"Football's a business," says Wisconsin junior linebacker Donnel Thompson. "I understand that." Thompson, one of four co-captains for the 7-0 Badgers, has had a lifetime education in gridiron capitalism. He grew up in Madison, just two blocks north of Camp Randall Stadium. Starting at age six, he and his younger brother, Bryson, spent game days holding parking signs to lure fans to the Thompson house on Rowley Avenue, where their dad, Curtis, would close the deal. "I always told them to just be polite and point the cars my way," says Curtis. "Never discuss price."
By the time Donnel was in sixth grade, his Saturday workload had expanded. Shortly before kickoff, he would dump his billboard, run to the stadium and sell sodas in the stands. Within the confines of Camp Randall, he was an unharnessable force. "We were assigned sections," says Thompson, who earned a 10% commission for each rack of sodas he sold, "but I was so competitive that I'd venture into other areas."
Thompson's greatest business lesson, though, came during his senior year at Madison West High, when he broke his right arm in the third game. An all-conference linebacker as a junior, Thompson had received mail from nearly every Big Ten school; suddenly, the mail all but stopped. "Nobody wants to recruit a linebacker with a broken arm," says Thompson, "especially not one who was six foot, 215."
Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez did invite Thompson to walk on, and given a chance to work the field at Camp Randall, he grew into an unharnessable force as a linebacker. His 150 tackles in his first two seasons were more than any other defender in Badgers history. He has 62 more this year, including five in Wisconsin's 37-3 victory over Illinois last Saturday.
"From the very first day we put on pads, Donnel has impressed me," says Alvarez. "We yelled at him the first few weeks he practiced with us because he would not let a ballcarrier go by him, even when we were walking through plays with no pads."
The life of a walk-on is no picnic. As a freshman, Thompson would practice with the team until 6 p.m. Scholarship players then dined at the training table before attending a mandatory study hall in an adjacent building at 7 p.m. Thompson was supposed to eat in his dormitory, but the trek across campus and back would have meant being late for study hall. So he would hang around the practice facility, waiting. "After study hall he'd just walk home to eat with us," says Curtis. "I never saw a kid look so exhausted."
After his freshman year, Thompson was awarded a scholarship. Last winter a wiser Alvarez visited the family and offered one to Bryson, who now backs up Donnel at linebacker.
"Donnel took the opportunity, earned a scholarship and became the leader of our defense," says Alvarez. "You know why? He's all business when he steps on the field."