Written by Lisa Gaumnitz
Ten-year-old Donnel Thompson raced to get ready early for school so he could play touch football at the Randall Elementary playground before the bell rang. Teacher Fred Tiemann– Mr. T to the kids – quarterbacked for both teams and the diverse group of kids competed hard, had fun, and were back at it again every recess.
“It was what we wanted to do,” recalls the West High alum, a walk-on for the University of Wisconsin football team who grew into a leading tackler, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now leads as vice president of national accounts for Direct Supply, Inc. in Milwaukee.
Randall Elementary’s playground, with a blacktop, several play structures, a wood chip area, and lots of footballs, basketballs, and other equipment, was an important classroom for Thompson. He learned to show up early and stay late, be a good teammate, pick up teammates after they made a mistake, and how to celebrate. He also learned to take direction and criticism.
Those lessons helped propel him to success on and off the field, and they’re why he wants to make sure other Madison students now and in the future can gain those lifelong benefits, too. That’s why he’s making time to help promote Madison Public School Foundation’s Play Every Day initiative.
This fundraising effort launched in 2022 aims to raise money to replace playground equipment districtwide and help pay some athletic participation fees for students.
“What this initiative is all about is getting kids back outside, making sure they are interacting and being active, chasing and jumping or maybe playing touch football or Tetherball or basketball,” he says.
“Going outside and playing is the purest form of fun. It’s just a very natural way to communicate and to connect. And that’s why I’m passionate about helping with Play Every Day.”
Two pillars in the house: education and physical activity
Thompson grew up a stone’s throw away from Randall Elementary School. His father, Curtis, grew up in a tough part of Washington, D.C., played on the UW-Madison football team, and went on to teach and coach football at West High School. His mother, Barbara, grew up in Crawfordsville, Ga., and came to UW-Madison for graduate school; she was a principal and then a superintendent at New Glarus public schools.
“We had two pillars in our house,” Thompson says. “One pillar was education with our mother, the other pillar was physical activity and sports with our father. As coach’s kids, we were always the first ones to practice. We were always the example.”
Schoolyard football games and playing for the West Side Wolverines, a youth football team, with his younger brother Bryson, was how Thompson bonded with friends. Randall Elementary’s multiple recess breaks during the day helped him burn off energy so he could concentrate in class. “Being outside makes such a difference in your mood and recharging your batteries,” he says.
In high school, he worked hard to excel at West as a linebacker, gaining all-conference honors as a junior. While few people saw him in math class or English class, they certainly saw him on the football field, and that helped inspire him to work harder and want to do well.
His efforts and performance got noticed. Nearly every Big 10 school was sending him recruiting letters, but after he broke his right arm early in his senior season, he learned a hard lesson.
The recruiting letters stopped, even from UW-Madison, a particular blow given that Thompson had grown up in the shadow of the Badgers’ Camp Randall Stadium, just four blocks from his childhood home. On Badger game days, Thompson and his brother would stand in front of their house holding a cardboard sign advertising parking spots in their front yard. Once the game started, Donnel raced to the stadium to sell soda pop in the stands.
After he walked on with the Badgers, he says the lessons learned on the playground about hard work and being a good teammate helped him gain a scholarship starting his sophomore year. An October 1998 Sports Illustrated article gushed about Thompson: “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.”
Thompson was team captain in 1998 and 1999, helped the Badgers win back-to-back Rose Bowl games in 1999 and 2000, and is among the Badgers’ top 10 leading tacklers of all time.
He wasn’t drafted by any NFL teams but showed up at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pre-season camp and played his way onto the Pittsburgh Steelers roster in 2000, beating out more talented players by again channeling those lessons learned on the playground and playing field. He finished his NFL career playing with the Indianapolis Colts from 2001 to 2003.
Safety and social media
These days, Thompson is disappointed when he looks around his east Milwaukee neighborhood and sees empty parks. “Kids just don’t consistently go outside and play organically,” he says. “It’s Instagram, Snapchat, and some of it is safety.”
He thinks the Play Every Day initiative can be a catalyst for turning that around by offering a safe place for kids to gather outside to play. Such investment will help individual students have a brighter future and achieve a broader social good – helping people work together again for the common good and respecting one another’s differences.
“Outside spaces facilitate human interaction. You get diversity of thought, you develop emotional intelligence,” he says.
Through promoting Play Every Day, Thompson hopes to offer those opportunities to all the kids from a young age so they can apply the lessons learned across different aspects of their life.
“If you look at the statistics, you have a better chance to get struck by lightning twice than you have to make it to the NFL,” he says. “But maybe it’s a great job, maybe it’s a great university, maybe it’s a great relationship. Those attributes just parlay themselves across all of those opportunities.
“So my ultimate goal and why I want to be a part of this initiative is to give those same types of chances to all the kids of Madison and across the country.”