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November 5, 2009

BODY OF WORK - Cordarrow Thompson has faced a bulked-up list of challenges since arriving at Tech, but shedding weight was easily his biggest

By: Jimmy Robertson

Cordarrow Thompson

His mother cooked his favorites and heaped the food on his plate, as any good mother does. And like a good son, he cleaned his plate, leaving no morsel or crumb to be scraped into the garbage bin or down the hatch of the food disposal.

They repeated this routine, day after day and meal after meal. It seemed innocent enough. It seemed downright proper.

After all, aren’t parents supposed to provide for their children? Aren’t obedient sons and daughters supposed to clean their plates before leaving the table?

Yet a growing problem was emerging.

Cordarrow Thompson was, to put it gently, becoming heavy. He became so large that Pop Warner League’s strict weight limits forbade him from playing football. Fellow classmates started cruelly snickering about his weight behind his back.

They continued the verbal assault over the coming years. By the time he entered the eighth grade, he weighed 290 pounds. By the time he graduated from high school, he weighed more than 315.

“I didn’t have a choice,” Thompson said. “Whatever my mom put on the table, I ate.”

Thompson would have been a big kid anyway, simply from genetics. His dad is a large individual and his five uncles do not classify as small.

But he ate too much. He ate too poorly. And he unfortunately became synonymous with the word “overweight.”

The shame of it is that, though 30 pounds lighter today, his weight still dominates any conversation about him. It’s a shame because he’s so much more than the overweight individual of a couple of years ago. It’s a shame because he’s actually a heckuva football player for the Virginia Tech Hokies these days. It’s a shame because he’s overcome a learning disability to graduate and is in the process of applying to graduate school. It’s a shame because he’s also a magnificent husband and a doting father.

Yet when he sits and patiently awaits any reporter’s questions, he knows what’s coming – inquiries about his weight. It’s a given, like the snap of a football in a fall Saturday afternoon game.

“I’ve got to deal with it the rest of my life,” he said of his weight. “It [the questions] doesn’t bother me. It’s not a big deal to me.”

He calmly and honestly answers the questions. He understands.

There was a lot to Cordarrow Thompson just a few years ago – literally.

There is so much more to him now.

To say that Thompson was huge as a kid, a middle school student, a high school student and a college freshman is like saying that China has a small population problem. When he first got to Tech, he made Sergio Render look like Steve Urkel.

Interestingly, Thompson never thought much about playing football as a youngster growing up in the D.C. suburbs. Of course, some of that stems from the impossibility of making it under the prescribed weight limit to play at the Pop Warner level. So he resigned himself to playing with his cousin in the backyard until he reached the seventh grade. Then, he was able to try out for the middle school football team, free from that oppressive, but necessary, weight restriction.

Still, it took a couch conversation with his father, Eugene, during Super Bowl XXX in 1996, when Dallas steamrolled the Pittsburgh Steelers, to spark an interest.

“I wasn’t even thinking about football until me and my dad watched a Super Bowl in the 90s when Pittsburgh and Dallas played,” Thompson said. “He encouraged me and I was a young boy. I didn’t have much to do, so I tried it.”

Pushing offensive linemen into the backfield was never a problem for Thompson. No one that age possessed the size or strength to handle him. Pushing himself from the dinner table – and often away from Wanda Thompson’s delicious fried chicken – proved to be a harder foe to conquer.

“My mom is like any other mother,” he said. “She’d cook for us. She’d put it on the plate, and I never once spoke up and said, ‘Mom, can you cook me something separate?’ She knew the stuff that I liked and she cooked it for me.”

Some people chew the fat figuratively speaking. Thompson did so literally.

His weight escalated to more than 300 pounds, but his play on the field masked his ever-burgeoning girth. His final season at North Stafford High School, he recorded more than 100 tackles, including an astounding 43 for a loss, and nine sacks. The Washington Post named him its defensive player of the year.

Such numbers – and such size – got him recognized by college recruiters. Tech’s staff was no different and went after Thompson, seeing him as a future anchor on the Hokies’ defensive line. They ultimately secured Thompson’s signature on a letter-of-intent, and Thompson came to Blacksburg that fall.

