By Dean Lollis
Editor’s note: At the time this story was written, Dylan Thompson was on the roster of the San Francisco 49ers. Thompson was hired in 2018 to serve as a Character Coach for the Detroit Lions.
Many could understand listing your greatest accomplishments as living out your dream as a college quarterback, beating your rival, leading your conference in passing and, then, putting on the uniform of an NFL team.
It would be easy to understand the adrenaline and the excitement that comes from being on the football field — hearing the crowd as the pass you just threw lands perfectly in the hands of an open receiver.
It would be easy to understand. Yet that’s what makes Dylan Thompson, a former starting quarterback for South Carolina and now with the San Francisco 49ers, different.
Thompson openly admits that the greatest moment in his life did not come on the football field. Yet, that moment has given him a new perspective on the way he views what happens on and off the field.
To get a glimpse into Thompson’s mindset, maybe one should understand the sports accolades he could be celebrating.
Thompson was recruited by South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and was a part of one of the greatest periods in the school’s football history. In the four years Thompson played, the Gamecocks finished 40-12 with four bowl wins.
For the his first three seasons, Thompson played behind Connor Shaw (now with the Cleveland Browns). In the last regular season game of 2012, Thompson filled in for an injured Shaw to beat rival Clemson 27-17.
During his final year in 2014, Thompson stepped into the starting quarterback role, setting a school record and leading the SEC with 3,564 yards passing. He capped his collegiate career with a 24-21 win over Miami in the Independence Bowl. A touchdown from Thompson in the fourth quarter sealed the victory and helped the Gamecocks finish with a 7-6 record.
Thompson was not selected during the 2015 NFL draft but received an invitation to training camp as an undrafted rookie with the San Francisco 49ers. Thompson was cut by the 49ers at the end of the preseason and, then, was signed to the team’s practice squad. Later in the season,Thompson was signed to the team’s active roster.
It would be easy to understand that Thompson could absolutely celebrate his many football accomplishments. These achievements could define who he is.
Yet, Thompson’s story is very different. During his first year at the University of South Carolina, Thompson experienced a change—a reset—that permanently changed the way he views life, sports, and success.
The need for a reset
After excelling at football and basketball at Boiling Springs (S.C.) High School, Thompson arrived at South Carolina with dreams of immediately contributing to the Gamecocks. Those dreams were delayed when Thompson was told that he would be redshirted for his freshman year.
The reality of that news led him to what he describes as one of the emptiest places he has experienced. He said he heard that voice in his head saying that he wasn’t good enough and that he didn’t have the skills to compete.
“Being redshirted meant I was not good enough,” Thompson says. “If I wasn’t known and celebrated by ‘man,’ that was a make-or-break moment for me.”
In his reaction to those feelings, Thompson says he made a series of decisions that would only lead him to feel an even bigger void.
“I was lost,” Thompson explains. “People that don’t know Christ or who have gotten away from their faith search for their identity in things that [the world] celebrates.”
He describes it as pursuing the “wrong kind of glory.” Thompson wanted to be noticed for his athletic skill. He wanted to hear the cheering. He wanted to be a star.
In his emptiness, he found himself sitting in a Columbia church one Sunday. Church was not new to Thompson — it had been a part of his life as he grew up in Boiling Springs. On this day, however, the pastor’s message hit him in a new way — it went to the place where he was feeling most empty.
The sermon that day included Matthew 7:21. That verse reads: “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter.” (CEB)
That night, alone in his apartment, he wrestled with God, his life, his emptiness and that verse. And in that wrestling, Thompson made a decision to commit his life to follow Jesus no matter what that meant.
“The cycle of bad decisions, things that did not honor God — over and over and over again — got me to the point where I was broken,” he says. “I hate the fact that I had to go there, but, I’m also grateful, at the same time, to know what God has brought me out of.”
A new way of seeing
What happened for Thompson, after he made his decision to follow Christ, was like the moment a rock is thrown into a pond; the rock hits and instantly ripples spread from the center. As with the rock, the ripples of Thompson’s journey began impacting the lives of those around him.
Thompson was now ready to dive into Scripture to learn more about faith. He found others who could help him and hold him accountable. And, then, he had an idea.
