Hoosier alum Marcus Thigpen still a speedster at 34

By the time Marcus Thigpen lined up for the first kickoff of his professional career, he’d become too accustomed to disappointment to reasonably expect a breakout moment.

Three times, the 5-foot-9, 195-pound return man from Indiana had been told, essentially, he wasn’t good enough for pro football. Cut by the Philadelphia Eagles. Cut by the Denver Broncos. Then the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders let him go right before the 2010 season.

Days later, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats decided to throw him onto the field for the opening kickoff. But he couldn’t have expected too much. He couldn’t have expected a clear path to the end zone to just appear right in front of him, as it did.

It just seemed too easy.

“I saw how the middle was parting like the Red Sea,” Thigpen said, “and I was like, ‘This can’t be happening.'”

Sent home three times, and now here he was, and there it was — 92 yards of open astroturf that would serve as the onramp to an enduring professional career. First with the Tiger-Cats for two seasons. Then the Miami Dolphins for another two. He bounced between six NFL teams in 2014 and ’15, though the Bills were a near-consistent home.

Now back in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, the 34-year-old journeyman still gets chills when he thinks about his first pro touchdown in 2010. He started at the 18, left of the hash marks. He veered right, toward that open alley in the middle of the field. He then swerved left a tad, only to high-step around a diving, desperate kicker.

Nearly a pro castaway, the native of Detroit, Mich., has become one of the Hoosiers’ longest-lasting representatives in those ranks. During that 2010 season, Thigpen became the first player in CFL history to score a touchdown in five different ways — a punt return, kickoff return, missed field goal return, rushing, and receiving.

“Every time I was cut, it was like another dagger in my heart, to hear those words from a coach, saying, pretty much, you’re not good enough,” Thigpen said. “But once I got that opportunity, to showcase what I could really do, that’s when all the tears and the hurt and the pain I went through, it was worth it in the end.”

No quit

Ten years later, Thigpen marvels at his journey, because it was so unexpected. He was so small growing up that he had no reason to believe he was a shoo-in for college football. His pro dreams blossomed as a redshirt sophomore at IU after a 100-yard touchdown return versus Ball State, but it wouldn’t be so easy to convince pro scouts he belonged.

Thigpen was just uniquely equipped to keep pushing.

He came from humble roots in Detroit, and a tragedy altered his path. At 15 years old, Thigpen and a half-dozen friends packed into a van, fooling around and taking turns driving. He wasn’t the first to take the wheel. He was the last.

The van slipped off a wet road. The passenger’s side hit a tree. Thigpen wasn’t harmed, but the accident cost 14-year-old LaCrecia Daniels her life.

Thigpen transformed guilt and grief into resolve.

“Going forward, whatever I did, I would be dedicated and give it my all,” Thigpen said. “I would never quit because I wanted to make her happy, make her proud.”

And that wasn’t the last lesson Thigpen would learn about life’s fleeting nature. He had three coaches at IU, and his second was Terry Hoeppner, who led the Hoosiers for two seasons before succumbing to a brain tumor.

In that second campaign in 2006, Thigpen led the nation with a kick return average of 30.1 yards, including three touchdowns. But the Hoosiers, like the season before, came up short of a bowl game. The following year was dedicated to Hoeppner, with the motto “Play 13.”

In 2007, the Hoosiers went 7-5 and clinched a bid to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz.

“All those experiences taught me that life will take those turns,” Thigpen said. “One thing Coach Hep always embedded in us was ‘Have a plan, work the plan, and plan for the unexpected.’ All that stuff I had seen was so unexpected, and I still carry those values to this day.”

Thigpen made himself useful at IU, becoming the first player in program history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing (1,621), receiving (1,028), and returning kicks (2,009). His 4,658 total yards placed him third on IU’s all-time list.

But even with that versatility — and a 4.3-second 40-yard dash time — Thigpen struggled to convince NFL teams he belonged. He went undrafted in 2009. That August, he was signed and cut by both the Eagles and Broncos.

