NORMAN — Every Oklahoma starting quarterback plays under enormous, sometimes suffocating pressure. Anything and everything — game day heroics, turnovers, sideline demeanor, media interviews, off-the-field behavior — undergoes heavy, often unfair scrutiny and criticism.
Should sophomore Kendal Thompson emerge from Oklahoma's three-man quarterback derby, all that becomes magnified. Such is life for the son of Charles Thompson, which is why in November 2009, he sat Kendal down and bluntly laid out what committing to Oklahoma would mean.
“I asked if he was ready for everybody wanting to reminisce about the good and the bad of his dad being down there,” Charles Thompson said. “Was he willing to put himself through those pressures and expectations?”
Kendal Thompson, then a Southmoore High junior, said yes, called OU coaches and verbally committed.
In Saturday's spring football game on Owen Field, the quarterback derby between Kendal Thompson, Blake Bell and Trevor Knight will be on display for fans, eager to get a glimpse at the battle to replace four-year starter Landry Jones.
Bell spent the past two seasons thrilling fans with his short-yardage and goal line success in the “Belldozer” formation. Teammates and coaches spent much of last season praising Knight, the redshirting freshman and scout-team quarterback who gave the first-team defense fits week after week.
Kendal Thompson was often forgotten in discussions about Jones' 2013 replacement, but he's firmly inserted himself into the quarterback derby throughout spring practices.
“He's really matured in a great way, in just how he works, the way he works in the weight room, the way he does everything,” said coach Bob Stoops. “He's become a really good football player, and he's been an excellent teammate. He's a guy that works hard at studying the game. He's put a lot of effort into being a complete quarterback and it's showing this spring.”
Kendal Thompson's speed and athleticism — combined with memories of his dad leading Oklahoma's wishbone offense more than two decades ago — has created the wide perception that his passing ability might be his downfall in the Sooners' spread, pass-first offensive attack.
But Stoops said if that were true, OU coaches wouldn't have recruited him.
“We've never recruited anybody here in our time that we didn't feel was a good throwing quarterback,” Stoops said.
Charles Thompson said his son's primary motivation through this spring is demonstrating his capability as a complete quarterback. But Kendal Thompson is also driven, in part, to redeem some of his father's checkered Oklahoma legacy.
“I think one of the things that inspires him is the opportunity to finish something that I started,” Charles Thompson said.
During the offseason, Kendal Thompson changed to jersey No. 1. His dad wanted to wear the number at Oklahoma, but it belonged to halfback Eric Mitchel.
Mitchel was a senior in 1988, Charles Thompson's sophomore — and, as it turned out, final — season in Norman.
As a redshirt freshman in 1987, Charles Thompson, playing for injured starter Jamelle Holieway, quarterbacked Oklahoma to a victory at No. 1-ranked Nebraska, then played in the Sooners' 20-14 Orange Bowl loss to Miami. The next season, Thompson and Holieway split time again, but the sophomore from Lawton seemed destined for greatness.
But in February 1989, Charles Thompson was arrested for selling cocaine, then appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs — a photograph that came to symbolize all the problems with Oklahoma football. Four months after his arrest, legendary coach Barry Switzer resigned, beginning a long, difficult stretch for the historic college football powerhouse.
Charles Thompson spent 17 months in a federal prison for his crime, and wasn't exactly embraced by OU for several years after his arrest. After Stoops became coach in 1999, though, he began spending more time around the program.
He took his youth-league football team — which included 8-year old Kendal Thompson — to several OU practices. Kendal Thompson still cherishes several photographs from the 2000 national championship season with then-OU quarterback Josh Heupel, now his position coach.
Charles Thompson aggressively rebuilt his reputation after his very public demise, speaking openly about his time at Oklahoma and the mistakes that ended it. That candor has included talks with the OU team, and conversations with his three children.
When Kendal Thompson was nine, he read his dad's book, “Down and Dirty: The Life and Crimes of Oklahoma Football.”
“What he learned was that obviously, you can have everything, you can work for something your entire life, and one stupid decision can throw all that away,” Charles Thompson said. “He understood that as great as things are in receiving that scholarship — and that was always his goal — that's only part of the goal. There's a whole lot more to life than that. Football is only used as a tool to help you prepare and become a better man.”
But there are still some Oklahoma football fans who will never forgive Charles Thompson for his role in the Sooners' very public, embarrassing collapse from college football greatness.
That's something he wanted his son to be fully prepared for when he decided to accept OU's scholarship offer.
“We talked about how some fans will always have that thought in the back of their mind,” Charles Thompson said.
Regardless of who emerges from Oklahoma's 2013 quarterback battle, Charles Thompson said his family has been blessed by the whole experience. Still, the former Sooner said he believes Kendal Thompson's rise to the top of OU's depth chart feels like fate.
“No disrespect to the other two,” Charles Thompson said, “but I just feel like this is Kendal's destiny. Not sure why, but my spirit feels at peace in saying that.”