He leads a quiet life, in relative anonymity. But 40 years ago, Norm Thompson shook the NFL to its core by becoming the first player to file for free agency and sign with another club. His new team? The Colts.
Yet Thompson, 72, is seldom recognized as a pioneer and is hardly as well-known as baseball’s Curt Flood, whose 1970 lawsuit against the major leagues led to free agency in that sport.
Of course, Flood was a three-time All-Star; Thompson, a savvy 6-foot-1, 185-pound defensive back who, in his first year in Baltimore (1977), helped the Colts win their third consecutive division title.
“He’s my big-play guy,” coach Ted Marchibroda said of Thompson, who proved it down the stretch. The Colts clinched the AFC East in their final regular-season game, a 30-24 comeback against the New England Patriots at Memorial Stadium in which Thompson intercepted two fourth-quarter passes. The first led to a touchdown; the second, with 1:50 remaining, clinched the victory.
The man they called “Sweets” sent Baltimore to the playoffs. Why Sweets?
“I made everything look easy,” Thompson said. An All-American at Utah, he was the first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1971 draft. There, in six years, he picked off 22 passes and in 1974 led the NFL in interception return yardage (190).
His salary failed to reflect his skill sets, Thompson said. So, in 1976, he played out his option and tested the market. Others had done the same, but always re-signed with their old team. Thompson was the first to find a buyer. The Colts offered a $64,900 no-cut, no-trade contract to the 32-year-old defender, for whom they surrendered a third-round pick (per rules of the day). And history was made.
“All I wanted was to be the highest-paid defensive back in the league, which is what I turned out to be,” he said from his home near San Francisco. It helped that he knew Colts tight end Raymond Chester, that the team was playoff-smart and that Baltimore’s defensive line was among the NFL’s best. That was a key for Thompson, a gambler on the field.
“I was known to take more chances than some defensive backs, and you can do that when you’ve got a great pass rush,” he said. “My philosophy was, ‘Throw the ball my way and it’s much mine as anyone else’s.’”
He had his quirks. After his rookie season, Thompson never huddled up on defense.
“It was too tiring to go back to the huddle and then cover a guy 60 yards downfield,” he said. “I knew all of the defensive hand signals that came from the sidelines. And by standing to the side, I might overhear an offensive play called in from the bench.”
Thompson retired in 1979, having intercepted 11 passes in three years for the Colts — the last one in his final game, a win over the New York Giants. Unable to find a job as scout or coach in the NFL, he worked for teams in the Canadian Football League, as an inspector for an auto auction firm and, finally, as a trainer of college athletes preparing for the NFL scouting combine.
“I know talent, but I could never return to the NFL,” he said. “The owners wouldn’t let me back in the game. Once I met Curt Flood, who asked, ‘Did you have as much trouble as I did?’ I nodded and said, ‘It comes with the territory.’”
Married 54 years, Thompson lives in Hayward, Calif. He has four children, 10 grandkids, two great-grandchildren and two knee replacements. Two years ago, he fought cancer (multiple myeloma), but is now in remission after receiving stem-cell treatments.
That few remember his trailblazing days doesn’t bother him.
“That’s not my fault,” Thompson said. “Players nowadays are reaping the benefits, but have no knowledge of the history of the game. I’ll tell you this — if I got $1,000 from every guy who ever signed a free-agent contract, I could buy my own football team.”