Coaches always delivered the news politely. It’s a numbers game, they said. There are only so many roster spots. But Thigpen didn’t hear it that way.

He wasn’t good enough, and maybe they were right.

“It builds character. It built who I am today,” Thigpen said. “It allowed me to persevere through the no’s, because that’s just life. That’s a lot of things, not just sports.”

Thigpen ended up in Texas with his wife and kids, delivering phone books for money.

He just couldn’t settle there.

“Having to walk around, house to house, it’s hot, it’s 112 degrees. I was like ‘This is terrible,’ you know?” Thigpen said. “That just made my work ethic even stronger.”

Some of the habits that allowed Thigpen to sustain a decade-long football career were formed in the Texas heat. He jogged 10 miles a day, split into three runs: the first at 4 a.m., the second at noon, and the last at 8 p.m.

Not to mention, he was benching, squatting, and everything else weights-wise throughout the day.

“People were like ‘You are going to hurt yourself,'” Thigpen said. “I didn’t care. I was going to do whatever it took to make sure I wasn’t denied.”

In Hamilton, Ontario, he broke through. A spectacular debut season in the CFL caught the Dolphins’ eye. Thigpen just couldn’t get out of his contract until after the next season.

In 2012, he landed in Miami, and it took no time for Thigpen to make his presence felt. He returned his first punt for a 72-yard score versus the Texans.

“It’s become a common theme for me. It seems like the first time I touch the ball, I score,” Thigpen said.

It’s all so surreal, seeing himself on television, hearing ESPN’s Chris Berman saying “He could … go … all … the … way” — and it’s the Buffalo Bills’ No. 11, Thigpen, taking a punt return across the line.

Seeing clearly

Those punt returns are especially mind-bending, because Thigpen was terrible at catching punts at IU. He lost the ball in the sky so often, regularly muffing at practice, that star corner Tracy Porter was entrusted with those duties.

“I was always sitting in the back of the class, couldn’t see the projector screen, but I never put two and two together,” Thigpen said, laughing.

When he reached the pro ranks, CFL doctors checked his eyes. He just needed glasses.

“That saved my career,” Thigpen said. “It’s night and day.”

Aided by contacts, it’s been an eye-opening journey for a kid from Detroit, bouncing around from Hamilton to Saskatchewan and various NFL cities. Though his travels have broadened his horizons, it has been tough being a father and away from his kids for months at a time.

Time away may have contributed to his divorce, which prompted Thigpen to take time off following the 2015 NFL season. He still spends offseasons in Texas to be near his kids, including training sessions with his 11-year-old son, who is already showing signs of being a speedster.

Thigpen never could drop football completely, especially with the mental struggles of divorce. He needed something to pour himself into. So in 2017, one of Thigpen’s former teammates in Hamilton, legendary CFL quarterback Kevin Glenn, put in a word with the very same Saskatchewan organization that took a pass in 2010.

Following his successes elsewhere, the Roughrider fanbase was happy to have the 5-9 playmaker on their side.

“That kind of helped me through the healing process,” Thigpen said. “People out in the street, they were giving me hugs, taking pictures, all that. Just being able to feel that connection, that bond, that ‘We missed you.’ Just them welcoming me like that, it made it so much better.”

Thigpen may not run a 4.3-second 40 anymore, but he can still clock in at 4.4. In 2019, he averaged 34.6 yards per kick return, including a touchdown of 100 yards plus.

He’s dedicated himself to a vegan diet, doing maintenance on his body with band stretching and massages.

“I still feel good, still breaking ankles,” Thigpen said. “If people think they got an angle on you, I still got that. If there’s a day I don’t got that, it’s time to shut it down.”

At 34, Thigpen thinks he has one or two years of football left in him. He’s not trying to push into his late 30s like his friend Glenn, who racked up 52,867 career passing yards.

Of course, if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t shut down sports worldwide, CFL teams would be in their preseason camps right now. Thigpen is just waiting for that call from the Argonauts, when practices start up again.

