He filleted Mountain West Conference defenses with an abridged playbook of sorts. Utah State’s Deven Thompkins, one of college football’s most diminutive and dominant receivers last fall, excelled despite never executing one vital pattern.
A sleep pattern.
How in the name of single fatherhood does a dude living in a small rental house with three other teammates and a toddler with Down syndrome log the sack time required to be a full-time dad, student and offensive dynamo?
“I’m guessing Deven was working on two hours of sleep (a night),” said Phil Cowley, a pharmacist who befriended Thompkins in Utah.
Speed ahead a few months, and the most indefatigable rookie in the Bucs’ recent mandatory minicamp also may have been the most noticeable. When camp broke and Todd Bowles was asked which player had stood out, the first-year coach shunned diplomacy and singled out the undrafted rookie and father of two who might stand 5-foot-7 in cleats.
“I would love to see what Thompkins does in training camp,” Bowles said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive off of the ball, and he’s made some good catches. So we want to see how he continues to learn and how he does in training camp and preseason. I’ll be looking at him.”
Mere on-field observations won’t suffice, Cowley insists. For all its technological innovation and meticulousness, the NFL still has no measurements for the heart, no metric for tenacity. Self-sacrifice can be gauged only in the abstract.
“What he was able to do (in college), I don’t know, I would’ve given up,” Cowley said. “I would’ve gotten a job, gone home and taken care of my family. ... He was going to do this and he didn’t care how much work it took to get there. He wasn’t going to fail.”
A dad’s dominant season
Those who observed Thompkins only through a Saturday scope last fall observed a sleek, cerebral upperclassman crashing the national radar. Thompkins finished with 102 catches for 1,704 yards (both Utah State single-season records) and 10 touchdowns for a team that enjoyed a resurgence (11-3) under first-year coach Blake Anderson.
“With what we do on offense, it definitely showcases a kid like Deven,” Aggies receivers coach Kyle Cefalo said. “Despite his size, he’s fast, he can elevate, he catches the ball really well, he’s quick, and most importantly, he’s really, really, really tough.”
One of 10 Biletnikoff Award semifinalists and a third-team All-American, Thompkins posted five games of at least 170 receiving yards (also a school record) and had six 100-yard contests. His 7-yard scoring catch with 13 seconds remaining in the season opener — a 26-23 win at Washington State — set the tone for a season that ended with a win against Oregon State in the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl.
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“I knew the potential that I had; so did the coaching staff, my teammates,” said Thompkins, who had three college offers (Utah State, Division I-AA Duquesne, Division II Valdosta State) out of Dunbar High in Fort Myers.
“They all knew how good of a player I was. They really always supported me, and I just needed to get in that offense and just get that ability to shine and show what I could do. And with having Coach Anderson come over and Coach (Anthony) Tucker (offensive coordinator) bring his offense, it just fit me perfectly, you know what I mean?”
Outside the college football cocoon, the fit of fatherhood wasn’t nearly as snug.
Thompkins’ daughter, Nyomi, was an infant at the dawn of his freshman season at Utah State in 2018. By the following spring, Nyomi and her mother, Maria Castilhos — Thompkins’ high school sweetheart, whom he eventually married — had moved out to Logan as well. In September 2019, the couple welcomed a baby boy.
A test of Maria’s amniotic fluid prior to birth revealed their son had Down syndrome. Hence the choice to name him Messiah, who is just now on the cusp of walking, according to his dad.
“He’s my angel baby, and I feel like he’s just a miracle in general,” said Thompkins, the second-oldest of five kids who describes his family as one that consistently struggled financially.
“And especially with his kind of Down syndrome, trisomy 21, the doctors said ... they don’t know how it can necessarily happen, like through genetics and development, and the baby just ends up with an extra chromosome somehow.”
The family remained together until the summer of Thompkins’ junior year. Maria ultimately took both children back to Florida for a short period, but when their father couldn’t bear not seeing them, Messiah returned to his dad for his senior year. Meantime, Maria and Nyomi lived in California, where Maria was pursuing a medical-related education.
