Two stories, separated by three days and 150 miles, but worlds apart in other ways, bookended what easily has been the most eventful and emotional week in the more than 20-year history of Wingate University football.
The sad story comes first. On Monday, in a courtroom in Union, S.C., former Wingate football player Pernell Thompson, 22, pleaded guilty to the murder of 16-year-old Marisha Jeter in January of 2008. Thompson, who played wide receiver for the Bulldogs for three seasons, avoided a possible capital murder conviction with the plea agreement, but will spend the rest of his life in prison.
I’ll let the readers of this piece follow the link to the news accounts for the details, but the basic story is that Thompson and his wife, Yolanda Dee Thompson, were charged with planning and committing the murder of Jeter, a cheerleader and honor student at Union County High School. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials said that Thompson killed the young woman, with whom he had had a relationship, to prove his love for his wife.
It’s a horrific tale, and both the victim and the man convicted of killing her seemed the least likely people to have ended up involved in it. Like Miss Jeter, Thompson was a high school honor student, an Academic All-State selection as a football player at tiny Jonesville High School near Union. At Wingate, he was involved in Campus Outreach, a Christian ministry for college students. By all accounts he was a personable, if quiet, young man. Many of our juniors and seniors were his classmates and/or teammates and many are still his friends.
And even if you’re 21 or 22, it’s a little hard to get your mind around all of this, which maybe you’ve only seen before on those crime shows that are all over TV now. It’s different when it’s someone you know.
I’ve had a number of conversations about this with my next-door office neighbor at school, religion professor Heather McDivitt. She has visited Thompson in jail, talked with his family and plans to continue visiting and counseling with him in prison. Had there been a trial, she would have been involved in the penalty phase which would have followed a conviction, as a character witness. She has also done a great service by talking to many of Thompson’s friends as they try to cope with what’s happened, noting how overwhelmed they’ve seemed by all of this.
Which makes what happened to the football team on Thursday both less and more important in the scheme of things. While their former teammate began his prison sentence in a Columbia, S.C., correctional facility, the Bulldogs played their first nationally-televised game ever.
Small colleges like Wingate, which plays in NCAA Division II, have historically struggled to get media attention, especially if they’re in large media markets. And I’ve always disagreed with what I’ve felt is the common sports journalist’s misconception that an event has to be “big” to be worthwhile.
But the proliferation of media in the last decade or so — with more cable outlets, and websites and blogs on the Internet, has been a boon for smaller schools. The Fox Sports networks have televised several Division II football games over each of the past few seasons and even the major networks are catching on, with CBS now carry the Division II and III football and basketball championship games. (The DII basketball title games are often more entertaining than the game that ends “March Madness” in prime time.)
So it was fun to see us get our moment in the national spotlight — even if the production values weren’t what you see on ESPN on the weekends. Because as much as I hate to admit it, being an old newspaper guy, the act of televising something gives it legitimacy.
And it brought a smile to my face to follow Facebook traffic during the game — the students and alumni who make up the bulk of my friends really were enjoying the fact that they could see their alma mater play on TV — just like their pals who went to UNC, the University of Georgia, Virginia Tech, etc., can do nearly every week.
And, best of all, there was a payoff. The game was entertaining, up for grabs until the final two minutes. Wingate wrapped it up with a gamble worthy of a big-time football game, risking a 35-31 lead by going for it on 4th and 5 from the Tusculum 35. Instead of a first down, the Bulldogs got a touchdown pass — a lightning strike from quarterback Cody Haffly to wide receiver Delric Elllington.
One had to be happy for this team, that a week that had started so profoundly awfully had turned out so well.