Leonard Thompson, who played 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions from 1975-86, has died at 69, according to the team.
Thompson played in 175 games for the Lions and had 277 receptions for 4,682 yards and 35 touchdowns, ranking 14th, eighth and tied for fourth, respectively, among the franchise’s leaders.
“We are saddened to learn this week of the passing of Lions legend Leonard Thompson, who played 12 seasons for the Lions from 1975-86,” the Lions tweeted on Wednesday. “In Lions history, Thompson is tied for 10th in career games played (175) and tied for fourth in career touchdown receptions (35). We extend our sympathies to the Thompson family.”
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Born in 1952 in Oklahoma City, Thompson starred at running back at Oklahoma State, averaging 5 yards a carry over two seasons (1973-74), with nine rushing touchdowns. The Lions drafted Thompson in the eighth round in 1975 (No. 194 overall), wooed by his 4.3-second 40-yard time; he competed a couple months later in the 60-yard dash in the NCAA indoor track and field championships at then-Cobo Arena in Detroit.
Once signed by the Lions, he appeared in all 14 games as a rookie in 1975, but touched the ball just once on offense, a rush for a loss of 12 yards in the season finale. Thompson moved to receiver in 1978, with a breakout season in 1979; the Lions went just 2-14 under coach Monte Clark, but Thompson was third on the team with 24 receptions for 451 yards, cementing his spot at wideout.
His best season arguably came in 1983, when he caught 41 passes for 752 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games. (The three games he missed were as a result of a broken jaw.) Thompson caught 50 and 51 passes the next two seasons, for 773 and 736 yards, respectively, while playing all 16 games.
Thompson was also a star on special teams, though not in the usual way a wide receiver would; he served as the leader on the Lions’ “suicide squads,” tasked with blowing up kick and punt returners downfield. “It’s the only way I could keep my job,” he told the Free Press’ George Puscas in 1983.
And indeed, Thompson was credited with at least one forced fumble in seven seasons, and at least one fumble recovery in six, including the 1978 season in which he had two forced fumbles and four recoveries.
“There was a time when I was doing a little bit of everything,” he said. “I was a running back, kick returner, wide receiver, and I worked the special teams — punt and kick coverage. I was on and off the field on my own turn, and a lot of time on somebody else’s.”
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The special teams work played havoc on his knees, requiring several surgeries. An injury tally by the Free Press’s Curt Sylvester prior to the 1985 season had Thompson at “three knee operations, several arthroscopic surgeries and a broken jaw” — and four games missed. Thompson continued to come back to the Lions.
He almost broke free, however, prior to the 1983 season. He had a star turn in his 1982 postseason debut, with seven catches for 150 yards in the Lions’ Jan. 8, 1983, playoff loss to Washington. He told the Free Press that the Michigan Panthers of the USFL, a spring league challenging the NFL, inquired about signing him. The Panthers were led by his Oklahoma State coach, Jim Stanley.
“I thought seriously about it. But there was a hangup about my contract with the Lions, a legal question of whether I could shake free. I didn’t want to get into a hassle. I guess the Lions are my destiny.”
The Panthers would go on to win the inaugural USFL title in the spring of 1983. Thompson, meanwhile, played in just the second playoff game of his career that season, a 24-23 loss to the 49ers in which he had six catches for 74 yards, plus a run for 24 yards. It was a particularly painful loss; kicker Eddie Murray missed a last-second field goal that would have given the Lions their first playoff victory since 1957.
He played three more seasons with the Lions, with a role that was clearly dwindling under new coach Darryl Rogers. After 13 starts and 14.4 yards a catch in 1985 —Rogers’ first season — Thompson started once with 25 receptions for 320 yards in 1986. The Lions released him during the 1987 preseason.
“Because I didn’t have the kind of year I wanted (in 1986), and there’s still enough football left in me,” he said. “I thought with the right breaks, we could produce a winner, and my dream has always been to go out as a winner. I thought I could still make that dream come true.”
Contact Ryan Ford at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford.