Joe Thompson always went to the beat of his own drum.
That was clear to his classmates back at Augustana College in the 1970s. And as Thompson points out, he's still that way today.
Thompson, who rushed for what as then a school-record 3,777 yards and never had one concussion, is beginning his third year of retirement after a career that included 20 years at Luther College. He spent the last 18 as the school's athletic director and track and field coach.
“I’ve always felt a strong degree of independence,” Thompson said. “I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but in my role of coaching, or as an athletic director, you have to have a degree of independent thinking because you always have somebody who’s willing to give you advice.
“You have to be confident in doing what you feel is right by the coaches, right by the student athletes, and feel the conviction that what you are doing is the right thing. And it isn’t always the most popular thing.
“I think that served me well."
At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, the 62-year-old Thompson is about 10 or so pounds under the weight he played at during his football career at Augustana.
Even in retirement, he still goes at his own beat.
Thompson travels aplenty in the fall with his wife, Rhonda. He’s also taken a couple of cross country bike trips, including one last winter from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Thompson said. “I still try to get out and do a bit of riding.”
In his 20 years at Luther, which included being chair of the physical education and health department, he’s taken students several times on trips to New Zealand during the January term.
The former United Township High School prep had a solid career there, too. Among the accomplishments was a Western Big Six football title while playing defensive back and running back.
But that pales in comparison to his time at Augustana, where he also scored 48 touchdowns while averaging 107.9 yards rushing per game and 14.3 yards receiving. He once rushed for a school record 300 yards in a game.
And in the spring, his career high was 15 feet in the pole vault, helping earn him All-American honors in a second sport.
Paul Olsen, his track coach at Augustana, remembers an athlete who used his blockers well in football, drove around with a Doberman in his truck and was even an artist.
"For one, he had hobbies that were different for a great athlete," Olsen said. "He's really a fine artist."
He once made a stained-glass Viking for Olsen.
Thompson clearly looks back fondly on his time at Augustana, but it’s not the rushing yards or the records he remembers.
Under coach Ben Newcomb, the Vikings went 19-8-1 during Thompson's last three years. They won a CCIW title and earned the program's first NCAA Division III playoff appearance.
“You forget about that stuff,” Thompson said, recalling a recent conversation with teammate Greg Yemm. “It’s great to have success while you are performing, but the experience with the teammates, those are things I look back on and say was really special.”
It’s one of the main reasons he’s stayed at the Division III level in a career that has included stops at Augustana, Dickinson State in North Dakota, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse and St. Thomas in Minnesota.
"I just think that Division III athletics is a real good world,” Thompson said. “It’s amateur athletics at its finest. It’s an opportunity to mold young men and young women. There’s not incredible pressure that kids at Division I are facing.”
He never became a head coach in football for similar reasons.
“It consumes you to no end,” said Thompson, who has a masters in physical education and a doctorate degree in educational administration. “I had the experience of being a head coach in track and field, and raising a family and all that, it probably makes sense to stay in that role where I still had a little freedom of time.”
Thompson was an offensive coordinator in football during most of his coaching career.
"I had all the pluses and not many of the minuses," he said.
Thompson said one of the pluses was growing up in the Quad-Cities.
Whether it was remembering playing the great Davenport Central teams featuring Curtis Craig and Jim Jensen, or just being a part of a unique social fabric, it’s served him well.
The diversity at UT and later at Augustana was a valuable life lesson.
“The Quad-Cities is a very unique community,” said Thompson, recalling the somewhat turbulent racial and political times of his prep and college career.
Through track and football, he had Caucasian and African American friends.
“That was a very interesting time where you start learning about diversity and different mindsets and different perceptions,” Thompson explained. “It was a very good opportunity to find out what diversity is all about.”
Thompson is curious to see what the future holds for football.
He called himself lucky, having only a hip pointer and a slight shoulder separation his entire career.
He remembers fondly a play in high school, when Jensen was running right towards him.
“Jensen was just a bruiser,” Thompson said. “He was coming like a freight train at me and I said, 'You got to be kidding me.’
“God, that was the hardest hit I ever remember as a defensive back was him.”
Thompson survived and is still smiling about it.
From UT to the nurturing environment Augie provided, it all helped.
“I think it was an absolutely marvelous experience growing up in the Quad-Cities and going to Augie," he said.