TAMPA — Former Armwood standout Warren Thompson was home visiting family during Arkansas’ bye week in October when his mother, Theresa Thompson, pulled into the Raymond James Stadium parking lot. Warren’s flight back to Fayetteville, Ark., had been delayed, so with a little time to kill, she asked the security guard if they could go inside and take a look around.
The man agreed. When they walked inside, they spent a minute just taking it all in.
“I was telling him, ‘Warren J, it would be something to come back and play here at the Bucs’ stadium,’” Theresa Thompson said. “And lo and behold, the next time he comes back, he’s going to be playing there.”
Thompson, a redshirt junior receiver, is part of the Arkansas team that will take on Penn State in the 36th annual Outback Bowl (noon kickoff) on New Year’s Day. It is the Razorbacks’ first bowl appearance in five years, and the first-ever matchup between the programs.
But Saturday’s game represents far more than those milestones for Thompson.
A second chance
East Hillsborough County is in Warren Thompson’s blood. The street the Thompsons live on in Seffner was named after his great-great grandmother, and their family proudly owns the first ever P.O. Box in neighboring Mango.
In fact, Thompson’s mother was part of the first graduating class at Armwood High School, where she had former football coach Sean Callahan as a teacher. Callahan remembers the first day he met his future starting wide receiver.
“(Warren) was 6 or 7. She brought him up and said, ‘Here’s your next star.’ And she was right,” Callahan recalled. “I knew then that we’d probably be seeing him in an Armwood uniform.”
Nearly a decade later, Thompson was wearing just that. In four years at Armwood, he helped carry the Hawks to three state championship appearances and recorded nearly 1,000 career receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. Those kinds of statistics and a 6-foot-4 frame made Thompson a blue-chip recruit, and he committed to play at Florida State.
Thompson was recruited by former FSU coach Willie Taggart, but midway through Thompson’s redshirt freshman year in Tallahassee, Taggart was fired after 21 games. Thompson stuck around, even making a few starts the following season. But after a year of limited success — he finished with 11 career catches for 195 yards and one touchdown — and making national headlines with negative comments about the program’s handling of COVID-19 precautions, Thompson entered the transfer portal in December 2020.
With no college program to call home, Thompson went back home to Seffner, hoping an opportunity would come his way.
Thanks to Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, one soon did.
Briles served as offensive coordinator under Taggart at FSU, but he went on to take the same job with the Razorbacks in 2019. He contacted Thompson and offered him a spot on the team, but there was a catch. A scholarship was not guaranteed.
“We sat down, and we talked. And he said, ‘Mom, I’m just going to go with faith,’” Theresa Thompson said. “So he left with three bags and eighty dollars. And he walked on.”
The perfect fit
One year later, Warren Thompson, standing on home turf, can hardly believe how far he has come.
“It’s amazing how everything worked out and happened. It’s a blessing,” said Thompson, a communications major who is on track to become the first in his family to graduate from college. “Around this time (last year), I didn’t have nowhere to go. ... I’m just glad they stuck with me.”
Thompson has given them plenty of reasons to do so.
After proving himself in the offseason, Thompson was put on scholarship in September, and he had 18 receptions for 292 yards and two touchdowns for the Razorbacks this season. On Sept. 11, he had three receptions in the Razorbacks’ 40-21 win against Texas, after which Theresa Thompson, who was visiting for the game, stormed the field with thousands of Razorback fans to celebrate with her son.
To current Armwood coach Evan Davis, that kind of determination is what he had grown to expect from Thompson during his playing days in Seffner.
“Warren bet on himself,” Davis said. “He didn’t go in there and try and walk around like a man. He was humble, and he worked hard.”
Saturday against Penn State, Thompson’s contributions might be needed more than ever.
Arkansas all-SEC wide receiver Treylon Burks opted out of the Outback Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, leaving a gaping hole in the Razorbacks’ offense.
It’s a hole Thompson said he can’t wait to help fill. And to have the chance to do so before a home crowd?
“I might cry,” he said.