FEBRUARY 27, 1989
Ten years after walking out of a federal prison in Big Spring, Texas—where he'd served 17 months for conspiracy to distribute cocaine—former Oklahoma football star Charles Thompson is deep into the business of saving people. Thompson isn't a preacher, but he teaches inner-city youngsters about the game of life. "You envision yourselves as young athletes, and you want to be on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," Thompson tells audiences of dreamy, would-be NFL and NBA players. "Well, I made it! But it wasn't in a uniform: It was in an orange jumpsuit, wearing handcuffs."
Thompson, a wishbone quarterback, was the Sooners' top rusher when he was a sophomore, in 1988. He was so quick afoot that an NFL scouting service rated him the nation's 10th best tailback prospect. However, in February 1989—with Oklahoma's football program already in turmoil because of NCAA rules violations and allegations that players had been involved in a shooting and a rape—the 21-year-old Thompson was arrested for allegedly selling cocaine to an undercover officer. "I made some very bad decisions," he says, "but I don't harp on how I shot myself in the foot." When Thompson got out, shortly before his 24th birthday, he was offered a chance to return to the gridiron at Central State, an NAIA school in Ohio. Thompson led the Marauders in rushing, and after graduating in 1994 with a B.A. in marketing, played three years in the CFL and the World Football League. When a shoulder injury ended his career in '96, Thompson moved to Oklahoma City.
The death of a childhood friend in a car accident a few years ago drew Thompson closer to religion. "I began to get in tune with myself spiritually and developed a personal relationship with my Lord, Jesus Christ," Thompson says. "I'm grateful for the gift of eternal life, which millions of dollars and playing in the NFL could not give me."
When Thompson, 33, isn't speaking to school assemblies and youth groups or at home with his wife, Kori, and their three sons, Kendal, 9, Casey, 3, and Cade, 1, he works as a national account manager for Lifeline Communications, a long-distance service provider that donates 10% of its monthly revenues to Christian organizations and ministries. Thompson is grateful that by recounting his fall from grace, he can help teens avoid trouble. "I'm a great speaker, I can communicate well, and I'm a motivator," he says. "Now I have an audience that will pay attention to Charles Thompson not because he scored touchdowns, not because he could run faster than anyone else, but because he lived a story that needs to be heard."