Skip to main content
Original Issue

Profiting from Experience Former Wisconsin soda vendor Donnel Thompson has earned his due

"Football's a business," says Wisconsin junior linebacker Donnel
Thompson. "I understand that." Thompson, one of four co-captains
for the 7-0 Badgers, has had a lifetime education in gridiron
capitalism. He grew up in Madison, just two blocks north of Camp
Randall Stadium. Starting at age six, he and his younger
brother, Bryson, spent game days holding parking signs to lure
fans to the Thompson house on Rowley Avenue, where their dad,
Curtis, would close the deal. "I always told them to just be
polite and point the cars my way," says Curtis. "Never discuss

By the time Donnel was in sixth grade, his Saturday workload had
expanded. Shortly before kickoff, he would dump his billboard,
run to the stadium and sell sodas in the stands. Within the
confines of Camp Randall, he was an unharnessable force. "We
were assigned sections," says Thompson, who earned a 10%
commission for each rack of sodas he sold, "but I was so
competitive that I'd venture into other areas."

Thompson's greatest business lesson, though, came during his
senior year at Madison West High, when he broke his right arm in
the third game. An all-conference linebacker as a junior,
Thompson had received mail from nearly every Big Ten school;
suddenly, the mail all but stopped. "Nobody wants to recruit a
linebacker with a broken arm," says Thompson, "especially not
one who was six foot, 215."

Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez did invite Thompson to walk on,
and given a chance to work the field at Camp Randall, he grew
into an unharnessable force as a linebacker. His 150 tackles in
his first two seasons were more than any other defender in
Badgers history. He has 62 more this year, including five in
Wisconsin's 37-3 victory over Illinois last Saturday.

"From the very first day we put on pads, Donnel has impressed
me," says Alvarez. "We yelled at him the first few weeks he
practiced with us because he would not let a ballcarrier go by
him, even when we were walking through plays with no pads."

The life of a walk-on is no picnic. As a freshman, Thompson
would practice with the team until 6 p.m. Scholarship players
then dined at the training table before attending a mandatory
study hall in an adjacent building at 7 p.m. Thompson was
supposed to eat in his dormitory, but the trek across campus and
back would have meant being late for study hall. So he would
hang around the practice facility, waiting. "After study hall
he'd just walk home to eat with us," says Curtis. "I never saw a
kid look so exhausted."

After his freshman year, Thompson was awarded a scholarship.
Last winter a wiser Alvarez visited the family and offered one
to Bryson, who now backs up Donnel at linebacker.

"Donnel took the opportunity, earned a scholarship and became
the leader of our defense," says Alvarez. "You know why? He's
all business when he steps on the field."

--John Walters

COLOR PHOTO: TOM LYNN [Donnel Thompson in game]