Tech’s staff decided to redshirt him, wanting him to drop some weight and get in better shape during that season. But the opposite occurred.

Unfettered access to Tech’s dining halls and weekend excursions back home to spend time with his parents and two older sisters led to the ‘freshman 15’ for Thompson. He added 15 more pounds, bumping his weight to 340 by the end of his redshirt year.

“In college, I thought I could be 320-325 and clog up the middle,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t cutting it for Coach [Charley] Wiles. Every year, he’d tell me, ‘Lose weight, lose weight.’ But I didn’t really consider it. I thought I was fine where I was at.”

Thompson played little the next two seasons, in part because of his lack of conditioning and in part because of better players in front of him. His Waterloo moment came at the end of his redshirt sophomore season.

Tech had won the ACC championship and was preparing for an Orange Bowl game against Kansas. During a practice, Thompson excelled in what’s called a ‘middle’ drill – a between-the-tackles, testosterone-filled contest in which the offense tries to run the ball against Tech’s defensive front seven. Thompson dominated, blowing up play after play.

He felt good about himself, at least until Wiles, Tech’s defensive line boss, pulled him to the side and delivered a poignant, no-frills ultimatum – drop the weight and get yourself into shape or you won’t get any reps next spring.

“It’s not like we hadn’t addressed it before,” Wiles said. “We had talked about it for years. We needed for him to come on, but he was just too heavy.

“Yeah, he could dominate a middle drill. But you’re not going to be playing in a phone booth all the time. To do the things we want to do as a defense and as a defensive line, you’ve got to be able to run. You’ve got to be able to play out in space. There’s no question he had some natural abilities. But he wasn’t able to run like he needed to and he could only play three or four plays at a time. I was going to rep other players if he didn’t lose the weight.”

The conversation with Wiles served as a helmet-to-helmet blow to Thompson.

“He already knew I could play,” Thompson said. “I had lost some weight before and I was dominating in the spring. I was physical and quick and fast. But I got big again.

“Then he told me, ‘If you don’t lose the weight, you’re not going to play. You’re going to stay on the sidelines.’ I knew I had to do something.”

That ‘something’ involved a rather simple three-step plan – 1. Meet with sports nutritionist Amy Freel regularly; 2. Eat and drink better; and 3. Work out regularly.

Once the team plane landed from Miami, most players scurried to their vehicles and began their journeys home for a little time off. Thompson himself headed to the Hokies’ workout room, thus sacrificing time with his beloved family for the purpose of beginning a life-altering journey.

He started eating better, and in particular, eating breakfast. Many athletes forsake breakfast only to end up gorging themselves at the end of the day when a body’s metabolism is at its slowest. He ate lean meats and vegetables and salads, and refused to eat past 6 p.m. He drank water, doggedly refusing to cave in to a soft drink.

And of course, he pounded the treadmill and wore out the elliptical machines, alternating between the two and sometimes doing both in the same day.

“That was pretty much it,” he said of the above-mentioned description of his weight-loss plan. “I ate right. I made sure I ate breakfast every day and lunch, too, and I’d stop eating after 6. When I was at home, I’d drink gallons of water and maybe eat a pretzel here and there. If I ate something bad at night, I’d come over here and go to the cardio room. I’d run it all off and then take a shower and go to sleep.”

He got plenty of encouragement. His teammates appreciated and respected his efforts, and his parents recognized the importance of getting the weight off and getting his career – and life – headed in a better direction.

“My dad had been on me about it,” Thompson said. “When my mother spoke up, she told me, ‘Just get it done so that everyone will get off your case.’ I was trying to fight the system, and when she spoke, that was it. I was like, ‘Alright mom, I’ll do it for you.’ That’s when I started working.”

He carved more than 40 pounds off his frame and sliced his body fat by more than 10 percent. He wasn’t chiseled, but a drastic transformation certainly had been attained.

Football ranks third on Cordarrow Thompson's list of priorities behind wife, Vanessa, and daughter Kameyel.

