Stonewall's Thigpen Is Learning From the Best

By Stephen A. Norris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

For all his accomplishments, Stonewall Jackson running back Damien Thigpen was still anxious before the first game of the season. Thigpen would be the featured back for the first time instead of Ryan Williams, who sat out the first half with an ankle injury, and Stonewall was playing Hylton. The Raiders had not beaten Hylton since 1996.

"I was nervous that first game -- it was like, 'Wow, Hylton,' " said Thigpen, a junior. "I was taking that big role, taking Ryan's spot, and I knew I had some big shoes to fill. If I didn't have a good game, I thought it would be hard for us to do well offensively."

Thigpen rushed for 81 yards on 12 carries (6.8 yards per carry) and scored the first touchdown of the game in the Raiders' 13-2 victory that night.

For those who don't know of Thigpen, he is the other nationally recruited running back at Stonewall (2-0), which plays Freedom-Woodbridge (1-1) tonight. Williams, a senior, has been one of the top players for the Raiders and in his class nationally since his freshman season. He is currently ranked 55th nationally by and third in the state.

Thigpen, who also plays cornerback, has made sure colleges from all over the country will continue to flock to the Manassas school after Williams is gone. He was recently named a five-star recruit by and is listed as one of the top 100 players in the nation for the Class of 2009.

Coach Loren Johnson said Thigpen has received interest from Stanford, Florida, Florida State, Mississippi State, Louisiana State and West Virginia, among others. Thigpen is coveted for his speed (4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash and the Virginia High School League state champion in the 300-meter hurdles) and academics (3.8 GPA last year).

"You can't coach speed," said Johnson, who played cornerback at Virginia Tech. "His speed separates him from everyone else. He does have skill, but the one thing that overrides everything is his speed."

Thigpen isn't one to crow about his achievements. He still speaks about Williams with the reverence of a freshman looking up to a senior and treats friends and teammates with the kind of hospitality often found in the South.

"I look up to [Williams] because he is such a good athlete," Thigpen said. "He is a role model to me. He has good grades and is real humble and polite. As good as he is, you would think he would be real cocky, but he's not."

Thigpen was born in Mississippi and after living in Texas moved to Virginia when he was 11. He inherited some of his speed from his father (Doug) and uncle (Gene "Ricky" Lang). Doug played football at Southern Mississippi and ran a 4.4 40-yard dash; Lang (the brother of Damien's mother, Tracy) played running back for LSU, ran a 4.29 40-yard dash and spent seven seasons in the NFL with the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons.

"He has a blend of all his genetics, but he is more the attacking type, like I was," said Doug, who also played running back. "He has extra speed and has definitely surpassed me in athleticism."

Doug and Tracy Thigpen taught Damien to treat everyone with the sincere politeness they learned growing up in Mississippi.

"I brought him up to be very respectful to his elders and be very disciplined," said Doug, who works for the Secret Service. "We have a very, very good relationship, and I try to do everything to make him a better man."

Part of that grooming included making sure Damien went to Stonewall Jackson. Thigpen lives in Gainesville and inside the Battlefield High boundaries, but his father knew how talented Williams was and enrolled Damien in the International Baccalaureate program (a college prep course similar to Advanced Placement courses) at Stonewall so he could have a chance to play behind Williams.

"Ryan Williams is a tremendous young man, and Coach Johnson does a tremendous job with those kids," Doug Thigpen said. "It took me over a year to convince my wife to send him to Stonewall, but I knew he would elevate his play if he was around Ryan."

Thigpen has done that thus far (he averaged nearly 10 yards per carry last season), but this year will be pivotal in his development, as well as that of his team. With Williams and Thigpen in the backfield and a defense that has allowed one touchdown this season, the Raiders might be one of the top teams in the region. The win over Hylton has been a catalyst for their early success.

"It was monumental for our confidence," Damien Thigpen said. "They usually beat us by a lot, then we end up losing the next game, and the season snowballs after that. I feel like our team got stronger from that game."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company