EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When he was a freshman in high school, Darian Thompson, the Giants rookie who will very likely start at free safety this season, weighed 100 pounds and stood 5 feet 10 inches.
“He looked more like a walking 1-iron than a football player,” said Norm Dahlia, who coached Thompson at Paraclete High School in Lancaster, Calif. “But the local youth coaches promised me he would be one of my best players. And they were right, because he became my lockdown cornerback, punter, receiver and safety, whenever I needed him.”
By Thompson’s junior year he was a 6-1 all-conference star but still just 160 pounds. No college football program made him a scholarship offer. Then Boise State said it would take him if he gained 15 pounds.
“I started going to Coach Dahlia’s house every morning for a special breakfast,” Thompson said Wednesday after the Giants’ practice.
Dahlia had consulted a nutritionist.
“We started slowly, but after a few months, Darian’s breakfast was six eggs, six pieces of bacon, six pieces of sausage, four pieces of Texas-style French toast and a protein shake made with ice cream,” Dahlia said. “And he weighed 182 pounds.”
Halfway through his freshman year at Boise State, Thompson started at free safety, the first of 44 college games in a career that ended with multiple all-American awards and the Mountain West Conference’s career interception record. At the ensuing N.F.L. combine, though, Thompson did not impress, running a fairly pedestrian 4.69 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He now weighed 210 pounds, but he was not nearly as strong as some other defensive backs. In the third round of this year’s draft, Thompson fell to the Giants, the sixth safety taken. The Giants needed a free safety but few draft experts were convinced the team had picked up an impact player.
During the Giants’ first minicamp this spring, opinions began to change, largely because Thompson could not be ignored on the practice field. If nothing else, everyone could hear him shouting out commands, even yelling and gesturing toward veteran players many years his senior. The free safety is the last line of defense, like a baseball center fielder who also issues defensive signals to make sure every player is on the same page.
“Thompson was barking out,” the Giants’ defensive coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, said with a wide grin after that first practice. “That’s the first thing I look for in a safety. Will you be loud? Are you not afraid to make a mistake? I think that’s huge.”
In another practice shortly thereafter, Thompson intercepted Eli Manning in a simulated two-minute drill. By the summer, Giants Coach Ben McAdoo had emphatically installed Thompson as the favorite to win the starting job at free safety.
“He knows football; he gets football,” McAdoo said. “He can communicate the game, and it doesn’t seem too big for him.”
Thompson has been sidelined in recent days with a bruised shoulder, though he is expected to return by the Giants’ season-opening game on Sept. 11, if not sooner. From the Giants’ perspective, he had better rejoin the lineup. Last week, when Spagnuolo was asked who the second-string free safety was, his answer was that the Giants needed to get Thompson “back as quick as we can.”
How did a once-skinny youngster from Southern California, one without dominant speed and whose evident physical attributes have rarely enthralled coaches, ascend to such a prominent position in his first year as a professional?
Thompson’s secret, he said, has not been just to simply try harder than everyone else on the field, but also to outsmart everyone.
“It goes back to people telling me all the things I couldn’t do because of my size,” said Thompson, who is soft-spoken off the field. “I figured the best way to get an advantage was to study my opponents. I would know what they were trying to do and anticipate their moves.
“I used the talk about my size to fuel my fire. I wasn’t going to be just a football player on the field. I was going to be a football player in every way.”
Dahlia said that Thompson was a constant companion in the film room, learning the tendencies of opposing quarterbacks and teams.
“With Darian, I never had to call out a defense because he’d see the offensive formation, make the call and be right 90 percent of the time,” Dahlia said.
Boise State Coach Bryan Harsin saw a similar dedication, which he said led directly to Thompson’s 19 career interceptions.
“You don’t have that many interceptions if you’re not anticipating what’s coming,” Harsin said. “And then, because of all the preparation he did, Darian had that trust factor, so that when he did see something, he could recognize it, react and go get after the ball.”
If there has been a resolute and distinctive approach to Thompson’s football life, it may stem from his upbringing, according his high school principal, John Anson.
“He was raised by a single mom, and Darian took on a lot of responsibility at home with his younger brother and sister,” Anson said. “When you’re around him long enough, you realize what a special kid he is.”
Thompson said that his mother was a nurse who often worked nights, leaving Darian to mind his siblings, something that began when he was 12.
“I was working long hours trying to make ends meet,” said Thompson’s mother, Shannon.
The family moved often.
“It was every year or two,” Thompson said. “I just watched over my brother and sister and made sure everything was taken care of until my mom got home. I didn’t mind; I’ve never been a selfish person.”
Anson said that Thompson had a 3.5 grade-point average when he graduated from Paraclete. He received his degree in health science from Boise State last December.
“We’ve always told Darian that the sky is the limit, even when people were telling him that he was too small or he couldn’t do this or that,” Shannon Thompson said last week. “He always believed in himself. And he still does. Just before he left to go join the Giants, I told him: You go be you. Do what you’ve doing.”
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