By CHRIS DE BENEDETTI, Oakland Tribune | Posted: Saturday, December 17, 2011 10:47 pm
OAKLAND, Calif. - A song was being performed at Saturday's funeral services for Fred Thompson, the 19-year-old Oregon State football player who died last week of a heart attack, when mourners pointed to a flock of seagulls that appeared above the high school field where he once excelled.
"Angels," one mourner yelled as the birds flew away.
Indeed, Thompson's warm and friendly spirit was seemingly everywhere on the Oakland Tech High campus during the ceremony, in which more than 800 people came to bid him farewell.
"Look at how many people are in the stands today," said Thompson's high school coach, Delton Edwards. "How many young men do you know who can bring so many people together - people from Richmond, Oakland and Oregon."
Thompson was born in Richmond and later moved to Oakland with his mother, Cora Wilcots. He earned a football scholarship to OSU, and enrolled in Corvallis earlier this year. Thompson, who was 6-foot-4 and weighed 317 pounds, was expected to compete for a starting position on the defensive line next year.
OSU coach Mike Riley attended the services with several of Thompson's college teammates.
"We all knew he had physical talents, but he had way, way more to offer than that," Riley said. "He was a caring soul and a truly wonderful man."
OSU punter Johnny Hekker presented Thompson's football helmet, which had been signed by his college teammates, to his mother.
"This facemask was always filled with a smile during practice," Hekker said, his voice quivering with emotion. "He still touches my life and I'm going to miss him so much."
Thompson died Dec. 7 while playing pickup basketball at a campus recreation center. He would have turned 20 on Dec. 11.
Dr. Karen Gunson, a Corvallis medical examiner, said Thompson had an enlarged heart and had increased thickness of the heart muscle, which can cause an irregular heartbeat during strenuous exercise.
Thompson dominated opponents while at Oakland Tech, winning first-team Oakland Athletic League All-City honors his junior and senior years.
He helped the Bulldogs reach the Silver Bowl city championship game as a senior, garnering 90 tackles and seven sacks in 12 games. That earned him first-team All-East Bay honors.
Those athletic exploits were the focus of most of the remembrances Saturday, including those shared by Ryan Murphy, Thompson's best friend and football teammate in high school and college.
Murphy was joined at the microphone by eight close friends who call themselves "BFA (Brothers from Another)" - an informal group of high school buddies who were close to Thompson.
Murphy spoke of how inseparable the group was and how Thompson's mother always provided them a place to hang out.
"So many memories are going through my mind," he said.
Despite his imposing size, Thompson's high school classmates, including Ilse Martinez and Shanisha Perkins, praised him for going out of his way to disarm people with a smile and big bear hugs.
"He was the most lovable free-spirited guy I've ever known," Martinez said. "He was a sweet guy who was always dancing."
"He was a big teddy bear," Perkins said.
Mourners were rueful that Thompson never got the chance to play in the NFL. But Edwards said a higher power had other plans for him.
"Yes, he was going to get drafted," he said. "But he got drafted by the best team - God."