WHEN TOMMY THOMPSON shanked his first punt in a Week 5 game
against the Giants, the world appeared to be one kick closer to
a cure for cancer. Sadly for science, he nailed his next two.
Had he not, the 23-year-old Thompson, a freshman punter for the
49ers, would most likely be a graduate student in medicinal
After his college football career ended in 1993, Thompson fully
expected that his postgraduate studies would have to wait.
Oregon's kicking specialist for four years, Thompson ranks sixth
on the Ducks' career punting list, with a 39.6-yard average, and
is their fourth-most-accurate field goal kicker. But despite
being one of the highest-rated kickers in the country, Thompson
wasn't drafted in '94. "That was the worst day of my life," he
says. "I've never been so low." Although the 49ers signed him as
a free agent, he was cut in training camp.
"When the Niners cut me last year," he says, "I realized that
football was probably over for me." With that in mind, Thompson
returned to Oregon to complete work toward his degree in
biochemistry. Then the phone started ringing. In February,
Thompson was offered a graduate fellowship at Illinois. Three
days later the 49ers called and invited him to minicamp.
At the time of the 49ers' invitation Thompson was also working
part-time in a laboratory at school and interning with the
Oregon State Police forensics department. "In the lab I was
trying to develop a crown-ether compound, which is basically a
biological mimic of an ion channel," he says. "In laymen's
terms, crown ethers are synthetic compounds that help cells
fight disease. Someday I would like to help develop drugs for
diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's.
November 20, 1995
"Working in the forensics lab was a neat experience. Forensics
was something I thought I was interested in, but I realized
working with dead bodies every day wasn't exactly my cup of tea."
Given that San Francisco had not re-signed punter Klaus
Wilmsmeyer, Thompson's immediate prospects last spring looked
brighter by the Bay. He attended the minicamp, skipping
commencement exercises in the process, and deferred his
admission to Illinois for at least one year.
Early this season it appeared there would be no decisions to
make between football and graduate school in '96. Entering the
game against the Giants, Thompson was averaging a league-low
37.2 yards per kick, and the 49ers had auditioned a replacement.
Then his first punt against the Giants went just 14 yards. "I
was so down," he says. "I just wanted to pack up and leave the
stadium right then. But Jerry Rice did something I'll never
forget. He walked over to me and told me to shake it off."
Thompson loosened up and loosened the noose: His next two kicks
traveled 42 and 47 yards. Over the next three games he averaged
more than 45 yards per punt.
Thompson likens chemistry to athletics. If one stays away from
either for any amount of time, one grows fat and lazy. "I read
journals to stay abreast of the field," he says. "If I don't, my
mind will deteriorate." As a stopgap, Thompson hopes to find an
internship in a Silicon Valley laboratory during the off-season.
But if his punting prowess continues, the world of science could
be without another full-time researcher for years to come.