David Grimes: Fort Smith’s Stadium and the Conway connection

Friday, the Wampus Cats travel to Fort Smith Northside to take on the Grizzlies.

 

They will play in a stadium co-named for one of Hendrix’s earliest and biggest sports stars, John R. Thompson. One of Thompson’s great, great nephews will be playing in the game.

A native of Amity, Thompson attended Hendrix Academy from 1917 to 1920. The academy served as a secondary school, or high school, in the early years at Hendrix College.

He graduated from Hendrix College in 1924, having participated in football, basketball, track and tennis, earning 13 varsity letters. He also played in the school band.

The 1924 Hendrix yearbook states, “East and West, North and South, there has never been a basketball player equal to John Thompson. What Hendrix man’s heart is so dead that it does not give an extra thump when ‘Long John’s’ name is mentioned in connection with basketball.”

As good as he was on the hardwood, Thompson may have been even better at track and field. He dominated Arkansas as high-point man for three straight years in the state meet. At one time, he held state records in the shot put, discus, javelin, broad jump, high jump and low hurdles.

With that diversity of skills, he reached the finals of the 1924 U.S. Olympic trials in the decathlon. Thompson had a great run at it, but missed out on the possibility of representing his country in Paris, finishing seventh despite falling in the hurdles.

Thompson embarked upon a coaching career that led him to stops at McGehee, Warren and El Dorado. But he spent the vast majority of his career as a teacher, coach and athletic director at Fort Smith.

In the early 1960s, Fort Smith High became Fort Smith Northside, and a new Fort Smith Southside was opened. In 1968, Northside’s Grizzly Stadium was renamed Mayo-Thompson Stadium in his honor, along with fellow longtime Fort Smith High athletic icon Ben Mayo. Both men had been at Fort Smith since the late 1920s.

Thompson has been inducted into the Hendrix Sports Hall of Honor, the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

“Long John” had a brother named Clifford Thompson. Clifford operated a men’s clothing store until he was struck by lightning and killed while fishing on Lake Conway in 1959. Clifford’s son, Jack, had five children.

The two boys are Jack and Jim. Jack played on the 1964 Conway state championship football team. Jim, better known as “Gumpy,” also later played for the Cats. The three daughters are Carolyn Mullins, Kathy Cooper and Susan Freedle.

Susan and Mark Freedle’s son Zach is a senior noseguard at Conway. Friday, Zach will be playing in a stadium named for his great, great uncle, John. Lots of other family members will be there too to cheer him on.

 

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