follows suit, leaping from the track to the sand and throwing her arms out, just like her daddy.
"Thank God everything happened," Thompson says. This is the version of his life that has his girls. But still, the tension lingers. "It didn't have to go down that way."
The drive up to the mine is beautiful. On the day we drive together, the sun breaks through the remnants of a recent storm. Sprawling dandelion fields beside the road blur past. The wind wags the tree branches back and forth. Not too far from the mine, we pass a large barn-style house that sits atop a rolling hill a few hundred yards back from the road. Beside the house is a big red barn that looks like it belongs in a kid's book. Crops grow to one side and a big open field looms on the other. Thompson stares at it for a few seconds. He'd like to live in a house like that one day, he says. The girls could run out the front door and play and he wouldn't have to worry. He'd be close to work so he could spend more time with them. They could have a childhood like his: spend all day outside, run around in the mud, and get called in for dinner from the back door.
About a month later, my phone rings. "AG!" he hollers, prolonging each vowel of my initials. He's on his way to work, which reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask. "Remember that house you talked about that you'd like to live in? Was that the first time you noticed that house?"
"Oh no," he replied in a tone that conveyed neither fancy nor imaginativeness. "I look at that house every day, bud. Every day."
Correction: a previous version of this article stated McKendree College moved from NAIA to Division III. It moved to Division II.