TAMPA — Tampa Bay Tech running back Deon Thompson knows the sacrifices his mother has made for him.
The years she raised him and his little sister alone while their father worked in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 4,800 miles she moved their family to boost his exposure to recruiters. The months at a time she spends halfway around the world to pay the bills.
So with his mother in town for tonight's Class 7A, District 7 showdown at Sickles High School, Deon knows there's more at stake than the Titans' playoff hopes. It's another chance to show his mom that her sacrifices have been worthwhile.
"Whenever she's home, I try to put on a show," he said.
Deon has been recording highlight-reel runs since the shifty spark plug first picked up a football on the snowy Pop Warner fields of Anchorage, Alaska. By sixth grade, high schools were trying to sign him up.
Trina Thompson realized her son might be able to play in college, but he needed to get out of Alaska, a state that has produced only six players currently on Division I rosters.
"I couldn't see a scout saying, 'Let's fly to Alaska to check out this one kid,' " Trina said.
So when her husband, Galvinus, retired after 21 years in the Army and four years working in the Middle East for the Defense Department, Trina moved the family from its home of nine years to the recruiting hotbed of Tampa.
The exposure was wonderful: Tampa Bay Tech has more D-I commits on its roster (two) than all of Alaska (one).
But the economy was dreadful. Galvinus couldn't find work immediately. The best job Trina found was as a logistics coordinator as a Defense Department contractor — in the Middle East. She took it.
Trina went to Iraq, then Kuwait. She misses big games and dances, and can only return home about twice a year. She settles for webcam conversations a few times a week and swapping motivational messages and videos with her son on Facebook.
"She sacrifices everything for her family," Deon said, "and I just want to do that for mine some day."
Football has given him a chance to give back to his family. After scoring once as a freshman, Deon suffered two hamstring pulls and a high ankle sprain as a sophomore. He pushed himself hard through rehab, practicing half-speed cuts on the sidelines and rushing to get back to the weight room.
The payoff came last fall, when he scored three touchdowns in the first half of a win over Steinbrenner — one of the only games his mom could attend.
"She was a driving force for him to keep doing what he's doing," his dad said.
As a senior, Deon leads the team with 1,039 total yards and 12 touchdowns. He scored the Titans' only two touchdowns in a 14-7 win over powerhouse Plant.
The captain also does the unheralded little things for his 6-2 Titans, who can secure at least a spot in a playoff tiebreaker with a win tonight. Thompson can line up at receiver, running back or safety. His physical blocks defy his 5-foot-9, 181-pound frame. He helps quarterback Deon Cain read defenses.
On Popsicle Thursdays, he makes sure the trainer gets her treat, and he searches out the trash can so players have somewhere to put their wrappers.
"That's typical him," Titans coach Jayson Roberts said.
Deon's quiet leadership turns to passion when his mother is involved.
When she's in Kuwait, he plays to give his mom something good to read when she pulls up the newspaper online every Saturday. During the game or two a year when she's home, he refuses to let his team disappoint one of its biggest fans. Trina didn't travel 7,000 miles to watch a loss.
"That's probably the thing that's really special about him," Roberts said. "He plays really hard to honor his mom."
Deon's sacrifices in summer workouts and grueling weightlifting sessions have been geared toward one goal — a scholarship. The two-star recruit holds offers from UMass and Marshall, and USF and Florida International have shown recent interest.
To Deon, a free ride to college would justify his mom's lifetime of sacrifices.
"I took care of my part for the rest of my life," he said. "I did what I had to do."
Then maybe his mom can come home, and his family can finally be together again.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.