Note: This story on Army Academic AllAmerican running back Terry Baggett from last summer has been re-posted following Tuesday night's National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame dinner. Baggett was among the scholar-athlete finalist for the Campbell Trophy. The Army-Navy Game is Saturday in Baltimore.
Sam Thompson knows there is little he and his Ohio State basketball teammates can say to defend last season’s disappointment. Their only course of action is a turnaround season.
“What happened last year is not acceptable,” he said.
First, there was the season-long struggle that ended with a fifth-place finish in the Big Ten regular-season standings. Then, the Buckeyes’ home-state pride took a direct hit when they lost their NCAA tournament opener to down-the-road Dayton.
Thompson’s 2014 evaluation doesn’t spare his play. The 6-foot-7, 200-pounder from Chicago Whitney Young was a dunk-monster, but overall he averaged only 7.9 points and 2.7 rebounds as a junior starting forward.
“I want to be a more complete player,” he said. “I’m working on my ball handling and my jump shot. I want my offense to show more than it has the last couple of years.”
Thompson is thoughtful and determined. He doesn’t search for words in an interview. With his 2014-15 goals set, his summer focus began while he has worked Ohio State’s youth basketball camps.
If he needs an added push – and everyone does in the off-season – he can tap into a work-ethic reminder from his friendship with his high school basketball teammate and captain, Army running back Terry Baggett. He rushed for 1,304 yards and 10 touchdowns last year at West Point.
“Terry is one of the hardest working guys I’ve been around,” Thompson said. “Even though basketball wasn’t his sport, he was always one of the first guys in the gym and one the last guys out. He was the consummate team guy. Basketball wasn’t his sport, so his work ethic really put things in perspective for us.”
In Whitney Young’s 2010-11 season the Dolphins featured two of the nation’s elite players; Thompson was a senior and Jahlil Okafor a freshman. Thompson signed with the Buckeyes as the nation’s No. 16 recruit by Rivals.com in February 2011. The 6-10, 270-pound Okafor was Rivals’ national No. 1 recruit when he signed last February with Duke.
Thompson and Okafor are big men in name recognition and physical stature, but in high school they listened to a football prospect that came off the bench.
“Terry is one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Thompson said. “He was our leader; he was always a vocal guy in the locker room and he was the loudest guy on the bench. Everyone loved him and was glad to have him on the team. He was one of the forces in our high school careers.”
If Thompson and Okafor contribute to Ohio State and Duke, respectively, making a run in the 2015 NCAA tournament, Thompson says Baggett deserves some credit for the example that rubbed off on them.
Baggett planned to forego his senior basketball season until Whitney Young head coach Tyrone Slaughter persuaded him to lead his elite roster. Slaughter valued the leadership qualities that gained Baggett’s admittance to West Point.
Baggett, whose college suitors included Ivy League schools, explored Army football after he listened to a recruiting pitch from a Princeton coach. The Princeton assistant’s recruiting strategy backfired on him when he told Baggett the only place he could gain a better education than Princeton was at West Point, “but he’d have to march all the time.”
Baggett sat up intrigued by the challenge and contacted Army. Before long he committed to the Black Knights.
“That sounds like a Terry Baggett story,” Thompson said. “If someone tells him he can’t do something, or that’s the hardest way to do it, he’s going to go out and prove them wrong. He’s thrived at West Point.”
Fittingly for Baggett, a West Point creed is,
“Choose the hard right over the easy wrong.”
On the field, Baggett finally enjoyed a breakout season as a junior after his freshman and sophomore years were plagued by injuries. The 6-0, 214-pounder’s 1,000-yard season was highlighted by a 304-yard, four-touchdown performance in a win over Eastern Michigan.
“I’m really happy for him and the numbers he put up at Army last year,” Thompson said. “I watch his games on TV anytime I have a chance. I have all the confidence in the world he’ll have a great senior season.”
Thompson says his friendship with Baggett has added meaning to him during the moments he’s played in basketball arenas far and wide and America pauses to honor the United States’ volunteer military in the post-9/11 world. With less than one percent of Americans shouldering the burden, some Americans may consider the ceremonies perfunctory after more than a decade of distant war.
But not Thompson; he recognizes Baggett chose an Army college football career at West Point over the lifestyle of an athlete at a civilian college. Athletes at major schools work hard, but they have palm fronds fanning them compared to academy athletes.
Baggett’s summer included training at a military base. His graduation will be followed by a five-year military commitment. He may soon find himself on the front lines battling terrorists.
“Terry has it much harder than me,” Thompson said. “I don’t have to wake up 4 or 5 in the morning while still maintaining my status on the football field. Terry has the mental toughness it takes to set a high standard in the classroom and on the field.
The weight of the college athletics world Thompson lives with is part of the bargain playing for a high-profile school such as Ohio State, but Thompson isn’t shrinking from it.
“I think we have a great team next year,” Thompson said. “We’ve got a great group of guys coming in, and we’re looking to avenge what we did last year. We’re doing everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and I think we can.”