e doesn’t remember everything about his nursery school, but McLeod Bethel-Thompson remembers the tricycles. He remembers the roving, unharnessed mass of wide-eyed and booger-fingered humanity peddling as hard as it could. He remembers laughter filling the room as the little bodies leaned over the edge of their bikes, unaware of the dangers that surrounded them. It was a full-on test of what their still-developing sense of equilibrium could handle.
Long before he knew the word, it was chaos. He couldn’t get enough of it.
His teacher stood on the periphery of it all, watching.
“Her biggest rule was that there were no helmets were allowed. No bike helmets,” Bethel-Thompson says. You can almost picture him shrinking back to being a toddler in the middle of it all as he describes it.
“The parents would throw a fit. ‘What do you mean no helmets? My kid is going to hurt himself.’”
A good 25-years later, he still remembers how that teacher explained her rule.
“The only way these kids are going to know how to love is if they feel pain. It works one in the same. To fall down yourself, or see someone else fall down and be privy to that experience, that is the only way that you know there is good in the world,” he says.
“It’s that ying and that yang. It’s that balance that provides that perspective. I think you do a disservice to kids when you teach them that everything is safe, that everything is OK. That’s not how the world works.
“I think that’s important to not be blind to that and to see that at a young age.”
It’s six days before Labour Day and Bethel-Thompson is deep, deep into enemy territory. Between arguments for helmet-less children and his thoughts on perspective, he’s working his way through a roast beef sandwich at a small, quiet cafe on King Street on Hamilton’s east side, just a few minutes walk from Tim Horton’s Field. He’d just reunited at the stadium with his longtime friend, Jeremiah Masoli, for an interview with TSN. It was the first time they’d been face to face since they’d trained together in the offseason in their hometown, San Francisco. They’ve been working out together since they met at San Francisco 49ers camp in 2011.
He says it was surreal to sit there with him, the two of them in the driver’s seats for two fierce rivals, heading into their biggest regular-season game of the year. Two kids from The City that had the game they love zig zag them all over the map, each counted out at points in their careers, now an hour apart (or two or three, depending on traffic) in Canada as starters.
“He’s an inspiration to me. Just to see how far he’s come and how good of a football player he is now,” Bethel-Thompson says. “We’re always in communication, always reaching out to each other, checking in. ‘How are you doing? How’s the family? How’s life?’ that stuff. We try to keep it as much about football but as much not about football and hopefully we’ll do that for as long as possible. Hopefully we’ll be on the rocking chair at the end of the day kicking it when we’re 90.”
Nursing a tall can of beer in the locker room after the Ticats’ comeback win over Edmonton last week, Masoli said he couldn’t wait to see his friend on the field. It’s been, as anyone will tell you, an exceptionally long wait.
“Honestly, all the guys that really know Mac knew that all he needed was a real chance. That’s how it is for some players. That’s football,” said Masoli, who walked his own arduous path to becoming the starter in Hamilton.
“Some players take a super long path to get here, just like my path was long to get here. He had the same stuff. All he needed was a shot. I don’t think anyone ever doubted his play. He was just always in those situations where he wasn’t the guy. I’m glad it happened for him.”
Bethel-Thompson’s journey is one laced with just a smidge more patience and determination than rejection. He was cut 11 times between finishing college in 2011 and his landing with the Argos in 2017. In the eyes of everyone other than his coach, Marc Trestman, he was an afterthought in the Argos’ quarterback conversation this year. On Monday, with his team’s standing in the East Division in the balance, he’ll get his fourth start with the Argos.
From that waiting pile of tricycle carnage in a San Francisco daycare, Bethel-Thompson will tell you that it was all meant to go this way. There are no coincidences in his extraordinary life, he says. He comes from a line of pioneers, of athletes, of artists, thinkers. As we sit there, him trying to finish the sandwich in a cafe that feels like it’s being cooked from the outside-in by the sweltering late-summer heat, he’s fully comfortable with everything. This is where he’s supposed to be, scars and all.
“Hey!” Bethel-Thompson is trying to get his sister Cassady’s attention. He wants to know how long into his life he went before he got his name. Previously, he’d said it was a full year. Now he’s lobbying that it was at least six months.
“It wasn’t that long,” she says from her seat at the cafe’s bar. She’s in town to watch him play in the Labour Day series with the Ticats.
