LeRoy Thompson, Steelers Running Back, 1991-1993
First, can you let readers know what you’ve been doing with yourself since your time in the NFL, and how you got started in that line of work?
I own my own Real Estate Development and Construction Management Firm. The name of it is BDT Development & Management which is named after my three kids Brooke (17) Dezmond (15) and Tionna (13). I build retail centers, residential developments, and provide project management services on public and federal projects. Oh yeah, I am working on 20 years of marriage with my high school sweetheart also.
I got started in this line of work by a board member of an inner city nonprofit which I was Executive Director. He was so impressed with how I ran the organization that he approached me to co-found a company with him to focus on center city retail and urban development. Three years later, I bought him out and 12 years later I am still here even though the real estate business with me in it took a huge hit in 2008 till the present.
In high school, you were rated the best high school back in the country. What made you decide to play at Penn State, and what were the biggest lessons the late Joe Paterno taught you as a player?
I decided to go to Penn State because I just wanted to get away from home and grow as a man away from familiar surroundings and negative influences. The University of Tennessee was literally 5 minutes away from my home. I grew up on that campus, but really did not get a chance to see other parts of the country as a youngster because my family could not afford to travel much. My recruiting trips was my chance to see the world so to speak.
The biggest lessons I learned from Joe Paterno were how to conduct myself as a professional on and off the fields, how to prepare mentally and physically for the NFL, and that one day there would be life after football to prepare for. His influence is entrenched in my DNA now over so many areas of my life. I will be forever grateful and honored to have had the opportunity to play for such as wonderful Coach, Teacher, and Friend.
Did you prepare for your post-NFL career while in the NFL? If so, how did you do so and did you take advantage of any of the NFL’s career services programs?
I prepared for my post NFL career while I was playing. The career expectancy for running backs when I came out of college in 1990 was 2 ½ years so I knew I needed to take advantage of the spotlight and blessing to have made the NFL while I could. I engaged myself in philanthropic efforts such as starting my own youth and gang foundation, outreach programs in my hometown of Knoxville, as well as motivational speaking and community engagement involvement every offseason to set up the time for when I was done and came back home to do business.
I was respected for being one of the few NFL or professional athletes that went away and actually brought his exposures and experiences as well as his resources back to invest in his hometown. I am still benefiting from that decision today even though I have some great friends and business relationships in Pittsburgh.
You were drafted in ’92 by the Steelers who also had Barry Foster, Merril Hoge and Warren Williams and on the team. Were you surprised at being drafted by Pittsburgh and were you at all concerned knowing they had a number of established backs on the roster?
I was not surprised at being drafted by the Steelers. Coach Dick Hoak, who was the running back Coach for the Steelers, was also a former Penn State running back. He worked me out on PSU’s pro day. I ran a 4.38, caught every ball thrown my way, and lit up the skills drills that day. They has just cut their third down and utility back I think that his name was Bell so Coach Hoak told me that it was a strong chance that they would draft me to catch the ball out of the back field, return kicks, and compete at Tailback with Tim Worley and Warren Williams.
Barry Foster was still at fullback at that time.
Who helped you adjust to the NFL as a rookie – both on and off the field – and how did they do so?
I would say Warren Williams helped me the most. He was actually my host coming out of High School on my recruiting trip to the University of Miami so I knew him. He just help me prepare for the mental part of the game which was much more taxing than the physical part because you had to learn so many plays and formations. He also invited me over to his house often to play cards and eat and just relax after a taxing day at practice.
I was pretty well prepared fundamentally for the pros and big time competition did not scare me having spent my career at Penn State battling for carries with the likes of Blair Thomas, Gary Brown, Richie Anderson, and Sam Gash. All of whom went pro and had solid NFL careers. What was crazy my rookie season was that I held out of camp for two weeks as a 6th round draft pick. This was unheard of and Chuck Noll kept saying in the paper that there was no reason for me to even come to camp because I would be cut. However, Pittsburgh was trying to pay me 50% of the pay the same player in my slot was drafted the year before. My agent Brett Senior cautioned that I should not take the deal and go in if I was confident that I could compete and make the team. I told him that not only would I make the team, but I would play a significant role. We got the deal done two weeks later which was a whopping $115,000 base with a $45,000 signing bonus!
You could not tell me I was not the richest guy in the world when I signed. I came into to camp and in the first practice I fought with Hardy Nickerson (I mean I got beat up by Hardy Nickerson), faked out and broke Greg Lloyd’s ankle’s for a TD, and made a crushing block on pass protection and all was forgiven by the Coaches. They knew that had a player from then on in.
Off the field, I lived with Chris Thorpe’s (who was a college teammate) brother Jerry Thorpe. I rented the top of his condo in the old Mexico Ward Streets on the Northside just up from the Stadium. This was a very convenient location to get to and from practice for me. Jerry was well grounded in the bible and did not party much so he sort of help me stay grounded.
