A 36-year gap: A look back at Thompson’s ’82 championship team and the hope for 2018

Published 4:18 pm Monday, December 3, 2018

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

Sitting at home on his couch due to a leg injury, Larry Simmons anxiously awaits for his phone to light up with a call from the Hoover Met on the other line updating him on the Thompson Warriors semifinal matchup with the Hoover Buccaneers.

With six minutes left, the agony of Thompson being down two scores was overwhelming before he got the call telling him the Warriors had cut the lead to 28-23 with five minutes remaining. The next few calls weren’t as positive, but with 21 seconds left he got the call telling him about Shadrick Byrd’s go-ahead touchdown run, followed 21 seconds later by a call declaring victory.

Simmons, who led Thompson to its first state championship in 1982, was overcome with joy to hear that the Warriors were going back to the state championship for the first time since then thanks to a 31-28 win against the Hoover Buccaneers.

“They are back buddy and I am proud of them,” Simmons said of the historic win. “Hoover came out and played really well in second half. It was cold and raining; the boys could have said ‘We’ve had a good season’ and just folded, but they didn’t and that shows character and how bad they want to succeed.

“I’m just so proud at what they’ve brought back to Alabaster and Thompson High School. It hasn’t been easy, but they have worked and worked hard.”

Over the last 36 years, Thompson has had decent seasons, but has also struggled drastically to win at times, leaving many to ponder the question ‘When will we compete again?’

Simmons was the man at the helm 36 years ago when the Warriors got their first state championship and perfect season in school history, and now after a long agonizing wait, the success has returned as Thompson will take on Central-Phenix City on Wednesday, Dec. 5, at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.

1982 season

With 11:36 left in the 1982 championship game against Oxford, the Warriors trailed 11-8 in a game they had dominated despite the score, which allowed the team to feel comfortable to start the fourth after throwing a pick-6 the quarter prior that put the Yellow Jackets in front for the first time.

Thompson had established the run game early in the game and stuck with that plan to start the fourth quarter, which paid off when Arthur Johnson went 33 yards to the house to put Thompson back in front 14-11, which soon became the final score thanks to the defense stepping up to cap off a special season.

“The season was magical,” said 1982 assistant coach Ellie Glasscox. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it with all of the attention that is being brought back to it now.”

The Warriors went on to have their first 14-0 perfect season, and the program had established itself as a legitimate threat, something Simmons never imagined would happen.

“As an assistant, we went seven years where the team didn’t win more than five games and in my first year as a head coach we went 4-6,” Simmons said of his early days in Alabaster. “I questioned myself and said ‘Maybe I’m in the wrong profession.’”

A statement that became nonsensical over the next 10 years.

Thompson went on to have a 10-1 season in 1972, and thus a strong 10-year stretch was born.

Over the next 10 years, the Warriors had just one more losing season, while averaging 8.5 wins per season, but they didn’t know if they would ever be a legitimate state championship threat.

“I didn’t know if we would ever have the caliber of players good enough at one time to win a state championship,” Simmons admitted.

In 1981, however, that all changed.

Thompson made it to the semifinals of the playoffs that season and lost to Eufaula by a final score of 23-12 thanks to one mistake.

“One mistake that year may have kept us from the state championship, but that’s when we started to believe as a team,” Simmons said.

Thompson went on to redeem itself next season when Simmons and the Warriors captured the championship, which created the memory of a lifetime.

“Just to know we beat everybody. To walk off the field against Oxford in 1982 and call ourselves state champions, that made everything worth it,” Simmons said. “I never thought we would do it, but we did. We were able to look back and realize we had made it through 14 games and were the best team in the state.”

Now, 36 years later, Thompson will have the chance to prove they are the best again with a win against Central-Phenix City in Auburn.

Comparing the two

“You can’t compare teams or times,” Simmons said. “Football is a lot better now than it was back then. These boys are so much bigger and have played a tougher schedule than we ever had to.”

With that said, both seasons stand on their own and have some remarkable numbers with different style game plans.

Back in 1982, the Warriors were more of a defensive team, and while that’s still the case today, the style of play has changed to feature a lot more passing than it used to.

That state championship team gave up just 8.5 points per game on the defensive side of the ball, and dominated the state championship game for that reason.

In the title matchup with Oxford, Thompson gave up 144 total yards in the game, 97 rushing and 47 passing, while limiting its 10th opponent of the season to 11 points or less. They allowed the Jackets to go just 1-of-7 passing with two interceptions.

Thompson’s offense that season scored 25.9 points per game offensively, scoring 30-plus points in five of its 14 games.

In comparison, the Warriors have averaged 37 points per game on the offensive side of the ball in 2018 and have scored 30-plus points in 11 of their 12 games.

That just shows the different styles of play between the two teams chasing history.

Thompson also overtook No. 1 spot in the rankings for the first time in school history during the 2018 regular season, while the 1982 team was never ranked higher than third going into the playoffs.

While there were plenty of differences in the two teams, one goal remained the same, putting Thompson football on the map.

Turning it around

“If you get used to losing, then you’re going to figure out a way to lose,” Simmons said. “If you get used to winning, then you’ll figure out a way to win games.”

That’s a statement that both Simmons and current head coach Mark Freeman have lived by.

From Thompson having no more than four wins in the two seasons before Simmons took over to the 0-10 season the Warriors had the year before Freeman took over in 2015, both coaches helped their team believe in winning again.

Simmons went on to become the winningest football coach in Thompson football history at 98-32-1, while Freeman has amassed a 33-12 overall record in just four years, including back-to-back seasons with at least 11 wins and a trip to the state championship game.

“People knew who Thompson was 36 years ago after that championship then we hit some tough times and I think a lot of people forgot about them,” Simmons said. “Freeman has helped people now know again who Thompson football is. They’ve put themselves back in a position to compete and that’s really all we ask for as coaches.”

2018 season

While the 2017 season saw a lot of firsts since that 1982 championship run, including beating Hoover for the first time in school history and making it to the semifinals again for the first time since ’82, the 2018 season has really taken the city of Alabaster back to its glory days.

The Warriors went 9-1 in the regular season, with their lone loss coming to Hoover in the third game of the season. It’s a regular season that included a one-point victory against Vestavia Hills and a 28-point comeback against Hewitt-Trussville to create memories along the way.

Now sitting at 11-1 after the redemption win against Hoover in the semifinals and wins of 45-14 and 37-13 against Florence and Hewitt-Trussville, respectively, in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors are back to matching the success of that 1982 team.

“When I got here, they told me to help build a program, and right now I’m just tickled for the people of Alabaster,” Freeman said after the semifinal win against Hoover.

It was a game that tested everything this team was made of after falling behind 28-17—a deficit that lasted midway through the final quarter—but the team responded as it had against Vestavia and Hewitt during the regular season to come back and pull off the three-point victory in the final 21 seconds.

“It’s been Hoover for so long, so for somebody like Thompson to come in and overtake that is impressive,” Simmons said. “It’s hard to explain how I feel about this team and what they’ve done. It’s been so good for the community to have something like this to rally around.”

Now, one more hurdle stands in the way of the 2018 Warriors joining the 1982 team as the only two state champions in school history.

Despite every effort to try and go, Simmons won’t be able to make it to Auburn for the championship game because of the leg injury he suffered in a fall, but he will have the television tuned into the game and his phone by his side as he cheers them on yet again from the comfort of his home in Alabaster where he has spent the last 50 years.

“I’m still a Warrior to the 10th degree,” he said. “Been here 50 years. Saw my first game 50 years ago. This is my home and I love the Warriors.”