The Queen Anne resident started at Washington State, but his playing days were interrupted by World War II. After the war, he played at Washington for a season.
You can ask James Thompson who he’ll be rooting for in the Apple Cup today, but don’t expect a direct answer. Thompson doesn’t work like that. One-word — or even one-sentence — responses don’t exist in his world.
No, to get the desired information out of the World War II veteran’s mouth, you’re always going to have to hear an accompanying story first. Fortunately, as one of few the men to ever play football for Washington and Washington State, Thompson’s tales are generally a delight.
How did you end up at Washington State? I asked the 94-year-old, who now resides in Queen Anne.
“Usually I would hitchhike,” he said.
Actually, Thompson didn’t initially have plans of ever suiting up as a Cougar. Born and raised in Seattle, he would regularly run through the tunnels of the old Husky Stadium, which was just a hop, skip and a jump from his old Laurelhurst home.
But one day in 1941, former Wazzu coach Babe Hollingbery showed up at his house and gave his mother the best recruiting pitch she could ask for.
“If he comes to Washington State,” Hollingbery told her, “I’ll make sure he gets to church at least twice a month.”
’Nuff said. Thompson was off to Pullman.
As a tailback, safety, punter and occasional quarterback, Thompson captained the WSU freshman team to an unbeaten season in 1941. The Cougs’ varsity team was similarly formidable in ’42, partly due to Thompson’s ingenuity.
In the opening game of the season, he went off-script and called a Statue of Liberty play late in the third quarter with the score tied 0-0. The result was future pro Bobby Kennedy taking the ball all the way to the end zone in what ended up being a 6-0 win over Stanford.
Several weeks later, Wazzu met Washington in the Apple Cup with a chance to go to the Rose Bowl. But in a rain-soaked mud-bath of a contest — in which Thompson said players lost sight of the ball as soon as it went in the air — the Huskies and Cougars finished in a 0-0 tie.
Oregon ended up representing the conference in Pasadena.
Disappointing as that might have been, that’s about where Thompson’s innocent days ended. He didn’t play football in the state of Washington for the next three years because he was in serving in the Second Air Force during World War II.
Not that football wasn’t in his life. In fact, it might be the reason he still has a life.
While overseas, Thompson said he came across Hollingbery’s son, Orin — an assistant coach at WSU — who wondered why Thompson wasn’t in Colorado Springs playing football for the Air Force. According to Thompson, Hollingbery pulled strings that allowed him to come back to the states.
Not a moment too soon, either. Thompson said just before he was transferred, he had been assigned to fight in Europe. He said the man who replaced him was killed.
“Football saved my life,” he said.
Thompson’s surviving the war allowed him the chance to check an item off his bucket list. In 1946, he transferred to Washington and played a season for the Huskies under coach Ralph Welch.
It wasn’t as noteworthy as his time at Wazzu — mainly because he got hurt a few games in and the team finished 5-3. But it put him in exclusive company as players who have been on both sides of the Apple Cup. And more than seven decades later, he hasn’t been able to shake an urge that consumes just about everyone who has ever taken the gridiron.
“I’m 94 years old,’ Thompson said, “and I still miss hitting someone.”
So where did he have fonder memories as a player?
“I really enjoyed playing for Coach Hollingbery,” Thompson said.
Who does he got on Saturday?
“The Huskies have a team and an arm,” he said, the “arm” being QB Jake Browning. “Washington State just has an arm.”
OK, well who are you rooting for?
“Whoever wins,” Thompson said, “I’m a winner.”