At age 23, Juwan Thompson ’10 already has accomplished something football players dream about for a lifetime. His Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 to become Super Bowl 50 champions on February 7. Now Juwan has a view from the top, but it certainly hasn’t changed him as a person, and getting there wasn’t an easy path.
Spending time on the Woodward campus during a trip home in February, Juwan recalled the post-Super Bowl victory as a team celebration that lasted for days, “until after the parade.”
“It was one of the best feelings in the world to make it to the Super Bowl. I wouldn’t mind doing it again someday, but I know it’s an opportunity that only comes around so many times in your career, if you are lucky,” he said. “Some guys have been playing for 10 or 15 years and haven’t had the chance to get to the Super Bowl.”
Although he speaks with humility, Juwan’s story is really one of hard work rather than simple good fortune. It begins in the neighborhood around Woodward, and the baseball cap he’s wearing says it all: “Just a kid from College Park.” Juwan spent his first 10 years living in the area and playing sports, swimming, running track, playing basketball, and even taking gymnastics, before moving to Lithonia with his family. There, he finished elementary school at Redan and played basketball at Lithonia Middle. When it was time for high school, his mother encouraged him to apply to Woodward. At Open House, he met Coach Ryan Davis, who knew right away that Juwan would be a good fit for Woodward.
As with many new Upper School students, the first few semesters at the Academy were an adjustment, academically. That first semester, he made a D in Helen Shean’s literature course. “It was very tough. She graded hard, but I ended up being one of her best students. I put a lot more effort into things as time went on, and I ended up with a B+,” he said.
Mrs. Shean and Spanish teacher Ileana Andrews were among his favorite teachers. Coach Davis, his track coach and a member of the football coaching staff, became like an older brother during his years at Woodward, and they remain close today. Juwan also remains close to Upper School Nurse Cheryl Minor. As a War Eagle football player, he would visit Nurse Minor in the infirmary on game days for a rest and a snack. “When Juwan returns to campus, he always drops by to say hello, with that great smile of his, and gives me a huge bear hug,” Nurse Minor said. “He is certainly a great example of success beyond Woodward.”
Juwan himself is almost surprised by his career in football. Earlier on, basketball was his sport. But, when he came to Woodward, the football coaching staff, then led by Head Coach Mark Miller, gave him a chance to play running back. In public school, he had been playing defense. “They saw something in me and gave me a shot at it, and it just took off from there,” he said.
As a War Eagle, he honed his skills and formed close friendships with classmates who were, like him, serious about academics and athletics: Henry Anderson ’10, who went on to play college football for Stanford University and now plays for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, and Delino Deshields ’10, an outfielder for Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. Juwan went to Duke University to play football and major in sociology. He graduated with a 3.3 GPA and finished his collegiate football career with 1,244 rushing yards on 274 carries and nine touchdowns.
Juwan was signed by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He recalls playing for all 32 NFL teams at the Pro Day showcase. Juwan had an agent, and his coach at Duke had some connections with Denver and New York. It came down to five or six teams, and he decided to go to Denver, knowing the chances of making the team were very slim for an undrafted free agent. There were 90 outstanding players competing, of which only 53 would be chosen, and Juwan had eight running backs ahead of him.“It was a difficult but incredible opportunity, so I knew I should talk less and work more. The coaches saw, ‘He’s working. He’s not saying much, but he’s working.’” He made the team in those first few games of preseason.
Hard work has been one of Juwan’s trademarks from the early days, Coach Davis said. “Juwan was the fifth- or sixth-ranked running back coming out of high school. In the final outcome, he is the one with the Super Bowl championship ring. It goes to show that recruiting stats out of high school don’t show the true character of an athlete. They don’t go deep and find the true person. In my view, you can’t ask for any two greater accomplishments—a degree from Duke and a Super Bowl championship.”
Juwan still has a long career ahead, and he plans to make a difference on and off the football field. He has tutored children and thinks that teaching or coaching may be his future. Before making the Broncos, he applied to Teach for America and was accepted to graduate school at Duke. Meanwhile, he remains close to his family and takes seriously his responsibilities as a role model for his younger siblings, including current Woodward fifth grader Kennedy Griggie and two younger brothers.
Juwan’s advice to today’s students is pretty simple: “Shut up and work, believe in yourself, and have a team behind you.”