Former NFL defensive line coach, AFL standout gives back to student-athletes throughout Garden State
WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP - Former Old Dominion University standout Ray Lawry III aimed to construct a star-studded coaching lineup for his inaugural football camp at Kingsway Regional High School.
Fortunately, he was able to find a defensive line instructor to fit the bill.
Leroy Thompson, a prominent Garden State defensive lineman trainer with an extensive football background, was another notable figure at the First Down Performance Camp and Combine in Swedesboro on May 22.
“It’s awesome man,” Thompson said. “I train guys all over New Jersey, so I call that giving back. I was a Williamstown guy, so to be down here, it’s good to come back down to this Gloucester County, tri-county area and work out these guys and be able to give back.”
Thompson’s lengthy resume is headlined by statistics and accolades as a player, along with coaching experience on both the collegiate and professional levels.
And just like a handful of other coaches at the First Down Performance Camp and Combine, Thompson’s journey began right here in South Jersey.
“I grew up in Camden and went to Camden High (School) for like a month,” Thompson said. “Then (my family) moved to Williamstown. I played my four years at Williamstown and was All-State in 1989. I played in the North-South (All-Star Classic) game.”
Thompson’s outstanding play didn’t come to a halt in Monroe Township.
The All-State defensive lineman moved on to Delaware State and was recognized as a NCAA Division I-AA All-American after recording 89 tackles and 11 sacks as a senior in 1992. Thompson set school records as a junior both for sacks in a game (5) versus North Carolina A&T and sacks in a season (16). He was also a two-time All-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference selection.
“I got a full ride to Del State,” Thompson said. “I was a Division I-AA All-American there.”
Thompson proceeded to explore opportunities in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts in 1994 and in the National Football League with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1996. Both experiences served as a tuneup as Thompson went on to enjoy a productive 13-year career in the Arena Football League.
“I left (Delaware State) and went to Canada,” Thompson said. “I had a cup of coffee with Toronto, came back and was with the Philadelphia Eagles, had a cup of coffee with the Eagles. Then I ended up playing 13 years of arena football. That was pretty much my playing career.”
Thompson played for the Albany/Indiana Firebirds in the AFL from 1996 to 2004. The Williamstown High School alumnus won the Arena Bowl with the Firebirds in 1999. He exerted his versatility playing linebacker, fullback, and defensive end throughout his 13-year tenure in the league and was recognized on multiple occasions for his outstanding work.
In 2002, Thompson was named the AFL Built Ford Tough Man of the Year and was also an All-Arena selection at fullback/linebacker. He competed with the New Orleans VooDoo in 2005 and finished his AFL career with the Columbus Destroyers from 2006 to 2008. Following his retirement, Thompson ranked in the top five in nearly every rushing category in AFL history and became just the sixth player in league history to rush for over 1,000 career yards in 2006.
“Right from there I went into coaching,” Thompson said. “I coached in the arena league, I coached high school, I coached college — Wesley (College), Lincoln University. I was able to do some coaching internships with some NFL teams. Philadelphia Eagles in ‘11, the (Indianapolis) Colts in 2012-13 and the (San Diego) Chargers in ‘15. Then I decided, ‘you know what, all that knowledge that I got from everybody, I’m just gonna put it all together and start harnessing myself and training guys individually.’ That’s where I’m at now.”
Thompson’s internship with the Philadelphia Eagles allowed him the opportunity to work alongside former defensive line coach Jim Washburn. He also coached a pair of two-time Pro Bowl selections in Trent Cole and Jason Babin.
Thompson labeled the opportunity as a noteworthy learning experience, as it allowed him to explore the components of talent evaluation and player development.
“It’s just seeing the difference between a college player and a professional player,” Thompson said. “I had a chance to work with Trent Cole. I had a chance to work with Jason Babin in 2011. Just to see what they bring to the table, athletically and technique wise, that was a wealth of knowledge right there.”
His internship journey continued under the direction of former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. The experience was headlined by working with three-time All-Pro selection and Super Bowl XLI champion Dwight Freeney. Five-time Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl XLI champion Robert Mathis was also included in the exclusive group.
“In 2012, I was able to work with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis,” Thompson said. “Watching those guys and seeing the little techniques that they use and just being around NFL D-line coaches — picking their brain and being a sponge — I learned a lot from those travels.”
Thompson’s impact continued in the professional ranks after coaching stints with the Philadelphia Soul in 2012, the Pittsburgh Power in 2014 and the Atlanta Legends in 2019.
His South Jersey ties are also on full-display as Thompson often works with Voorhees native James Heard, Jr. Heard, a four-star class of 2023 edge rusher/linebacker from St. Joseph’s Prep (PA), formerly played for Eastern Regional High School (NJ). The elite edge rusher has racked up ten Division I offers (and counting) from Boston College, Maryland, Nebraska, Penn State, Rutgers, Temple, Texas A&M, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
Thompson’s impact also proves to be evident in his family tree.
His nephew, Jaeden Gould, announced his college decision on June 20. Gould, a four-star defensive back recruit from Bergen Catholic High School (NJ), publicized his commitment to USC via Twitter.
“Great young man, great parents and family,” Thompson said. “I’m super proud of him. No doubt he will be an impact player and human being at USC. I’ve had the opportunity to coach a couple of his teams over the years. (I coached him on) the Matawan Huskies and the FBU team. As his uncle, I was able to coach him just as hard as the other coaches, which happened to be his father Scott Gould and Jay Bellamy. He’s a mentally tough guy because of the type of coaching.
It was a tough decision at first for him. Penn State really recruited him over the years without wavering. I believe he wants to spread his wings a bit and make an impact out west.”
Oh, and don’t forget Thompson’s Hollywood moment.
The former Arena Bowl champion starred in the 2006 film Invincible alongside Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-nominated actor Mark Wahlberg. Thompson played the role of Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Carl “Big Daddy” Hairston.
“That’s my biggest claim to fame,” Thompson said laughing. “I had a chance to be in the movie Invincible. I’m an Eagles fan anyway, and one day a guy that I know who works with Mark Ellis, who owns the company, — they made The Longest Yard, The Waterboy, Any Given Sunday — says, ‘what are you doing this summer? We’re shooting a movie in Philly about the Eagles, you want to be in it?’ I said ‘sure’, so we shot that for four months. Three months in Philly, one month down in Texas, and it was probably the best four months of my life. Working with Wahlberg was great.”