North State Journal’s 100 in 100 series will showcase the best athlete from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. From Alamance to Yancey, each county will feature one athlete who stands above the rest. Some will be obvious choices, others controversial, but all of our choices are worthy of being recognized for their accomplishments — from the diamond and gridiron to racing ovals and the squared circle. You can see all the profiles as they’re unveiled here.
Donnell Thompson was one of the best players on one of the best defenses in ACC football history. He’s also among the most underappreciated stars ever to wear Carolina Blue because he played on the same unit as future Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor.
While Taylor justifiably got most of the attention during a record-setting career in which he terrorized opposing quarterbacks from his outside linebacker position, Thompson was just as important a member of a Tar Heels team that won what is still their school’s most recent ACC championship.
“There’s no question we had some talent you don’t normally see on one team,” Thompson said in a 2013 interview. “It was one of those teams we could have played anybody on a given Sunday, and as a defense we probably could have held up.”
A three-year starter, Thompson was a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive tackle who did most of the dirty work inside on a defense that held eight of its 12 opponents to 10 points or fewer during a 1980 season in which UNC went 6-0 in the ACC and 11-1 overall on the way to a top-10 ranking in the final national polls.
Thompson earned first-team All-ACC and third-team All-America honors that season before being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft (18th overall) by the Baltimore Colts. He ended up playing his entire 11-year professional career with the team, moving with it from Baltimore to Indianapolis.
He started 143 of the 147 games in which he played, recording 40 sacks and eight fumble recoveries, one of which went for a touchdown.
A graduate of Lumberton High School, Thompson began his career as a two-way star whose exploits as a fullback and defensive lineman helped earn him a spot on North Carolina’s Shrine Bowl team in 1976. It was there, at the practices leading up to the all-star game, that he met future UNC teammate Ron Wooten. The two went into business together after retirement from football and currently own numerous Zaxby’s, Denny’s and Checkers franchises.