Saturday, September 22, 2007
One of Lobos' Biggest Fans Also Was Star on Field
By Ken Sickenger
Journal Staff Writer
One seat will be notably empty when the University of New Mexico football team kicks off tonight against visiting Sacramento State.
The seat belonged to Bill Thompson, a 1940s-vintage Lobo who afterward counted himself among the team's most dedicated fans.
"He was a Lobo through and through," said Thompson's daughter, Kathi Hail. "He went to all the games, home or away, rain or shine. He loved the Lobos."
Thompson, a former All-Border Conference lineman who was inducted into UNM's Athletic Hall of Honor in 1998, died Monday from complications of pneumonia. He was 84.
New Mexico's Sept. 8 win over New Mexico State was the final game Thompson attended, but his Lobo legacy is secure. Named Outstanding Player of the 1944 Sun Bowl, Thompson made his mark with friends and foes alike.
"Bill was one of the great guys," said Larry Felicetti, a former UNM teammate and longtime friend. "He was kind of a quiet person but totally different on the field. When it came to football, he was tough."
Football too was different when Thompson was a star lineman at Hobbs High. Helmets were leather, face masks didn't exist and sub-200-pound linemen were the norm.
Thompson (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) was named an All-Southeast New Mexico lineman as a sophomore in 1937 and earned All-State honors the next two seasons.
He helped the Eagles win a state championship but had to sit out his team's final few games with a knee injury. He was supposed to skip a postseason matchup against Texas 4A champ Lubbock as well.
"He suited up against doctor's orders," said Thompson's son, Bill Jr. "He played with a big, old metal and leather brace on his knee."
Lubbock won the interstate battle 14-0 but later voted Thompson its most outstanding opponent for that season.
UNM coach Ted Shipkey took notice, offering Thompson a scholarship for the fall of 1940. He played on the Lobos' freshman team, a squad that would become remarkably tight. It included Felicetti, who had been an All-State prep player in Pennsylvania.
"We battled each other for a starting position," Felicetti recalls, "but we both ended up playing on the first team."
Two for one
Thompson and Felicetti became fixtures on the Lobo line (playing offense and defense) for the next two seasons. Thompson was second-team All-Border Conference as a sophomore and first-team as a junior. When they came up against a particularly strong opponent, Thompson and Felicetti employed a tag-team strategy.
"We were playing Loyola-Marymount and they had this big 235-pound guy in front of Bill," Felicetti said. "He finally said, 'This guy's killin' me, Larry. Why don't you take him for a while?'
"I ended up hitting him in the face with an elbow and blood was squirting all over, but he thought Bill did it. I told the ref, 'Hey, watch this guy. He's playing dirty.'
"On the next play, he started punching Bill and they threw him out of the game. Bill didn't even know what happened." While attending UNM, Thompson and Felicetti got a job cleaning Carlisle Gym for 50 cents an hour. That included a medical research lab that was housed in the building, Felicetti said.
"They had a cadaver in there," he recalled, "so Bill and I always argued about who had to clean it. It smelled awful because of the formaldehyde."
The two Lobo linemen were separated after their junior seasons, thanks to World War II. Felicetti joined the Army, while Thompson enrolled in UNM's Naval ROTC program and was able to play his senior season.
College football was limited by the war and UNM played just five games in 1943. Thompson was named team captain, however, and led the Lobos to the Sun Bowl. They lost 7-0 to Southwest Texas on a late touchdown pass, but Thompson still garnered Outstanding Player honors.
Thompson spent the next 21/2 years serving in WWII, which cost him an opportunity to play pro football. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1945 and by the All-America Football Conference's Los Angeles Dons.
Still, Thompson didn't greatly regret the missed chance, Felicetti said.
"Guys made about $200 a game in pro football back then," he said. "I was contacted by the New York Giants, but I got a real job."
During the war, Thompson served as communications officer on the USS Adair in the Pacific Theater. Oddly, he ended up meeting his wife, then-Priscilla Newcomb, during the war. Both were from New Mexico, but they met for the first time in New York City. They were married in 1947 and celebrated their 60th anniversary Aug. 8.
Though they spent time in San Diego after the war, the Thompsons returned to Albuquerque in 1950. They had four children: Bill Jr., Kathi, David and Franci, all of whom later attended UNM.
Thompson worked in construction and real estate and turned his athletic abilities to tennis. He twice won New Mexico closed doubles championships for his age group and spent free time teaching the sport to youngsters including his children.
"He didn't want me to play football," Bill Jr. said. "I got my athletic skills from him and he taught me to play tennis."
Still, Thompson never lost his love for football particularly Lobo football. He belonged to the Lobo Club for more than 40 years and regularly attended games with his family and friends.
"We sat in the same row for a lot of years and missed very, very few games," Felicetti says. "I'd say we've been pretty loyal Lobos."
Thompson is survived by Priscilla, his four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services for him will be held today at 2 p.m. at St. Mark's on the Mesa Episcopal Church, 431 Richmond Place NE.