“It was a while.”
“I don’t think it was that long.”
“I’ll stay with six months.”
She shakes her head and turns away from him.
Whatever the time, his parents settled on a long, meaningful name.
McLeod John Baltazar Bethel-Thompson. He’s part El Salvadorian and Scottish.
“McLeod is my great great grandmother’s name. She was born in Ontario. Christina McLeod, she was a bridge builders wife. They built bridges across Canada and came down the west coast. They went to B.C. then down to California. Ontario roots,” he jokes. “I’m secretly Canadian.”
His lineage is loaded with interesting gems. His grandfather, Wilbur ‘Moose’ Thompson, won a gold medal in shot put for the U.S. at the 1948 Olympics. His uncle, Fernando Llort, passed away on Aug. 13 as an internationally-recognized artist in his native El Salvador. He had a major impact on Bethel-Thompson.
“When I’d go down to El Salvador I’d see him every once in a while. He’s a legend. He created a space that literally saves people’s lives through art,” he says.
“He’s done murals on churches, he’s done murals on buildings, he’s done pretty much everything you could imagine. He’s a legend, he’s inspiring. (His reputation) has to do with the art he created, but also creating a space for people to survive in a very violent and dangerous country.”
He and his siblings were homeschooled by their mom, Pat Thompson. She‘s an artist, a teacher and an accountant. His father, Mark Bethel, was a sound technician for musicians until his family started to grow. He regrouped and started a business where he ran production for live events. Instead of being a part of George Harrison’s road crew, he put together corporate meetings and concerts in San Francisco.
The word that continually comes up as Bethel-Thompson describes his childhood in San Francisco’s Mission District, a predominantly Mexican-American neighbourhood, is eclectic.
“We live right there in what was a very multicultural, diverse area. It’s been a little gentrified and pushed out but San Francisco, it’s got every flavour, everything going on, a very inner-city life,” he says.
“I think I saw a lot of things and was exposed to a lot of different types of people. I think I’m more a whole and well-rounded person because of that.”
It started with his mom, who wanted him and his siblings to get everything they could out of their homeschooling experience.
“I’m really appreciative of my mother for my education. I got to have a more diverse education as a young child,” he says.
“We went to operas, we went to ballets, we had that opportunity. We weren’t locked in a classroom all the time. We got to experience things and touch things and have a more tactical experience.
“If we wanted to talk astronomy, we’d go to the observatory. If we were interested in metal work, we’d go do metal work and if we were interested in whatever it may be we’d go experience the real thing as opposed to being locked in a classroom.”
He started out playing soccer, baseball and basketball. Football wasn’t on his radar until he was visiting family in L.A. and saw his two cousins playing. He was no more than seven and from there it was all he wanted to do.
When he got to the 10th grade, he convinced his parents to let him go to public school so he could play football. He went to Balboa High School.
“I was a little late to the game. I picked it up quickly,” he says. He excelled on the field, being named the city’s high school football player of the year in 2006. Masoli remembers seeing stories in Bay Area newspapers about the upstart QB that kind of came from nowhere. While Bethel-Thompson found success, signing to play at UCLA, he was already getting exposure to the ups and downs of the game that would follow him into his adult life.
“I went to a very rough and tumble inner-city high school that was overlooked a lot,” he says.
“The trials that my team went through in high school could be written into a movie. It’s really tragic and amazing and awesome, the experiences that we had.
“I lost three teammates to violence. We had a lockdown game, where we had police bussing us across town to play.”
Balboa student DeShawn Dawso was errantly shot in the face on a public bus on his way home in 2003. In the days that he remained critical before succumbing to his injuries, the school cancelled the games out of fear of a retaliation shooting. Bethel-Thompson said one of his teammates held Dawson on that bus while they waited for help to arrive.
They ended up playing the game at a neutral site. The police escorts were the only people that saw the game.
“We lost 18 guys to grades my junior year,” he says. “We went into the championship game with 12 players and we filled out the rest with JV team.
“In JV when we first started, we were sharing helmets. You’d run off, you hand it off. Public schools in the inner city are so underfunded in so many areas of the United States.
“It’s kind of shaped my perspective of why I need to give back. I felt like so many more kids that were more talented and more intelligent and better people weren’t afforded the (same) opportunities.
