TAMPA – The first thing anyone notices about University of Tampa goalkeeper Ryan Thompson is his smile.
It’s almost ever-present whenever he’s in a social situation, which Thompson feels is anytime he’s awake. According to Spartans coach Adrian Bush, by the end of his first week on campus as a freshman Thompson knew, and was known, by everyone on campus.
“He’s the one guy on campus that everyone on campus knows,” teammate Lister Warren said. “He’s that kind of kid. Probably the most popular guy on campus.”
When asked about his popularity around the UT campus the smile on the face of the man known as “Godzilla”, or “Gadda” for short, gets even wider.
“That’s the way I was raised,” Thompson said. “My mom, she’s a friendly person, she likes to talk, I get that from her, I like to socialize. It’s a part of me.”
Also part of the native of Kingston, Jamaica was a long-standing love of sports. A striker whenever he played soccer, he also played other sports like cricket growing up. It wasn’t until he was 13 that he first played in goal.
“One day my friend had a team, and they didn’t have a goalkeeper, so I said, ‘why not, I’ll try it’,” Thompson said. “It worked for me at that point. So I went and tried out for a team, and I made it, but I was one of worst people there, but after practicing and practicing, applying myself, it started working for me.”
Working so well that by 2004 he was playing for the Jamaican Under-20 national team. When he first came to Tampa, Bush said he saw that his latest recruit was raw, but had unbelievable ability. Thompson became a captain of the Spartans as a freshman, and Bush believes the leadership he has shown in his career with the team has spoken volumes about what sort of person Thompson is.
“His leadership was, I think, the biggest thing that we gained with him,” Bush said. “I think he’s not let anyone down in that aspect. He’s one of, I think, three people who have been captain at this university for all four years. I was one of those with him, and I think players like that are hard to come by, but he just hasn’t come in with great athletic ability. What he’s brought to the table off the field with his character and with, really, showing the younger players how to be a champion is the biggest influence he’s had with the team.”
Thompson credits his work ethic, and his attitude, to his mother. He grew up in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Kingston, a ghetto known as ‘the Garrison’. Life was understandably hard, with little money, not much more opportunity, and everyone looking to find a way out. Thompson described life there as ‘a constant battle’, and saw his way out through sport, drawing inspiration from the way his mom never lost her joy despite working hard every day for little reward.
“Every day I got up, she’s always there working, she’s always working, always working,” Thompson said. “She never complains, she’s always smiling, and I don’t get it. She don’t have money, she don’t have a lot of material things, she can’t get it, but what she’s got is a smile and love for her kids, love for her family and that’s something I found very important, and I thought, ‘if my mom can do it in our place, I can do it,’ and I’ve made every effort to. I got those qualities from her.”
And those qualities have been shared with everyone on the UT campus. If there is a “Big Man On Campus” under the minarets, it is Thompson, who draws in friends like moths to a flame and enjoys every minute of it.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” Thompson said. “People want to be around you, and once people want to be around you, that makes you a positive environment, that makes you feel, ‘oh my god, I’m actually important here’. When I leave this place, people are always going to remember me, not only for my soccer, but for how I make them feel. There’s always joy coming from me, and I want to share that, because that’s what I can give right now.”
As fun-loving and happy he is off the field, he is as competitive when he steps onto it. Bush likens him to mixed martial arts heavyweight Fedor Emilienko, who also has a very laid-back, personable nature away from the arena, but becomes a very different person when the opening bell rings.
“I think he possesses a lot of that as soon as the whistle goes,” Bush said of Thompson. “When he’s in game mode, it’s all business, and that’s how it should be. Players that are going to make it in this game, that’s the way it has to be, and that’s why I’m confident that he will play beyond this year, but I think he’s really focused on what he’s doing right now, and bringing our university a championship.”
And a championship is what’s at the forefront of Thompson’s mind right now as the Spartans prepare to open the NCAA Tournament against Lynn on Friday evening.
“At this present moment, all that is on my mind is winning a national title,” Thompson said. “Whatever work I put in, hopefully it will manifest itself in the future, so if I put in that much work I’m sure something might happen in the future. It would be great if I turn pro, but at this present moment, I’m living in the moment. I’m at the University of Tampa, I don’t want it to finish, but really and truly, winning a national title to see the job my teammates did is the only thing I’m focused on right now.”