Up on stage, the 10-piece band with four guitarists filled the cavernous church hall with Christian rock songs, their lyrics projected on a 15-foot screen. Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia was nearly packed last Sunday morning, about 500 worshippers between the floor and balcony of the sprawling, modern brick building. Everybody stood.
“Into the darkness you shine, out of the ashes we rise,” the band sang.
At the center of the floor, about halfway back in the congregation, Dylan Thompson locked his eyes on the screen, which flashed the chorus to another song: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” Thompson sang the words quietly, gently clapping his hands and tapping his hand on the pew in front of him. Thompson wore jeans, an untucked plaid button-down shirt and flip flops — just fine for the casual service. He looked comfortable. He felt at peace.
Thompson, South Carolina’s junior quarterback, tries to attend Shandon Baptist every Sunday. After USC returned at 5 a.m. from an October trip to LSU, Thompson was at church the next morning. When he didn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. following his career-changing performance in November at Clemson, he made that service, too.
He used to come here and go through the motions, trying to ignore the gnawing guilt about how he spent the rest of his weekend, hanging out at bars and picking up women. But since the spring of his first year at USC, he has put his religious faith first in his life.
He shares his faith with teammates, three of whom joined him at church: left guard A.J. Cann, receiver Damiere Byrd and safety T.J. Gurley.
He writes about it frequently on his Twitter account, which has more than 21,000 followers — a number that ballooned when he came off the bench and led USC to a win over Clemson, and then threw the game-winning touchdown pass in the Outback Bowl against Michigan.
In two games, he transformed from an unrecognized, lightly recruited backup to a face of USC’s program, a role he at once embraces and tries to deflect. “Don’t follow me,” he wrote in his Twitter bio. “Follow Jesus.”
When the band finished, the congregation sat. Thompson opened his Bible on his lap. The minister, Frank Shimkus, began his sermon, about Jesus offering freedom from the humiliation of all sins. Thompson scribbled notes on the back of his bulletin.
“Every sin we have ever committed, every sin we will ever commit,” he wrote. Shimkus preached about getting value from your life, and mentioned a verse from First Corinthians. Thompson flipped to it and underlined: “The fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward.”
By the end of the sermon, Thompson had a page of notes. Near the bottom, he wrote: “What could you do today that could last for eternity? Use my life and max it out for eternity.”
Hearing his calling
Thompson stayed out of trouble as a kid. He grew up regularly attending church with his parents in Boiling Springs, near Spartanburg. His mother, Tammy, so closely monitored his behavior that she calls herself “a helicopter mom.”
But like most kids, Thompson focused on his own goals — becoming a college football or basketball player, and needing to have the latest, expensive pair of sneakers.
He lived for himself when he arrived at USC in 2010. He still attended church and said “God bless” to friends. He also reveled in newfound freedom. He redshirted his first season, so he was anonymous to most people at bars. He said he never got drunk, but thrived at picking up girls. He capitalized on his status as a handsome football player, and bounced from hookup to hookup, letting his hormones guide him. He enjoyed himself, but inevitably felt uncomfortable, like a phony.
“In my heart, I knew what I was doing was completely wrong,” he said. “Honestly, that didn’t really affect me. I didn’t change as a person. I was kind of covering it up. I’m thinking in my head, ‘No one knows who Dylan Thompson is.’ I took full advantage of that.”
His guilt festered. He worried people would find out about his double standards. Then he went to Shandon Baptist alone in April of 2011. In a moment he credits to divine intervention, a Bible verse from the sermon caught his ear — Matthew 7:21.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. But only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
That’s me, Thompson thought. His stomach knotted with nerves. After the service, he sat by himself in his dorm room and cried for three hours.
“I prayed to Jesus that he would come into my heart and save me from my sin and everything I had been doing that was covered up,” Thompson said. “I just had enough of it. That’s somebody’s daughter, and most importantly, that’s a child of God that you’re just taking advantage of.”
He called his pastor back home and the football team’s chaplain, Adrian Despres. He asked for their help in changing himself. They advised him to delete those girls’ numbers from his phone. When some of them texted him later, he told them about committing to his faith. Most girls encouraged him. Some chafed at his response. He said he always wrote that he was “completely sorry for everything I did,” though he knew the concept of a random hookup “probably bothered me a lot more than it bothered them.”
