Reyna Thompson, one of the best punt-coverage players in the NFL, is the thinking man's special-teamer. He has a degree in communications from Baylor and is nine hours shy of a master's in English from Florida International in Miami. He hopes to earn a Ph.D., become an English professor and campaign for educational reform. Thompson, 28, who also serves the New York Giants as a backup cornerback, writes short stories on a laptop computer in his spare time.
While most athletes cite a coach as having had the greatest influence on their lives, Thompson credits Marylin Nease, his 11th-and 12th-grade English teacher at Jefferson High in Dallas, with expanding his horizons. "I had always viewed reading as a chore," Thompson says, "but she taught me it was a discipline. She helped me tap into my writing talent. She assigned me to keep a journal and encouraged me to write poetry. That opened doors for me."
Thompson's parents stressed education over athletics. His father, Willard, dropped out of school in the sixth grade, and his mother, Almeta, left after the 10th. Yet all seven of their children have graduated from college. "No one's rich, but we're all comfortable," says Reyna (pronounced re-NAY). "Most important, we have a strong morality."
Thompson traveled an unusual route toward becoming the NFC's special teams representative at the 1991 Pro Bowl. After clocking the nation's fastest high school time in the 110-meter high hurdles (13.4) during his senior year, 1981, he enrolled at Baylor on a track scholarship. Although he qualified for the '84 Olympic trials in the high hurdles, a hamstring injury kept him from competing. He made the football team as a walk-on in his junior year and wound up playing cornerback and safety and on special teams.
The Miami Dolphins made Thompson their ninth-round draft pick in 1986, and at season's end he was voted the club's special teams player of the year. But in his final game, while playing cornerback, he tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder when a pile of players landed on him. He had surgery the following March. As a result, he spent the early part of the '87 season on the injured-reserve list and ended up playing in only nine games. A year later the Dolphins left Thompson unprotected during the Plan B free-agent signing period.
"They told me they had four defensive back spots they could protect," Thompson says. "They thought they could sneak me through without anybody making me an offer."
Tim Rooney, the Giants' director of pro personnel, jumped at the opportunity to sign Thompson on the strength of watching one play on film. On that play Thompson ran from the far left side of the field to the far right side on a kickoff and tackled the return man. Former Giants coach Bill Parcells took one look and said, "Put him on the team."
"Special teams will probably always be made up of guys with one foot in the real world and the other in the insane asylum," says Thompson, who last season started four games at cornerback, in place of the injured Mark Collins. "But there is room for guys who aren't like that. I don't play with emotional peaks and valleys. I never said I wanted to be the best in the NFL. It was just my only opportunity on the field. I play the game for one reason—to make big plays."
Thompson incorporates track training methods into his football workouts. During the season, he runs from his Hackensack, N.J., apartment to Giants Stadium and back—a distance of 18 miles—at least once a week. He also hurdles in the off-season, because he believes it helps him maintain his speed and balance while being hit by opponents from all directions on kickoff and punt coverage.
"Running hurdles is an aggressive sprint," Thompson says. "You're pushed and elbowed. You'll hit a hurdle and start running crooked or slow down. Your trail foot gets caught, and it feels like you're going to fall. You have to learn to keep your feet."
During the season, when it comes to studying his craft, Thompson is a perfectionist. In practice he pays close attention to the elements of Sean Landeta's punting—the elapsed time from the snap to the kick, the hang time of the punt, the direction and distance the ball travels. Will Landeta boom it? Or will he drop it at an angle? As a gunner on punt coverage—one of two players who can release from the line of scrimmage before the punt—Thompson must be in sync with Landeta.
At home Thompson pores over videotapes on a 13-inch television monitor for an hour almost every night. He analyzes the kickoff and punt return teams of the Giants' next opponent from four different games. For example, the first time he reviews tape of the opponent's kickoff returns, he focuses on the man who plays the same position he does—L3, the player lined up three slots to the left of the kicker. The next time through, Thompson picks apart the ways the upcoming opponent blocks the L3 player. How do the blockers line up? Do they block straight on or from different angles? He also examines the tendencies of the return man. On the final run-through, Thompson visualizes himself as the L3 player on the tape, figuring out ways to neutralize the blockers.
"Film is so important because you can only work on mechanics in practice," Thompson says. "You can't simulate the true emotions or you'd get hurt. I have always believed that most players in the NFL are at the same talent level. The ones who are the best prepared are the most effective."