In the meantime, Thigpen has been writing his story down. He’s published an autobiography, “Resist and Persist: Persevering Beyond the Limitations of Life.” He’s planning on releasing a Part 2, as well.

He plans to eventually transition into motivational speaking.

“I want to talk to college students, high school, whatever. I want to share my story and inspire people to get out of their current circumstances,” Thigpen said. “I know where I’m from, a lot of people are stuck with this mentality that it can’t happen for them, or they aren’t good enough.

“It doesn’t matter where you start, or where you are. It’s about what you put into it. And it’s about continuously fighting for what you’re working for.”

7 comments

  1. Jon, thanks for this inspiring story of perseverance and determination. Thigpen was a fast talented player at IU provide moments of excitement for the fans.

  2. Not surprisingly, I have no recollection of him at IU. I won’t beat myself up too hard. Winning teams tend to attract attention. And the losing disease that has permeated IU Football through multiple coaching changes and multiple decades wins the final invested score against all but the most delusional of the ‘ardent.’
    Hats off to Thigpen for having such longevity in the NFL. It’s quite the accomplishment to build a recognizable name in the NFL despite playing football at a university so inept at building a winning football program additionally disgraced by decades of living off the fat, resources and opportunity a BigTen stage can provide.

    Question (since I’ve always believed hoops rules the Indiana University sports scene): Was there ever a fan section at Memorial called ‘The Thigpen Pigpen’…?

    Prediction: Michael Penix will remain healthy and start the season off with incredible flare and passing accuracy….until the biggest game of an early BigTen season when he is hit by a case of apPenixcitis.

    1. Just out of curiosity H4H,

      Assuming that MP is able to stay healthy all year, how well do you he will perform and IUFB overall? I know your concerns about his durability, but those questions aside, what do you and the rest of the gang think?

      1. Difficult to put the durability question aside….I simply don’t believe he can endure the physical tests of the BigTen East on a team which as always been challenged to counter athlete for athlete …and pound for pound….and explosive hit for explosive hit.

        Penix would be ‘All-World’ playing for Butler Football.

        I think last year’s sell job as “breakthrough” was an anomaly due to down years for mid-BigTen teams and a soft non-conference.
        I’m never going to be a believer until we can prove some competitiveness against the top three….and, actually, breaking through the decades of drought against top conference foes.

        It’s a Hoosier Football where coaches are glorified for low tier bowls and wins against Purdue.

        Penix has talent…but it’s wasted talent. To even design a run with him under center (knocking him out last season) only proves how wasted on inept coaching and decision-makers. I don’t think we have the luxury in depth (especially offensive firepower) nor the intelligence from the sideline to think Penix will last an entire season. He’ll be used and abused…much like Tre Roberson. His athleticism and talent will be a squandered gift…..because ‘turnarounds’ and ‘breakthroughs’ are the backed into corners those coaches attempting to glorify themselves forever create at IU Football.

  3. tai, if Penix stays healthy I expect that IU will improve over the 2019 season. He has a lot of talent but we still need to see if he has the knack to win games when they are on the line. The MSU game last year was a prime example, he had a couple series to finish off the Spartans but didn’t make the connections to put the game away. If Penix develops that skill of putting a dagger in the heart of opponents then IU could be a very dangerous team. Of course the defense needs to establish the same skill and start shutting down offenses in the 4th quarter.

  4. V13, I didn’t and still don’t feel Penix was responsible for IU losing to MSU last season. It was IU’s young defense that couldn’t make the crucial stops. Plus, I think IU had to eat some MSU home cooking on several key plays during that game. I think Penix threw something like 20 straight completions. When a QB achieves that level of success in a game, you can’t expect much better.

    I remember Thigpen, and am amazed that none of his coaches at IU ever thought to have his eyes checked. Talk about dereliction! Good lord, just think how correcting his vision at IU could have changed his college and professional career! You would think that it would be automatic for every player required to catch footballs; that all wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, defensive backs and return specialists would be required to have their eyes checked before the first practice. I hope that is now S.O.P for IU FB.

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