“At the end of the day, I knew it was my job to apologize to those people that I had hurt,” he said.
Finding a new mindset
He started embracing his faith by reading the Bible. Despite attending church, he had read it fewer than 10 times in his life. He stopped frequenting bars and dedicated himself to football. He met weekly with Despres and Jack Easterby, another chaplain who worked with USC sports. They studied parts of the Bible and discussed how Thompson could apply it to his life.
He had men he trusted — Despres, Easterby or his home pastor, Hank Williams — ask him tough questions every week to keep him focused, a routine he continues. One of the questions: “Have you done anything this week that you shouldn’t, as far as sexually with a girl?”
Said Williams: “He wanted his life not to be about himself, but about something much bigger than himself.”
For spring break 2012, Thompson organized a solo mission trip to El Salvador through a Spartanburg church. He stayed with a minister there, spoke at churches and soccer camps, and gave 90 donated footballs to kids. He hopes to make a similar trip next spring break to Africa.
His mom marvels at his increasing selflessness. He never volunteered to do much around the house, but now when he returns home, she finds him cleaning the kitchen or cutting the grass.
“It’s small things, but it’s huge for me to see him do this,” she said.
But as Thompson continues his spiritual makeover, his mom notices him struggling at times to shed old guilt and move forward.
“Sometimes, he’s too hard on himself,” she said. “Anything he had ever done in his life, he would rehash the guilt.”
Change could not happen instantly. Thompson felt wary at first about expressing his faith to teammates. When he launched a team Bible study at his apartment last summer, before he was a prominent player, he expected skepticism. “This is a guy that these guys just saw in bars last year,” he said of himself.
Six players attended the first session. By this spring, 28 showed up. Thompson said 10 players have committed themselves to Christianity in the past year. Several USC athletes attend Shandon Baptist with Thompson every Sunday.
“Some players get a name and they act different,” said Gurley, the sophomore safety who Thompson invited to church. “But he’s still the same.”
Handling the attention
Whether Thompson will share significant playing time this season with Connor Shaw remains unclear. But with Thompson’s place in USC football history already secure, more people want to connect with him.
He gets requests to visit sick kids, from folks at his home church, Boiling Springs First Baptist, or strangers on Twitter. He has spoken to more than a dozen churches and organizations. In June, he did a question-and-answer session for a men’s Christian conference that drew 10,000-plus to Greenville’s Bi-Lo Center. Tim Tebow also spoke at the event.
This spring, he worked with Williams, his home pastor, to create a DVD and website (4DownsWithDylan.com) where Thompson talks about his spiritual journey. Williams mailed 21,000 of the DVDs to people who live around the church. He said coaches from as far away as the Midwest have contacted him, saying they showed the website to their players.
Thompson is acutely aware that outward expressions of religious beliefs can be perceived as sanctimonious, and he is not comfortable with people lionizing him as a morally superior person.
“This guy that now people make out to be some perfect dude, he messed up when he got to college,” Thompson said.
Still, he is proud of his progress and the example it sets now that he is recognizable. His mom shudders to think what might have happened if the spotlight found him as a freshman, when he lived for his own pleasure.
“I’m scared,” Tammy said. “I don’t know what it would have done.”
Back then, Thompson said, “if you would have said ministry, I would have ran.”
Now, he can see himself maybe becoming a pastor.
His girlfriend of a year and a half, Melanie Helm, regularly finds notes from him that say things like: “You’re the most awesome girlfriend.”
They met at a Christian convention in Atlanta. Soon thereafter, they openly discussed their regretful, early college pasts, because “we didn’t want the other one to be blindsided,” she said. Thompson’s strong faith touches all parts of his life, even his father Danny, long a casual Christian. He called Thompson in June, crying. Danny said he decided to commit fully to his faith. After the conversation ended, Thompson was so happy, he wept for a half hour.
“You don’t want your son being the spiritual leader of your family,” Danny said. “That’s where the father needs to be. I just didn’t think I was doing a good enough job of doing that.”