Equipped with a cost-of-attendance stipend and little else, Thompkins set about attempting to juggle fatherhood, football and a full-time class schedule. The workload was partially eased when all his courses were made available online, allowing him to remain at home part of the day and watch his son.
Teammates, including former Jefferson High receiver Justin McGriff, often took turns babysitting. When no sitter could be found, Thompkins took Messiah with him to team workouts and meetings. The Aggies staff obliged; Cefalo recalls many a meeting in which Messiah would be napping or taking a bottle in the back of the room beside his dad.
“Just watching Deven walk up from the parking lot, pushing a stroller and getting himself ready to go work out or something like that,” Cefalo said. “The things that he was able to manage and balance in his life, and then to have it not affect any part of what he was trying to accomplish, it’s just so impressive. And to me, it just shows you really what kind of man he is.”
And so it went, the young father studying, training, practicing and surviving with the help of his Aggies village.
Until the village found a pharmacist.
A surrogate family
Cowley, whose family (four kids ages 11-20) also includes a special-needs child, doesn’t describe himself as a football fan. He never had been to the Aggies’ stadium until Utah State defensive coordinator Ephraim Banda — his neighbor — asked him to address the team about the COVID-19 vaccine last July.
“The players had questions,” he said. “I’m not a person to put myself in people’s medical decisions. I think it’s very personal, I think it’s too complex. ... That was the only time I had ever done anything like that.”
A social-media newbie, he decided to use the question-answer session to make an Instagram post of him racing against an Aggies player. Upon inquiring about which player to use for the clip, he was directed to a short guy feeding a toddler with a bottle.
Soon, Cowley learned Thompkins was trying to wear many hats with minimal resources that did not include steady child care, a crib or even a car seat. Moreover, Cowley discovered Thompkins’ mom in Fort Myers hadn’t seen him play in person since his freshman season.
“It was crazy just how much responsibility was on his shoulders, and how alone he was, Cowley said.
Fortunately for the pharmacist and his new friend, the NCAA had just afforded college student-athletes a new revenue stream by adopting a name, image and likeness policy. Working closely with Utah State’s compliance team, Cowley arranged a deal with Thompkins in which he’d appear in a series of Instagram videos for $500 each.
As he gradually earned Thompkins’ trust, Cowley’s family was allowed to watch Messiah, charging a nominal fee so all would be above-board with the NCAA. Cowley credits his wife Andrea with doing “all the heavy lifting” in terms of child care.
He even “charged” Thompkins for use of one of the family vehicles when the player couldn’t get a ride to campus. Suddenly, the fledgling All-American had stability, and a surrogate family.
“I actually had a really good support system behind me, for sure,” Thompkins said.
“He started letting me in more and more,” Cowley added. “We never attended a football game because we always had Messiah, and I wouldn’t trade it for a second. ... We watched his kid, and when (Thompkins) would go out of town he’d stay overnight and I got to talk to his wife a bunch.”
Financially buoyed by his new revenue source, Thompkins was able to fly his mom and sister to Logan for the Aggies’ senior-day contest against Wyoming, where he had five receptions, including a 41-yard touchdown catch. Thompkins would earn first-team All-Mountain West Conference honors and be named offensive MVP (six catches, 115 yards, one TD) of the bowl game.
The breakthrough season propelled Thompkins, 22, to the current opportunity in Tampa Bay, where rookies report Saturday ahead of the first full training-camp workout on Wednesday. As he tries to earn an NFL job, and as he and Maria try to figure out their long-term future, the couple’s kids are residing with loved ones in Florida, he said.
Two time zones to the west, Messiah’s other set of loved ones are rooting like crazy for his father — the shortest (5-foot-6⅞) and lightest (155 pounds) guy on the Bucs roster — to defy the odds yet again.
“Things don’t just happen,” Cowley said. “I had never gone up to that stadium before or after; it was that one time. ... My thought is, it’s the hand of God. It was a strange set of circumstances that just kept going. We were really lucky to have Deven, and I wish he were 2½ inches taller so people would quit doubting him.”
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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