Kendal Thompson has never wilted in the face of adversity. The two have had their fair share of run-ins during his 24 years. But the Washington Redskins rookie roster hopeful doesn’t have it in his DNA to back down.
The blood of Native American chiefs and warriors courses through the 6-foot-2, 192-pound wide receiver’s veins. The lessons passed down from those leaders of Oklahoma’s Kiowa tribe have stuck with Thompson throughout his life, becoming more meaningful as he reached manhood. That’s when Thompson’s football journey — and life along with it — became more difficult than ever.
Thompson found himself on the football path at an early age. His father, Charles Thompson, starred for the Oklahoma Sooners in the late 1980s , and Thompson’s grandfather on his mother’s side — the late Norman Kaubin — also played college football and coached youth and in high school .
The two men coached Thompson’s Pop Warner football teams, grooming him as a quarterback, like his father, who as a freshman in 1987 helped lead Oklahoma to an 11-1 record. But they also worked to make sure he remained versatile. Whenever Thompson led his teams to sizeable leads, which happened frequently, they would move him to running back or wide receiver.
When Charles Thompson left for stints in the CFL and NFL Europe, trying to make it as a running back, Kaubin continued training and coaching his grandson.
But Kaubin’s impact on Thompson extended beyond football. Thompson and his mother lived with her parents while his father pursued his professional career. During those years, Kendal Thompson received his introduction to the culture of the Kiowa Tribe. Charles Thompson is African American, and Kori Thompson is half-Kiowa. Kendal Thompson hadn’t received much of an education about his Native American roots until then.
Thompson recalls hearing stories of his great-great-grandfather Ahpeahtone, the tribe’s last chief, and other ancestors, such as the war chief Santana and Kiowa elder Lone Wolf. Stories of those ancestors and more were passed down at the tribe’s annual powwows, which Thompson’s family regularly attended. At those gatherings, Kaubin displayed his skills as a champion dancer.
Kaubin died in 2003, and the then-11-year-old Thompson took that loss hard. But he carried the memories of his lessons, of life and football, with him as he developed into a star quarterback at Southmoore High in Moore, Okla.
Thompson graduated with a grade point average of 4.3 and won the Franklin D. Watkins Award, which recognizes the top African American student athletes in the country. (He credits his mother as the driving force behind his commitment to his education). He then followed in his father’s footsteps and committed to play for Oklahoma and was among one of the Sooners’ potential replacements for quarterback Landry Jones.
Thompson experienced his first brush with football adversity entering his sophomore year at Oklahoma.
“First practice, no pads, broke my foot,” Thompson recalls. “That was probably my lowest point. I felt like I was good enough to be the starter. That opportunity was gone before I even got to the season.”
Says Baltimore Ravens cornerback Julian Wilson, Thompson’s best friend and teammate in middle school, high school and at Oklahoma: “Everybody thought he was going to be the starter. He had worked hard. He was looking good. It was crazy. But he handles adversity really well, and he always keeps pushing.”
Thompson was arrested for public intoxication in the spring of 2013. He eventually came back from the foot injury but played only two games that fall. Thompson graduated with a degree in communications but had eligibility remaining, and so, with a starter entrenched at Oklahoma, he decided to “go somewhere for a fresh start.” Utah’s football coaches recruited Thompson in 2014 with then-starter Travis Wilson’s future in doubt because of complications with an artery in his brain. Thompson transferred, but by the start of the season, Wilson had recovered.
The two split time, but just as Thompson began to excel, misfortune struck again. After leading Utah to a touchdown to open the Week 7 game against Oregon, Thompson tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the second possession and was lost for the season.
“By that point, I wasn’t fazed, because after the [injury] at OU, I couldn’t get at a much lower spot than that,” Thompson said. “I figured I’d be able to come back from the knee. I just wanted to attack my senior season.”
Things started to change internally for Thompson. He already had began tapping more deeply into his roots upon his arrival at Utah. Away from home for the first time and initially living alone rather than with teammates, he had a lot of time to reflect.
“Being in that situation forced me to find out a lot about myself as a person,” Thompson said. “[I] was away from my immediate family, my daughter [now-5-year-old Kynleigh], everything I had ever known. So I drew on my faith and my upbringing to get me through that.”
Kori Thompson used teachings from her grandmother, Ida Kaubin — Norman’s mother — to help encourage her son. Born in 1919, she lost close family members and friends and nearly died during the tuberculosis epidemic, according to Kori Thompson.
“That experience caused her to always tell me, ‘Whatever happens around you, life is not a Cinderella story. There’s pain, there are problems, and you’re always going to have to fight through adversity, no matter what it is.’ I’ve tried to pass on the same thing to Kendal, and I think that’s part of why he never stops fighting.”
During his recovery, Kendal Thompson spoke often with his great aunt Franda Flyingman (Norman Kaubin’s sister), who in Kiowa culture is revered as another grandmother. Flyingman lives in Albuquerque and would attend Utah games as frequently as possible. He pumped her for information about their family tree and culture.
