Jim Souhan
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More than 30 years after finishing his football career at the University of Minnesota, Darrell Thompson remains the program’s leading rusher. His son plays receiver on the current team, and Dad remains a radio analyst for Gophers games.

As a former NFL player who runs a nonprofit mentoring program and works on behalf of NFL retirees in need, he views the Gophers program with a sense of realism. He has been disappointed by former regimes.

So when Minnesota hired P.J. Fleck as coach, Thompson remembers arming himself with a healthy skepticism.

“I’ve been disappointed so many times, from the Vikings losing Super Bowls to Gopher losses and difficult seasons,” Thompson said. “When Coach Fleck came in and did his first press conference, I took a seat in the back and said, ‘Well, this all sounds good, but it’s easy to win the first press conference.’

“You know, ‘We’re going to change the culture, and I just got a pay raise, and everything’s wonderful.’ But he did make some difficult decisions, and he’s gone out and recruited really well. And I also enjoy his actual coaching.

“When I first heard him, I thought he was going to throw the ball 100 times a game. Maybe invent a new offense — ‘Everyone else is going with four wideouts — we’re gonna go with five!’ But he’s very fundamentally sound.”

Thompson’s many interests and careers leave him with a unique mixture of feelings about football and life during the pandemic. He is optimistic about Fleck’s Gophers. He is worried about Bolder Options, his mentoring program for at-risk kids. And he is troubled by the NFL’s apathy toward former players with needs.

During the pandemic, Thompson has heard Fleck’s voice on conference calls with his son True, a senior receiver. Thompson isn’t exactly a helicopter parent, though. He’s too busy.

He remains the president of Bolder Options.

“We’re a one-on-one mentoring program, and we’ve had to move everything on line,” he said. “It’s slowed us down because we can’t get to people. There have been sleepless nights. But people in the community have stepped up.”

Thompson is also on the board of directors of the Pro Football Retired Players Association, which describes itself as “the first independent and court-established retired NFL player organization,” aiming to help alums with revenue, health, welfare and educational programs.

Too many former NFL players struggle to deal with health issues while the league, at least before the pandemic, made massive profits.

“We try to be a champion for retired players,” said Thompson, who played 60 games in five seasons with the Packers. “Some players are doing great, and some are living under bridges. It’s our goal to try to provide a little bit of income for those players, whether it’s through speaking gigs or appearances. We provide dental and vision plans as well. We’re trying to create awareness so former players know this is available to them.”

Thompson noted that Major League Baseball pays pensions to former members of the Negro Leagues.

“We’re not on par with the NBA and Major League Baseball when it comes to pensions and benefits,” Thompson said. “The NFL makes money hand over fist, but a lot of players don’t see much benefit for having helped build the league.”

Thompson has been doing good works for a long time in the Twin Cities, and his charitable bent gives him another reason for liking Fleck.

“He’s big on teaching, and on giving back in the community,” Thompson said. “I think that plays a role in building well-rounded athletes. You sit with the elderly, or needy kids or the less fortunate, and you have an opportunity to be humbled, and that humility is one of the most powerful characteristics you can develop.”

Can the Gophers become a powerhouse program? And if they do, can they keep Fleck?

“I think the program can go even higher, after watching it up close,” Thompson said. “He’s doing the things that can turn a program around, like Barry Alvarez did with Wisconsin.

“I think we can keep Coach Fleck, as well. I’m not a close personal friend of his, but I think we can keep him because, simply put, there’s a lot here in Minnesota.”