“They didn’t have the parents I had. They didn’t have the support network I had and they were cheated of their opportunity to succeed. It’s why me and Jeremiah chased our dreams so vehemently, I think. We both came from the same area and we saw these kids that weren’t given an opportunity. We know that because of our opportunity we have to make the most of it.”
At UCLA, he went from seeing an underfunded high school team to the complete opposite. With the Bruins, it was like he was standing in the warehouse of a big box football store. Shared helmets? Bethel-Thompson had two. Shoes? Whatever you need. He had two sets of shoulder pads. He redshirted his 2006 season and after splitting QB duties in 2007, he transferred to Sacramento State. Cue the next swing in environments.
“I saw the ugly side of football,” he says. “I saw when a coach can be a tyrant and I saw how kids can be abused and I saw the love (of the game),” he says.
“These guys go to college and they don’t go to the big (programs). They go to a college for the love of it and I saw how amazing football players can thrive in that environment. I saw a lower tier of football and how coaches can interact with players. It’s another amazing journey that I’ve seen.
“Then having an NFL experience, was like…I could keep talking. I’ve got stories for days.”
If you’ve followed him at all this season, if you’ve paid any attention to Bethel-Thompson’s arrival as a starter in Toronto, you know that if you printed out his pro resume it could sit in your hands and tumble down into your lap and onto the floor as it unfolds.
There was an Arena League team, a United Football League team, then through a six-year span, he was signed and cut by the 49ers three times, by the Dolphins and the Vikings twice, then cut once each by New England and Philly.
There are the undoubtable highs that come in this kind of journey. Getting your first tryout, landing on a roster and the feeling of getting to live a snippet of the life you’ve dreamed of since you were that little seven-year-old visiting family in L.A. Eventually though, watching another quarterback get your reps, sitting through games and the early-morning calls to grab your playbook and head to the coach’s office become the norm.
He calls his time in the Arena League a look at minimalist pro sports.
“Practice squad players in the Arena Football League were paid with food coupons (from team sponsors),” he says, still in disbelief about it.
“We were living in a hotel with prostitutes and basically construction workers. Everyone was playing for the love of the game. Nothing is a coincidence. I met a group of people, I was surrounded with an amazing group of friends that I’ll have for life, that really approached it for the love of the game. We bonded and we vibed off of it.
“I was paid $392 a week to play football. I played that for 18 weeks then straight from there, Jim Harbaugh had recruited me out of high school. Again, it’s a vision of nothing to everything.
“I had a car, an old busted up car I was driving in college. I go to the ’9ers facility and I see Bentleys and Mercede Benzes. I got to play with Patrick Willis and Justin Smith and NaVarro Bowman and Michael Crabtree, Michael Smith, all these guys, Colin Kaepernick, who I grew up with.
“Living that dream and being released and having that cascade and that fall was another fortunate experience. I did six years of that. I bounced around the NFL trying to find myself amidst all this being told no and trying to figure out who I was during that process.”
The wow-factor eventually was overshadowed by the looming pain of being sent packing again. He says there wasn’t a clear-cut rock bottom moment, but his departure from Miami in 2015 stands out more than the others.
“The one that hurt the most for me was when I felt like I’d been cut enough times that I didn’t want to give the power to the organization that cut me, so I self-sabotaged out of the situation. I felt like it was the only thing I could control,” he says.
“I think that’s the deepest cut of all is when you ingrain that ‘no’ into who you are as a person. You’ve been told no by so many people that you start telling yourself you don’t deserve it. Then you start enacting those behaviours that you don’t deserve it. On the flipside of that, you realize, ‘I just did that to myself.’ To cut myself from an NFL team was the deepest cut of all.”
His patience starts to make sense the more he talks about his family.
“I know I’m going to live a long, long time. My grandfather just passed away at 96, my grandmother is still alive at 96. My great grandmother lived to 111. My goal is 112,” he says, as simply as you make your plans for this weekend.
“If I can live to 112, I’ll see the year 2100. I’ll see that century mark and I’ll be working the whole time.”
