It was over in an instant — not with the snap of a finger, but that of a fibula. Washington Redskins running back Chris Thompson opened a lane for quarterback Kirk Cousins, with Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins in pursuit. A lunge, as Rankins tried to bring Cousins down. A step, as Thompson tried to block him. And a snap, as Rankins’ 287 pounds broke Thompson’s leg.
The injury ended Thompson’s 2017 season. On pace for the best campaign of his five-year career, the versatile halfback instead found himself reliving a nightmare he couldn’t seem to shake: another year, another season-ending injury.
Thompson became a household name last year thanks to fantasy football. Players scrambled to add him as he logged gaudy receiving numbers — 150 yards here, 105 there — and frequent carries. But if Thompson, 27, has a bad day on the field? He’ll hear about it on social media.
“You’re talking about people’s lives,” Thompson says. “We get hurt, and you’re telling me, ‘You hurt my fantasy team.’ I heard that so many times from people last year. Dude, this is not a real team. I just broke my leg.”
I’m a corny guy. I’m a little awkward. I love video games.
Thompson describes a growing sentiment among NFL players, including New York Giants halfback Jonathan Stewart and Cincinnati Bengals halfback Giovani Bernard, that fantasy football is dehumanizing — that certain viewers want football players to simply “shut up and play.” These fans, Thompson says, don’t care to hear the players talk about anything outside the game. “Fantasy football, it makes us not human,” he says. “It’s almost like people think we’re just robots out there, performing for you.”
Once, those hateful online comments might have shaken Thompson’s confidence — a quality that’s always eluded him. “I’ve always compared myself to this person and that person, whether it’s looks, height, how I look in clothes,” Thompson says. On the field, he’s “not the type of player who makes dudes look stupid,” like the shifty LeSean McCoy. Off the field, women don’t like him “because I’m not 6 feet tall.” But no more. Thompson’s success on the field has carried over into those other areas of his life. “I’m gonna be this short for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m a corny guy. I’m a little awkward. I love video games. That’s me.”
Now, Thompson is aspiring to be something other than your fantasy team’s RB1.
“I want that Pro Bowl title on my name,” Thompson says. “I feel so comfortable in the league now, as far as the speed, the pace of the game, the confidence in myself.”
He’s on his way. In four games, he’s amassed 300 all-purpose yards and a receiving touchdown, though he sat out Week 6 with a minor rib injury. Not bad for the guy who’s not “the guy.” Washington signed veteran back Adrian Peterson this offseason to handle the heavy lifting. Thanks to Peterson’s 15.4 attempts per game, Thompson is finally free to “go 100 percent every game,” he says. Washington running backs coach Randy Jordan lauds Thompson’s “tremendous work ethic.” “He’s probably one of the most grounded individuals I’ve been around in my coaching career,” Jordan says.
Thompson grew up playing sandlot football in Greenville, Florida, a town with a population counted in hundreds. He took handoffs from his stepfather at quarterback. “There’s literally nothing there to do but play sports or be outside,” Thompson says. He became a standout running back and sprinter at Madison County High School. While he enjoyed the close-knit community — young “Chris T.” couldn’t get into trouble because everyone knew him — Thompson knew football was his chance to break out and see the world.
He stayed grounded via his two father figures — the stepfather who helped raise him and his biological father, who was a strong presence — and seven siblings. A four-star recruit who drew interest from a parade of top programs, Thompson surprised himself by choosing Florida State despite growing up a Miami fan. FSU coach Jimbo Fisher won Thompson over by telling him: “If you want to come in as a freshman and play right away, then make me play you.”
Thompson was motivated by the challenge, and he did more than make Fisher play him. A solid contributor as a true freshman, he exploded for 1,000 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns his sophomore year. Showing off his sprinter’s speed, he ran in a 90-yard touchdown against his once-beloved Hurricanes.
Then the injuries started.
Thompson played 14 games over his final two seasons, thanks to a broken back and a torn ACL. “For some odd reason,” he says, the Redskins selected him in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, but the healing knee and a preseason shoulder injury hindered him. To injured reserve he went. Then coach Jay Gruden came aboard in 2014 — and sent Thompson to the practice squad, kept out of competing on game day. “This practice squad year is going to be tough, but I need you to trust me and just stick with me,” Gruden told Thompson, promising the young back he was part of a bigger plan. So far, Gruden has kept his word.
Now part of a one-two punch with Peterson, Thompson is putting less wear and tear on his 5-foot-8, 194-pound frame, while giving defensive coordinators fits by creating mismatches. The more specialized role, Jordan says, will likely extend Thompson’s playing career. In recent years, players who aren’t every-down backs but who, like Thompson, are good pass catchers, blockers and runners have taken off across the league, from Darren Sproles to Alvin Kamara to Tarik Cohen. “Thompson is the guy Redskins opponents fear most,” says NFL analyst Andy Benoit.
Thompson, who signed a two-year, $ 7 million contract extension in 2017, isn’t ready to think about what comes after football. He has no children and is not married, though he’s been dating celebrity makeup artist Kash Barb for two years. But when it does come time to hang up the cleats, he wants to turn his focus to … big cats? It’s a “wild, crazy” dream, Thompson admits, but he’d love to start a foundation to rescue endangered animals. “I’ve liked these animals my whole life,” Thompson says. “It’s almost like dealing with regular cats; they just happen to be way bigger.”
For now, his charitable efforts are focused on his hometown of Greenville, including a backpack drive at his elementary school and working one-on-one with families in need. “I don’t want recognition for a lot of the things I do,” he says.
He’ll have no such luck on the field, as the Redskins contend atop their division. Finally, Thompson’s fantasy of making the playoffs — even a Pro Bowl, perhaps — is within reach.