Kansas State University

K-State’s QB hopeful lost his mom at age 5. He honors her memory with every touchdown

K-State QB Skylar Thompson: ‘It’s great to get back on the field and compete’

Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson talks about spring practice, new coordinator.
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Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson talks about spring practice, new coordinator.

Take a close look at Skylar Thompson after his next touchdown pass. You will see him tilt back his head, raise his arms to the sky and point to the heavens as if he just completed a game-winning pass.

This is his go-to celebration, like Aaron Rodgers wrapping an imaginary title belt around his midsection. But it’s not really a celebration at all. When Thompson does this, he is honoring the memory of his mother and grandfather, two beloved family members who never got the chance to watch him play football.

Both died of cancer when he was 5 years old, leaving him and his father alone in an empty house to grieve. Thompson will never stop paying tribute. In high school, he wore special cleats with his mother’s and grandfather’s initials branded on each shoe. Now, he takes a black marker and writes their names — Teresa Thompson and John Thompson — on the inside of his football equipment. He also wears a pin, which once belonged to his grandfather, every time he sports a blazer.

“I know my mom is up there and I always try to let her know that every touchdown is for her. Always,” Thompson said. “Her and my grandfather, I think about them each and every time before I step on the field. In the locker room, that is all I think about. I know they are watching me, but I wish they were here.”

Those rituals have served Thompson well over the years. He grew into a standout quarterback at Fort Osage High School and guided the team to its first Missouri state championship in 2015, amassing 455 yards of offense in the final game. Then he became one of the few Kansas State quarterbacks to shine under coach Bill Snyder as a freshman, leading the Wildcats to spine-tingling victories over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Iowa State last season.

Thompson is now locked in a position battle with Alex Delton. The winner will emerge as starting quarterback when the season begins Sept. 1 against South Dakota. No matter what happens, some already view him as K-State’s QB of the future.

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Kansas State quarterback Skylar Thompson (10) passes to a teammate during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Iowa State in Manhattan. Orlin Wagner AP

Raising each other

It’s sometimes difficult for Thompson’s father, Brad, to wrap his mind around all that has happened since his son’s early childhood. It feels like just yesterday they had an unforgettable heart-to-heart conversation about moving on without the most important woman in their lives.

About two weeks after Teresa Thompson died of breast cancer in 2004, Brad and Skylar were alone in their farm house in Palmyra, a town near Hannibal in northeast Missouri. The family members who had flocked to console them were gone, forcing father and son to interact on their own.

Not easy, considering Brad spent his days working as a principal and Skylar had always considered himself a “momma’s boy.”

Neither one of them knew how to handle the situation, let alone what to say about it. The man Brad would have turned to for advice, his father, had also recently died, of pancreatic cancer. They were lost until Skylar finally broke the silence.

“Oh, no,” he told his father, “you’ve got to raise me now.”

“I know,” dad replied. “I’m terrified.”

That exchange, which Brad still replays in his mind today, was the first step toward a new beginning. It made them both burst out into laughter and helped them start adjusting to their new lives, even if it was a bit unusual.

The only thing Brad knew how to cook was steak, so he grilled red meat seemingly every night for dinner. Neither of them knew how to keep the house clean without mom around, so the laundry backed up. But they got by.

“He always tells me I raised him as much as he raised me,” Skylar said. “At first we were just sitting there thinking, ‘holy cow.’ It was such a shock. But I know my dad wanted to raise me the way my mom would want me to be raised and not let her down.”

Motivation was easy. Execution was hard. Brad admits there were quite a few learning experiences over the years.

Skylar commends his father for his effort and describes his stepmother, Kathy Thompson, as “one of the biggest blessings of my life.”

Brad deflects all credit back onto his son.

“He gave me balance and perspective. He honestly taught me how to be a better dad,” he said. “In a situation like that, we could have gone a lot of different ways. He kept me grounded. I can’t imagine what my life would look like without him.”

Father and son mostly kept their emotions in check over the years, but they all came pouring out last season following a win over Oklahoma State. Thompson threw for 204 yards and three touchdowns, on top of 93 yards and a touchdown rushing, that day. And K-State beat a top 10 team for the first time in five years.

Brad gets too nervous at games to sit in one place, so he paced around the stadium for hours. When it was over, he hugged his son and didn’t want to let go.

“I hadn’t seen my dad get that choked up in a long time,” Skylar Thompson said. “Probably not since my mom died. In high school, he was my toughest critic. He rarely complimented me, but when he did, I knew I earned it. I guess I did something good that day. It’s kind of crazy to think about how far we’ve come.”

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Kansas State Wildcats quarterback Skylar Thompson (10) stopped to shift direction as Kansas Jayhawks linebacker Joe Dineen Jr. (29) pursued in the fourth quarter during the University of Kansas and Kansas State University Big 12 football game at the University of Kansas in Memorial Stadium on Oct. 28, 2017, in Lawrence. Shane Keyser skeyser@kcstar.com

The Natural

As painful as it was to lose a mother and a grandfather in the blink of an eye, a silver lining eventually emerged from the unfortunate situation. Brad Thompson accepted a job as the ninth-grade principal in the Fort Osage School District. That meant he and his son moved across the state to Independence.

This came with quite the perk. The Kansas City area offered something Palmyra did not, something Skylar Thompson desperately wanted to try — youth football.