He landed in the CFL in 2016 with Winnipeg, but was cut a month later. He joined the Argos in May, 2017, winning a Grey Cup as the team’s backup quarterback. The Argos’ offseason revolved around the quarterback position, but Bethel-Thompson’s name stayed out of the media’s conversation. Ricky Ray signed a new contract and the team traded for and later signed James Franklin to a new deal. When Ray went down with a neck injury in Week 2, all eyes shifted to Franklin. Marc Trestman continued to insist on including Bethel-Thompson in any conversation about his quarterbacks.
Trestman went with the 30-year-old in Week 8, giving him his first-ever CFL start. Bethel-Thompson responded with what was voted in the CFL midseason media poll as the game of the first half of the season. He shook off a bad first half and helped dig his team out of a 24-point hole against Ottawa, capping the night with a last-second touchdown pass to complete the miraculous comeback.
He’s 2-1 as a starter, making 69 of 103 passes for 858 yards with six touchdowns to one interception.
“This is his fourth game coming up as a starting quarterback. He’s never been in this role and I think all of us see moments of the quarterback he can become,” Trestman says.
“He’s putting our team in a position each and every week to win the game. When the quarterback takes care of the ball you have a pretty good chance to win in the fourth quarter and we have in all (three) weeks. He needs everybody’s help. He needs his coaches help and his teammates’ help.”
Bethel-Thompson thinks he met Trestman at the perfect moment in his career.
“I’m very indebted to him. I think he saved my football life in many ways,” he says.
“He’s a thinker, he’s obsessed with the game of football like we all are. But he knows that everything is about football and nothing is about football. He has as many scars as we do from the game of football. He knows that everyone loves the game of football but the game of football loves none of us.”
As he talks about his coach, his buy-in to Trestman’s philosophies are obvious. It gets to a point that he sounds exactly like Trestman, talking about how the game is everything and nothing and how the lessons of the game have to be applied to something bigger. The game is a course in leadership, it should improve you as a human being.
“It makes me validate my journey, to accept my scars and push forward,” he says.
Even as the starter, he knows nothing is guaranteed. At the very best, football could give him 10 more years. He’s started a master’s in cultural studies of sport and education at Cal-Berkeley and hopes to be finished it in a year or two. After that? He doesn’t really know yet. This whole thing, he says, growing up in a neighbourhood that let him see the haves and the have-nots, playing a game that’s shown him lavishness and living hand-over-fist, has shown him a world that’s in need of fixing. He wants to help.
“I want to play as long as they’ll let me but I don’t know if it’s coaching, I don’t know if it’s politics. I know I want to help people,” he says.
“I feel like my journey has allowed me to experience things — that feels selfish — but I know that the reason why I’m experiencing it is that I’m going to give it back and I’m going to have an impact. I want to help people on the flip side of it. Whether that be through coaching, or through politics or community activism, whatever it may be.
“I worked in the State Capitol in college, in California for an assemblyman, Isadore Hall III. Seeing the inside of it, it’s its own world. I think so often they get lost in that and they forget that they’re representing someone outside of that.
“I think that in the States you see a disproportionate amount of people in congress that don’t represent the population outside,” he says, citing the amount of millionaires in congress (LINK: http://time.com/373/congress-is-now-mostly-a-millionaires-club/ ) and a public that’s largely not that affluent.
“It’s a disconnect. I think I’d like to take my experience and bring it to the forefront and be a vehicle for people to have their voices heard in a different arena. One that I’m privy to, that other people aren’t necessarily privy to.”
His focus right now is football and trying to make his job with the Argos as permanent as he can, but he’s always thinking about the bigger things. He and Masoli both help each other out with offseason charitable work, with Bethel-Thompson joining Masoli in Samoa last year for a football camp that included a poetry and art workshop. McLeod and his sister, Cassady, both regularly go back to El Salvador and with their charity group, CaseProject, work with Glasswing International to do something similar to what their late uncle did, in providing refuge through sport for a nation cloaked in violence.
For now, the task in front of him is comparatively much simpler. Take a team that’s played unevenly through the first half of the season and help it find its way.
He mentions the Argos’ struggles, that they’re heading into this Labour Day series with their season essentially on the line. He could just as easily be talking about his own journey to this point.
“Adversity. It keeps on punching us in the face,” he says. “It’s either going to make you a better person or you’re going to fall and crack.”
He’s waited his whole life for this challenge, this moment, with this group of players and coaches. He smiles.
“There’s no one else I’d rather be playing for.”