“That time away, with no family nearby, was when Kendal really started to appreciate his family,” Flyingman recalled. “He went to our gatherings as a child, but we laugh remembering him running around, getting dirty and popping firecrackers. But when he transferred to Utah, he really started to embrace it all and his spiritual heritage.”
One day, Thompson told her that he would be back in Oklahoma for a brief visit, during the annual Kiowa Gourd Clan Celebration, and that he felt like it was time for him to receive his Kiowa name.
The Kiowa are given English names at birth but later receive a tribal name at a time designated by their family. That naming ceremony involves a feast and a showering of gifts upon the individual receiving the name. As is tradition, the individual and his family then give those gifts — many of them in the form of money — to needy members of the tribe.
As an elder of the tribe blessed Thompson, waving over him a smoking bundle of cedar, sage and sweet grass, the football player received both the prayer covering of protection that the ritual symbolizes and the Kiowa name of his great-grandfather (Flyingman’s father). The name, pronounced Kooey-shun, means Little Wolf. Thompson concluded the ceremony with a dance in front of the whole assembly, and his family joined in.
“It was a huge honor,” he said. “They normally choose a name from someone in your family, but they could’ve chosen a cousin or something. But to receive his name, growing up, he was always a leader of the family. And they chose that for me.”
Thompson returned to Utah to prepare for his final season but only played sparingly at quarterback that year because his reconstructed knee didn’t return to full strength until late in the year.
For his entire college career, Thompson played in 13 games, completing 64 of 101 passes for 608 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions.
However, determined not to let his football career end in college, Thompson saw a position switch as his ticket. He approached his coaches about playing wide receiver in the Las Vegas Bowl and caught an eight-yard pass. He showed enough potential in that limited wide receiver action to get an invitation to play in the College Gridiron Showcase in Dallas, where Thompson caught the eyes of some scouts during the week of practice and in the game.
He went undrafted, but in mid-July he got the call from the Redskins for a tryout and earned a spot on the 90-man roster. Because of his Native American heritage, Thompson found it ironic that the Redskins gave him his first NFL shot. Additionally, Thompson said the high school team that his grandfather coached for years used the Redskins mascot until recently changing it.
Thompson said he is aware that some Native Americans find the name offensive, but because of his grandfather’s former school, he views the use of the term differently.
“In my family, we never took offense to it,” Thompson said. “We’re all about sports, too, so maybe I have a biased opinion. But I feel like people are entitled to have their opinion if they do take offense to it. But in my family and my heritage, we never took offense to that.”
Flyingman, who works for the Bureau of Indian Education, described herself as “numb to the term because I never had a negative experience with the term. I understand that in some cases, it was used like ‘their red skin,’ or ‘collecting red skins,’ but I didn’t have that type of experience personally. My brother coached a high school team named the Redskins. But I am an educator, so I don’t care for the use of us as mascots, because I want us viewed as people, not mascots. But Kendal playing for the Redskins, it doesn’t matter to our family. We want him to do well and for him to have a job.”
Thompson has done well thus far, making steady progress in his transition to wide receiver.
The position isn’t entirely foreign to Thompson, thanks to his father’s use of him in Pop Warner. Since joining Washington, he has gleaned knowledge from wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, veterans DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, and tight end Jordan Reed, himself a former college quarterback.
He lives in the film room and often ranks among the last players on the field after catching extra passes from one of the quarterbacks or snagging balls and fielding punts off the JUGS machine.
“You can tell he’s got a lot of potential, man,” Reed said. “He’s got real good ball skills, he’s fast, and he’s starting to come along on the routes. I’m just trying to help him out. After practice, we work on a couple releases and things like that. Being a former quarterback, it makes it a lot easier because he understands coverages and how they work. He’s making a lot of progress. From when he first came in till now, he looks like an NFL receiver now.”
Thompson had his brightest moment as a Washington Redskin in the second preseason game, when he made a one-handed grab for the game-winning touchdown and on the next play caught Nate Sudfeld’s two-point conversion pass in the 22-18 win over the Jets.
Thompson’s teammates erupted right along with the fans at FedEx Field, and many mobbed him as he made his way back to the sideline. But Thompson says, “Those are plays that I expect to make. That’s what I prepare for.”
Although encouraged, Thompson knows it’s unwise to view those plays as job-securityproviding developments. He is well aware of the logjam that the Redskins have at wide receiver, and he also knows from his past that nothing is guaranteed.
With two rounds of roster cuts looming this week, Thompson aims to make a final impression on Redskins officials while simultaneously showcasing his skills to other NFL teams. But he refuses to let the pressure overwhelm him.
“It would mean a lot to me for this to happen, especially with everything that I’ve been through,” Thompson said. “But I’ll just keep my head down and keep pushing. It’d definitely be a big blessing for me, but I don’t think about that. I think if you focus on each play as a separate play, do the best you can, everything will take care of itself.”