- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

MIAMI 'Grampa' has made his way to the senior citizens mecca of South Florida. But Maryland's old man isn't ready to slip his aching body into a comfortable rocking chair just yet.
Terrapins linebacker Aaron Thompson is 23 and the elder spokesman and counselor of the nation's sixth-ranked team. The senior originally got the name Grampa because he limps and drags after practices and games.
"I'm a little cranky at times," Thompson said. "Sometimes my body parts don't want to work like they should work at this age. I feel broken down a lot. Guys notice it and are like, 'Why are you walking like that?' I'm tired. That's why I'm walking like that."
Thompson might be fatigued because he rarely rests. The outside linebacker will start his 45th-consecutive game tonight when Maryland meets fifth-ranked Florida in the Orange Bowl. The defensive captain is one of only two Terrapins, along with center Melvin Fowler, who will end their careers having started every game since they were freshmen.
But Grampa also has another meaning as the Terps' wise, old man. Thompson is the guy teammates come to for guidance, or to act as liaison with the coaching staff. The soft-spoken linebacker always finds time to sit down with a buddy in distress.
"He's the heart and soul of our team," tailback Marc Riley said. "You can go talk to him about anything and he cares."
E.J. Henderson is Maryland's All-American on his way to the NFL. But even the team's best player needs a dose of Grampa from time to time to stay upbeat.
"When I start slacking in practice, he won't let me," Henderson said. "A.T. will be the one that says 'C'mon. We have something to do.' He is definitely the big dog on the team, definitely the leader."
Another reason Thompson is considered the Terps' graybeard is that he is in his fifth year in College Park, and is taking graduate courses after graduating with a degree in criminal justice. The linebacker truly appreciates what he has done to get an education, and he wisely used football as the route to a degree.
"I wouldn't have gone to college without it," said Thompson, who grew up in Baltimore. "I don't want to stereotype myself but a lot of people out of urban areas African-American people we use our athletic ability to get ahead. That was my way of competing in society to play football and earn a scholarship. That allows me to make myself marketable for the real world."
He said the smartest move he made was to leave an inner-city public school and go to suburban Mount St. Joseph's for a year and a half of prep school. Thompson got a scholarship for half the $5,000 tuition, and his mother, Edith Green, "paid $2,500 which she couldn't really afford, but she wanted to provide a future for me."
Thompson had trouble concentrating on academics in public school and would often get caught up in "being cool" and skipping class. He felt being at the private school allowed him to focus on schoolwork and prepare for college.
"There were some guys in my neighborhood that were just as good athletes as me but didn't make it to college," Thompson said. "We call them 'Playground Legends.' They got caught up in other things. If they got to college, I think they would have been successful. The environment brings them down. People have babies, get caught up in drugs and are young and trying to support families.
"In my neighborhood, a high school diploma is a big thing. I don't understand why our expectations are set so low."
Thompson plans to try out for the NFL next season. The 6-foot-1, 234-pound linebacker is second on the team with 4.5 sacks, but has sacrificed personal glory so players like Henderson can make plays. His selfless role on the field complements his role as a mentor behind the scenes.
"A lot of them come to me when they are having issues," he said. "I think I'm great at giving people advice, even if I don't follow my own advice at times."
The only time he remembers not having anything to say was last summer at an ACC meeting in South Carolina. He went out to dinner with players from other teams, and the talk turned to their trips to bowls and what they were like.
"I felt like I was incomplete and I had nothing to say," Thompson said. "I'm the type of guy that always has something to say. For years, we worked hard and there was nothing at the end of the tunnel. We were home every Christmas. But this year has made up for it. I'm loving every minute. And I'm not getting it in a smaller bowl. I'm getting it in the best way it is."
Just call the Orange Bowl a retirement party for Grampa.


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