However, I hung out mostly with my rookie crew which was Ernie Mills, Jeff Graham, and Yancey Thigpen sprinkled in with the veteran Larry Griffin who I would say that I keep in contact the most these days. I still stay with my friend Jerry Thorpe though he’s single and wild now when I come into Pittsburgh on business.
You were there for the last season of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher’s first. What, from your perspective, was the biggest change from one “regime” to the other, and how difficult was that adjustment at first?
Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher were totally different. Coach Noll was hard-nosed, old school, and kind of letting the assistants Coach at this point and just being the overseer. Practices were long and brutal featuring a lot hitting and wear and tear on your body. Coach Cowher, as evident by him only being 34, still wanted to play so he was enthusiastic, high energy, and fun. A true players’ Coach desiring to win the respect and confidence of his squad. He did not take too long to do. I enjoyed playing for him more than any Coach outside of my high school Coach that I played for. That’s saying a lot because played for Joe Paterno, Bill Parcels, Marty Schottenheimer, Chuck Noll, and Tony Dungy.
The adjustment for me from Noll to Cowher was a smooth and welcomed one for me because Coach Cowher brought in Ron Erhardt from the Giants as the offensive coordinator. He used me with a lot of creativity runs, screens, one on one pass plays, and in the slot like he had used David Meggitt with the Giants. I was assured to play because I was the only back outside of maybe Merril Hoge that could catch, run, and block well.
My career took off when Bill Cowher arrived. I did not like the old Jets offense much because on we did at that time was throw the ball to Eric Green.
Humor plays such a big part on many teams. How did humor affect those teams you played on and who were some of the biggest characters on those teams? What made them so – any examples of the hijinks?
Man we had a lot of fun on those teams. The absolute funniest guy was Tim Worley. He was hilarious and always kept us laughing with his imitations of Eddie Murphy. Barry Foster, believe it or not, was gut laugh funny. He was my roommate on the road and I could always count on getting some laughs the night before the games. They would crack on Warren Williams about his body. He did not have one muscle on him. Ernnie Mills about his huge gap in his teeth, Greg Lloyd about how Chocolate he was, Eric Green’s moon sized butt, DJ Johnson’s curl, Yancey Thigpen being a pretty boy, and Kevin Green as a mad man and Huey Long as the worst most uncoordinated 1st round draft pick ever!!!
After three seasons, you wound up in New England. What prompted that move and how difficult was that for you?
The trade was all my fault.
I had just led the team in rushing, returns, and pass caught by backs in ’93 when Barry Foster went down. I was a restricted free agent which met that if a team signed me, they would have to give up a first round draft pick which was not likely. I wanted a significant pay raise so my agent went in after the season and said pay us or trade us!!!! We were bluffing!!!!! The next thing I know, I am on a plane to New England and Bam Morris was getting all of my snaps.
As I look back, I never should have left Pittsburgh nor New England for that matter. I ended up 2nd on the team in rushing at New England that year, caught 65 balls, and led the team and returns. I became a free agent and signed with Kansas City to replace Marcus Allen so I thought. When I got there, Marcus had the best year that he ever had as a Chief and I was off again. I never found the right fit in an offense again for my style after leaving New England and the Steelers. I should have played for at least ten years with those teams.
You’ve been involved in a number of charities since the NFL. What are some of your current charitable interests and what made you gravitate to these causes?
I got involved with charities because I do not feel comfortable when I am not blessing and helping other people. So many people like my parents, Coaches, teachers, and programs like the YMCA and Boys Clubs poured so much into me. My community involvement is my way of giving back to God for his blessing on me and giving back to a village of folk and programs that help mode me into the man I am today.
What are some of your best memories as a Steeler, and what makes them so?
Are you ready for some football? A Monday night party!!!!!! My fondest memories are Monday Night football games. I always had my best games on Monday Nights. My first pressure packed opportunity came against Buffalo on Monday night. Barry Foster went down in the first quarter so everyone including the Coaches thought we were doomed. I came off the bench and run ten yards on my first touch and for a touchdown on my second touch. I had 135 yards and two touchdowns on our way to a 28-0 drugging of the Bills for 1st place.
I also had a big Monday Night game that same year against Miami in a key divisional game. It was cool because O.J. was one of my college roommates at Penn State. I remember him taking a punt or kickoff back for a touchdown against us. I turned around and scored two back-to-back touchdowns pointing at him on the side-line and had multiple passes where I made eight guys miss. I threw the ball to O.J. on their sideline after one of them and he threw it back at me.
Lastly, one of my fondest memories was being the only back in 1993 to rush for 100 against the New Orleans Saints Defense that year that featured Sam Mills, Pat Swelling, and Rickey Jackson.