He invited his teammates to his apartment to participate in a Bible study. It was a challenging move for Thompson because he says, “I didn’t really know anything about the Bible.” However, he felt it was a way to be obedient to what God was calling him to do.
The group decided that it wanted to grow together, to get to know Christ better and to become teammates in a faith journey.
Six people participated in that first study and, over time, that group would grow. By the time that Dylan completed his time at South Carolina, the Bible study group averaged 30 participants with as many as 50.
Beyond the learning about God, this Bible study helped the participants to hold life and football in perspective.
“It’s football,” he says, “and everyone is going to look at the scoreboard. But, at the end of the day, none of that goes with us.”
That group and those relationships continue to be a part of his life and support network today.
“Anytime you make yourself vulnerable enough to go to a Bible study, you are asking for accountability,” Thompson said. “Whether you have the courage to say it or not, whenever you make the step to do that you are saying you are OK with these guys getting to know you more.”
Answers to prayer
One of the ripples of Thompson’s faith journey hit close to home — actually it hit in his home. Thompson had been praying for his father, Danny, to make a deeper commitment to follow Christ.
One day, Thompson received a phone call that led him to tears of joy. His father made that decision to go deeper in his faith. And, it’s one of those “bigger than life” moments that Thompson holds onto in his own journey.
“God hears every prayer,” Thompson says.
That moment, and so many others, give Thompson lessons in how God’s timing is very different from our timing.
“We pray for something and we want it to happen the next day,” he said. “That prayer was answered over time, but in God’s timing.” While not the timing he had hoped for, Thompson says God’s timing is even better, as it has led to a deeper relationship with his father.
His faith journey also led him to meet his wife, Melanie, at a Christian event in Atlanta and their relationship grew from there. He proposed and she accepted before the start of his final season. They married in 2015 and now have taken the next steps of their lives together in Santa Clara, Calif.
“Moving and everything has been crazy,” Thompson says. “It has been a great opportunity to see what God has done. The way God works and does things is awesome.”
While Thompson takes part in offseason workouts at the 49ers facilities, his future is unclear. The coach who signed him is no longer with the team. With new coach Chip Kelly, there is uncertainty about the quarterback position. The NFL draft is this weekend and there is a possibility that the 49ers will draft a quarterback.
Thompson has been reminded of that uncertainty so many times this offseason.
“Literally, every conversation I have with someone is, ‘What’s it look like for you, how’s it going to go, what’s going to happen?’” he says. “The world wants to put all that in you — anxiety, second guessing and doubt.”
It is in those moments that he leans on his faith.
“That’s where I’m thankful that God provides peace,” Thompson says. “I know that no matter what — whether I am the starting quarterback or whether I ever see a snap again — I’m good.”
A different place.
Thompson’s journey of faith is rooted in Matthew 7:21. Now, at this stage in his journey, Thompson inds Romans 5:8 to be a verse that guides him: “But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (CEB)
He loves that verse, he says, because it says that Jesus’ love was not dependent on something he or we have done.
“Jesus died for us when we were all jacked up,” Thompson says. “That’s the version of us he died for.”
Maybe it is in keeping with the feeling of that verse, that Thompson finds opportunities to talk about the moment that changed his own life and to share his faith with others. His journey as a football player has opened doors to share Christ at youth events, Christian conferences, at numerous churches, and even on the field.
Thompson says it’s about helping others — teammates and others he talks with — to discover who Jesus really is and what Jesus is about.
“Once they figure out who Jesus is, once you get there, that’s what changes people,” he says. “Church alone doesn’t change people — Jesus working through the church changes people.”
He continues to make that a priority in his life and he hopes to become more involved in missions.
“God just puts so much out there if we are willing to obey,” Thompson says. “Life is bigger — bigger than what the world celebrates and he (Jesus) seeks out outcasts. That’s what I want to do a better job of doing.”
No matter where the next season of life takes him, Thompson says he is confident that his faith in God will carry him through.
“For me, it’s crazy that God will bless us in spite of so many things that we’ve done in life,” Thompson says. “The more you learn and grow, the more that you will fall in love in with [Jesus].
“Everyday I grow to understand more about Christ and being obedient. I never want to get stuck where I’m at. I always want to be growing and learning something everyday.”
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