GREEN BAY, Wis. – Former Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson, who was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in May 2019 for his work in building a perennial contender and Super Bowl champion, has died. He had turned 68 on Sunday.
Starting with his selection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers with the first pick of his first draft in 2005, his string of successful drafts helped pour the foundation for a team that has qualified for the playoffs 11 times in the last 16 years. On Sunday, the Packers will play in the NFC Championship Game for the sixth time during that span.
To honor Thompson’s contributions to the organization, the team will install his name on the Lambeau Field façade before next season. Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy had recently shared these plans with the Thompson family, who expressed their appreciation at the recognition.
“He's a guy that's held in the highest regard in this building and around the league,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Thursday. “He's had a tremendous impact, not only on people in this building – obviously, Gutey (general manager Brian Gutekunst) and a lot of our personnel people – but people in other departments, as well. His impact is still felt to this day when you look at our roster. Certainly, we're sitting here with heavy hearts today.”
With few exceptions, such as in the victorious locker room following the victory in Super Bowl XLV, Thompson shunned the spotlight and generally did not enjoy media duties. Those who knew him best wished the fans knew Thompson like they did.
One of his proteges was Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Speaking at the 2018 Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, with Thompson having stepped away from GM duties, he was asked how history would judge Thompson’s impact.
“Enormous,” Schneider said, getting emotional. “He’s special guy, you know, and he did his own way. His personality. His quiet, ethical, great character, high character.”
Schneider paused. “We miss him down here, you know?”
At his Hall of Fame induction, Thompson, in ailing health, spoke mostly in a prerecorded video package, though he did speak live briefly.
“This is a great honor,” Thompson said, a standing ovation and cheers drowning out some of his remarks. “I appreciate it more than you can ever know. … This means a lot to me.”
Thompson built a team that qualified for the playoffs nine times, reached five NFC Championship Games and won one Super Bowl in his 13 years as general manager. Twice, he was voted the NFL’s executive of the year by his peers.
“What really to me stands out is consistency,” Packers President Mark Murphy said during Thompson’s induction. “It’s very hard to win in the NFL, let alone for one year but on a consistent basis. Everything is designed to make it difficult to win that way. When you look at what Ted accomplished in his 13 years as general manager, it’s really remarkable.”
Thompson, typical of his understated ways, thought back to the legends that have played for and coached the Packers and preceded him in the Packers Hall of Fame. “I’m not one of those people. I’m just a scout,” Thompson said.
And a darned good scout. In all, 19 of his draft picks have been selected for at least one Pro Bowl.
“You know what made him a good scout? Because he knew all 22 starters on the field,” said Mike Reinfeldt, a former Packers executive and NFL general manager who served as Thompson’s presenter. “He knew their assignments. He knew what they had to do, which means he knew what skill-set would make them good. So, he had a pretty good understanding of what it took to be an offensive tackle or a right guard or an inside linebacker or a corner. Being able to know the position that well, he was able to determine what players could play that position well.”
Thompson and Reinfeldt’s relationship started in 1976. At that point, Thompson was in his second season with the Houston Oilers and the Oilers had just added Reinfeldt – an undrafted free agent who had been released by the Raiders.
“When I came to the Oilers, Bum Phillips walked me into the locker room, and the first thing he did was introduce me to Ted Thompson, and said ‘Ted, take care of him, get him squared away,’” Reinfeldt recalled. “Ted said, ‘You’ll be OK,’ and then he walked away. But we became great friends over the next nine years, had some great times in Houston, went to the playoffs and championship games, and it was the start of a lifelong friendship.”
In 1991, the Packers hired Reinfeldt as chief financial officer. In 1992, new general manager Ron Wolf hired Thompson to his scouting staff. The shoe was on the other foot this time.
“You’ll be OK,” Reinfeldt told him.
Indeed, Thompson was OK. Within a year, he had been promoted to director of pro personnel; a few years later, he was promoted again to director of player personnel. When Mike Holmgren left his job as Packers coach following the 1998 season to take on the dual role of coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks, he brought along Thompson to run the personnel department.
In 2005, then-team President Bob Harlan stripped coach Mike Sherman of his general manager duties. Front and center on Harlan’s list was Thompson.
“I had a good advantage,” Harlan said before the Hall of Fame ceremony. “I watched him come in and join us when he was very green, working for Ron Wolf, who’s a demanding boss, and he was so good that Ron promoted him twice. The first man that Mike Holmgren wanted to take to Seattle with him was Ted Thompson. Ted went to Seattle, built a Super Bowl team and I just thought when it was time for us to get somebody, he was the one I wanted. When I called him, I gave him the very same line I gave Ron earlier. I said, ‘You’re No. 1 on my list. I want to talk to you until you say yes.’”
After that, Harlan called Wolf to get the confirmation he needed.
“I said, ‘Ron, if I want somebody to come in and do for me now what you did in 1992, do you have someone you’d recommend?’ He said, ‘Yeah, Ted Thompson.’ I said, ‘Thanks, you answered my question,’ and I hung up.”
Asked about that recommendation, Wolf said: “Because of his overall skill and ability. Very, very simple. I recommended him to a lot of people. Quite simply, it’s one of those things where you have a list of candidates and there’s nobody on the list. It’s like draft choices. You get down to a certain number, there’s only one or two people you want to pick.”
Thompson immediately built a powerhouse. He drafted Rodgers with his initial first-round pick in 2005 and hired Mike McCarthy as coach in 2006. The Packers reached the NFC Championship Game in 2007 and won Super Bowl XLV in 2010.