K-State running back Dalvin Warmack referred to Thompson as “a natural” last season when he came off the bench and led the Wildcats to a dramatic overtime victory over Texas Tech. Warmack meant Thompson was a natural at playing quarterback at K-State and that he was ahead of the curve compared to the upperclassmen who normally captain the offense. But that comment would have been just as appropriate if he meant Thompson was a natural to the sport.

Thompson made an impression from the very beginning.

“You could tell something was different about him,” said Fort Osage football coach Ryan Schartz, who began working with Thompson when he was 8. “The ball just came off his hands naturally. You knew he was going to be a quarterback, for sure.”

Schartz liked him so much that he enrolled Thompson in his personal youth QB camp and invited him to help the varsity team as a ball boy. That planted the seeds for a storied career as a high school quarterback.

Ask Schartz to name his favorite Thompson memory and he goes silent. The question is too hard. How can he choose one when there are so many? After a few quiet moments, he starts rattling off highlights.

He talks about the time Thompson was faced with a fourth-and-12 in his own territory with the game and a district championship on the line. Thompson was a junior then, and Fort Osage needed a fourth-quarter comeback. So Thompson went through his progressions on the game’s decisive play. His top three receivers were covered, but he spotted an open man down field as defenders closed in. Thompson launched a pass 60 yards, took the hit and won the game.

On another Friday night, he completed a fourth-quarter comeback by avoiding an all-out blitz on fourth down and finding a receiver in the end zone. And who could forget Fort Osage’s 63-28 victory in the 2015 Class 5 championship game?

Maybe K-State fans shouldn’t have been surprised when Thompson turned a broken play into a game-winning touchdown pass as time expired against Iowa State last year.

Skylar Thompson talks comeback victory over Iowa State. (Nov. 25, 2017)

“The thing that really makes Skylar so unique is that he’s got that winner’s mentality,” Schartz said. “He plays better with more pressure. He plays better when there is more on the line. Some kids go out there and flounder or falter and freeze in those situations, but he craves them.”

That type of moxie made Thompson a four-star recruit coming out of high school. Lots of schools tried to flip him after he committed to the Wildcats, including Ohio State. But he remained loyal.

“He’s a great kid with a big heart,” Schartz said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”

A new challenge

When Thompson arrived at K-State, he was “all skin and bones.” So he sat out his first season with a redshirt and made a name for himself on the scout team. Expectations were high as he bulked up and entered last season, but it seemed unlikely he would play with Jesse Ertz and Alex Delton in front of him on the depth chart.

Then Ertz suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game. Not long after, concussions sent Delton to the sideline. That meant Bill Snyder had to do something he usually tries to avoid at all costs — rely on a redshirt freshman at quarterback.

Thompson was up for the challenge. He helped K-State close out a victory over Kansas and then led a wild comeback at Texas Tech. The Wildcats lost the following week to West Virginia, but Thompson bounced back with a huge game at Oklahoma State and then he beat Iowa State with a last-second touchdown pass to Isaiah Zuber.

“The thing I admired about him most last year was that he had great poise,” K-State QB coach Collin Klein said. “Going down to Stillwater, he did tremendous. I never won there. He did a great job of staying calm and handling the offense and operating under pressure and uncertainty.”

Indeed, without Thompson, it is unlikely K-State would have won four of its final five games and qualified for the Cactus Bowl.

He couldn’t keep that momentum going in the postseason, though. Thompson started against UCLA last December but attempted just seven passes. It was a matchup tailor-made for Delton, as the Bruins featured one of the nation’s worst run defenses, and K-State coaches turned the game over to him when Thompson slumped. Delton responded by rushing for 158 yards and three touchdowns. K-State pulled away in the second half with Thompson on the sideline.

Maybe it was just a bad day. Maybe it was something else.

“I hate to say this, but where you start to see Skylar level out is where there isn’t much pressure,” Schartz said. “He needs to make sure he plays like he is down 100 all the time. If he could do that, he would set the world on fire.”

Delton, a junior, has capitalized on that performance and is now in a dead heat with Thompson to win the starting job. Snyder typically favors experience at quarterback, which makes some believe he is the man to beat.

But Thompson isn’t going down without a fight. He is the best pure passer on the roster, and he thinks he is an underrated runner. He seems ready to put the Cactus Bowl behind him.

“It was frustrating, for sure,” Thompson said. “I was probably more down on myself than people know. I had family there and felt like I let a lot of people down. At the same time, I only had one quarter and they had two weeks to prepare for us. You could tell they were ready to go. Alex came in and did a great job. It was a great learning experience. Hopefully I can use that to my advantage.”

Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder compares Alex Delton vs. Skylar Thompson to past QB competitions, and explains what he will look for in a starting QB next season during a Wichita Catbackers event on May 22, 2018.

Four-year starter?

It’s scary to think about what Thompson can accomplish over the course of his K-State career if he is chosen the starter, or even plays significantly as a backup, this season. The Wildcats typically have their best seasons when they return a senior with one year of starting experience. Thompson could start in four straight seasons.

The last two prominent K-State quarterbacks to simply attempt passes in four straight seasons (Ell Roberson and Klein) went on to win Big 12 championships when they were seniors.

That sets a good precedent for Thompson.

“I want a Big 12 championship this season,” Thompson said. “I want to win the job and be a leader for this team. I want to be the reason we have a special season. I want to go undefeated in our nonconference games. I want to win everything we can. That is my goal. If it wasn’t, I would be doing something wrong.”

There is nothing wrong with Thompson’s approach.

He seems poised to reach any football heights his mind desires, one heartfelt touchdown celebration at a time.

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