There were other motivations for losing weight and getting into better shape. Two to be exact – his wife and his daughter.

Thompson has made more than one life-altering decision since arriving at Tech. In fact, deciding to lose weight was simply a snack compared to his decision to ask his longtime girlfriend to marry him.

But in October of 2007, he decided to propose to his high school sweetheart, Vanessa Moline, following the Georgia Tech game, and the couple wed in northern Virginia. It was an interesting decision, one that few knew about and one that makes him the only married guy on Tech’s current squad.

“She had been wanting to come down here to be with me and we talked about it,” Thompson said. “We kind of argued back and forth. But I knew she was the one for me.

“My mom was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait,’ but then she said, ‘You’re a grown man. Do what you do.’ When you get that from your mom, it’s all good. My whole family loved her.”

Vanessa came to Blacksburg and enrolled at New River Community College, where she’s taking courses in engineering while also working a part-time job.

The two of them took another step in their relationship when she gave birth to their daughter, Kameyel, on May 17 of last year. Her birth came right during the time when Thompson was in the midst of shedding his extra baggage.

“When we found out [about the pregnancy], I was cool with it,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t like, ‘Oh this is the end of my life.’ I wasn’t scared. I was happy.

“She [his daughter] was a motivation, too. I felt like I needed to be a good father to her and play with her and not lay around. I wanted to be an energetic father and play with her and show a lot of love.”

They all met as a family and agreed to let Thompson’s parents keep the little girl while he and Vanessa finished their schooling. As he said, “I know she’s in good hands – and I know she’s having fun.” But they do get to see her practically every weekend, and of course, on breaks.

Thompson himself is taking just one class this semester – it’s the only one he needs to wrap up his degree in sociology. That will mark the end of a long road academically for Thompson.

Few know this, but Thompson has overcome a learning disability, one in which he struggles to grasp information quickly and to retain it. He took different courses in high school than most ordinary students and received extra time on tests and quizzes. The same thing occurred at Tech, and he put the school’s resources [e.g. tutors] to good use.

He proudly says that he has a 2.67 grade-point average – and plans on applying to graduate school in the coming weeks.

“I wanted to get my degree. I wanted to better myself,” he said. “I want my daughter to see and understand all the hard work I’ve done to be successful.”

Bud Foster’s quote received national attention. Tech’s defensive coordinator stood before the media at Tech’s annual media day in early August and innocently – and unknowingly – offered the quote of the year when talking about Thompson and his progression since he lost all his weight.

“Gravy was a beverage for him,” Foster said.

That quote made it in newspapers all over the country. Sports Illustrated even ran it.

Thompson received a flood of calls and texts.

“I just laughed,” he said. “Everyone called me about it. My dad and my whole family called me. Guys on the team called. They were laughing.

“I knew Coach Foster was proud of me and that I had come a long way. It was true, though. I wouldn’t put down the fork or the spoon. I’d just keep eating.”

These days, he only gobbles on opposing offenses. He put together a solid junior campaign (27 tackles, 6.5 for a loss, three sacks) and continues to play well as a senior. Though his numbers aren’t necessarily eye-popping, he performs his role well, tying up blockers and freeing Tech’s linebackers to make plays. He has started 22 straight games heading into Tech’s game at East Carolina.

“He does a lot of things naturally,” Wiles said. “His footwork is natural. He plays with leverage and he’s got a lot of pop. He does some things naturally that are really hard to teach.

“He’s come a long way as a player. He’s dependable. He’s not busting his assignments and he’s been consistent. There’s not a lot of difference between his best game and his worst.”

These days, he weighs a biscuit under 300 pounds, while remaining incredibly strong. Given that and his natural footwork, he has a shot at getting drafted by an NFL team next April – if he decides to pursue that route.

“I think about it,” he said. “But I play the sport to have fun.

“I look at life differently than I used to.”

Now with a wife and a daughter and an un-chartered future, Cordarrow Thompson has the weight of expectations on his shoulders. But it’s weight he gladly bears.

After all, he spent a lot of his time at Tech being known for his body.

Now, he’ll leave known more for his body of work. It’s been worth the weight.