Asked at the Scouting Combine about a month later how his life had changed, Thompson displayed his low-key sense of humor.
“Not a lot. We’ve been pretty busy trying to get ready for this and get ready for the draft. You still pinch yourself from time to time. Sometimes, even in our draft meetings, we’ll say, ‘What do we think about that guy?’ There gets to be a tense moment and (West Coast scout) Sam Seale will say, ‘Well, we are the world champions.’ We only do that amongst ourselves. It’s cool. We understand what it means to Green Bay and Packer fans all over the world. We have an appreciation for that. But we understand this league is about what’s next. We’re trying to get ready for the next play.”
The wins kept on coming, with a 15-1 team in 2011 and additional trips to conference title games in 2014 and 2016.
With Rodgers still on the team, the Packers are back in the NFC Championship Game. Thompson died about two-and-a-half weeks before the team's potential return to the Super Bowl.
“You were the architect … (for) an incredible time to be a Packer,” Rodgers said in prerecorded comments at the Hall of Fame ceremony. “I’ll always be thankful for the time I got to spend with you and the fact that you took a chance on me. Thank you for your vision, thank you for believing in me year after year, and thank you for representing the Green Bay Packers so well.”
The selection of Rodgers, with the legendary Brett Favre in place at quarterback, would be a defining moment for Thompson and the franchise.
“That was Ted’s first draft and Aaron kept falling and falling,” Harlan recalled. “We were 24th and when we got on No. 19, Ted comes over and says, ‘Can we go out in the hallway for a minute and talk?’ He said, ‘Rodgers is No. 1 on our board. If he’s still there, I’m going to take him and we’re going to get some heat because of Brett.’ I said, ‘It’s your club to run. I told you that. I’m not going to interfere. You take who you want.’ I’ll tell ya, some of the most critical mail I ever got as president was when Ron sent a first-round draft pick to Atlanta for a quarterback nobody ever heard of named Favre and when we drafted Aaron Rodgers.”
Thompson held firm in 2008 following Favre’s retirement and subsequent change of heart. Thompson stuck with Rodgers as his quarterback and dealt Favre to the New York Jets.
“The way that he handled that situation – there was tremendous pressure,” Murphy recalled. “‘You were in the NFC Championship Game. He’s a Hall of Fame quarterback. Throughout the entire process, he remained calm and he showed me that he was not afraid to make the difficult decision and stick to with it. … The other thing that Ted talked about during that time was, ‘Brett’s one of ours. We have to treat him fairly. Let’s make sure that he feels the organization has done right with him.’ Because of the way Ted handled that situation, we were able to welcome Brett back into the fold into our Hall of Fame.”
After eight consecutive playoff seasons from 2009 through 2016, the team endured two consecutive losing seasons. Thompson was steadfast in his draft-and-develop philosophy of building a roster. It worked when Thompson delivered solid draft classes. It failed when he did not. Only three players remain from the 2013, 2014 and 2015 draft classes; left tackle David Bakhtiari in 2013, receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley in 2014, and zero players from 2015. Just as was the case when Thompson replaced Sherman, Gutekunst was tasked with rebuilding a team with a shortage of young talent.
“I think he’s done a marvelous job and I’m really hurt when I hear fans who critique some of his drafts, because he and Mike McCarthy gave us 13 outstanding years and we’re very fortunate,” Harlan said. “His first draft choice, everybody said, ‘Well, the quarterback fell to him.’ He didn’t fall; 23 clubs decided to pass him up and he got him.”
During his video address, Thompson spoke of drafting people and not players. “You have to care about people,” Thompson said. That philosophy of building a strong locker room stuck out to Jordy Nelson, who played 10 seasons with the team after being the top draft choice by Thompson in 2008.
“A great person,” Nelson said. “I think you can tell by the people he brought into this organization. I think that was first and foremost— the (kind of) people he brought in was more important than the skill and the talent because he wanted the right locker room, the right guys in the community, the right leaders. Obviously, I’m extremely thankful for what he’s done for me and my family, giving us that opportunity. It’s great to be back to see him receive this honor and see him again.”
Scouts have bad days and so do players, Thompson said, and it was all part of a “very complicated soup” that determined a team’s success or failure. There were more good days than bad with Thompson. By Reinfeldt’s count, Thompson’s teams as a player, scout and GM won 330 games in 36 seasons.
“I think people will appreciate Ted,” Reinfeldt said. “The longer he’s retired, the more the people will appreciate him. I think history is going to be kind to Ted Thompson. When they look back and see what he accomplished, it’s a pretty golden era for the Packers.”
Thompson continued to work as an adviser and was there to lend an ear for Gutekunst.
“For our whole group, he’s been such a mentor for all of us,” Gutekunst said before the 2018 draft. “He’s obviously well-deserving of being in the Packer Hall of Fame, and most of us believe he should be in Canton. Yeah, there will be some emotions. He means (a lot) not only as a mentor in this profession but also just as a friend. He’s a really unique individual who cared about the guys who worked for him. It’ll be an emotional time but it also will be a celebration. I think having a couple of beers at the end of this thing (the draft) is what I’ll probably miss the most.
While Thompson still traveled to Green Bay, he was building a film room in his house in Texas so he could still do the job he loves while not having to deal with the challenges of travel.
Once a scout. Always a scout.
“I like the challenge. I like the game of football,” Thompson said in his recorded remarks. “Even though it was the players who were going to win and lose the game, we had a contribution as scouts. You live with the good things; you live with the bad things. I think most Packer fans have an appreciation for what we’ve done.”