Ask Thurgood Dennis’ lifelong friend, football coach, father and track teammate a little about who he is, and they will all tell you the characteristics that epitomize the national champion.
Compassion. Competitiveness. Blinding speed.
The sophomore English education major set two UW-Eau Claire track and field school records, also his personal bests, at the Div. III national championships Saturday in Naperville, Ill.
Dennis took home a first-place victory in the 60-meter dash, recording a time of 6.76 seconds and also anchored the winning 4×400 relay team, taking the baton across the finish line for his second national title of the day.
To receive All-American honors, an individual must place within the top eight of his or her specific event. With Dennis’ two victories Saturday, in just his fourth semester on campus, he received his sixth and seventh All-American awards.
Running is not even Dennis’ biggest passion.
“Gotta be football,” Dennis said. “Football is what I live and breathe, my passion from the very beginning. I was so tiny back then, I never would have thought I’d be playing college football.”
Five feet and under 100 pounds as a sophomore in high school, it may appear obvious Dennis was not the number one option for the high school football team, but it was not for a lack of heart.
His father, Robert Dennis said he remembers that because of his son’s size he would always be the last pick for neighborhood games, something that has changed dramatically since Thurgood Dennis was little.
“He would always be overlooked,” Robert Dennis said. “He was so small, he would be the last one chosen all the time, but he never backed down from a challenge.”
Robert Dennis also said he recalls a time where his heart and passion for the game of football was especially evident. He said he was never afraid of other players or getting hit.
“He would always give 110 percent effort,” Robert Dennis said. “The coaches would ask for someone to line up across the linebackers for someone to hit … Thurgood would be first in line. They would knock him down, I mean he would get pummeled, but after every hit he would pop up and have a big smile on his face.”
The upbeat personality and shining smile after taking a big hit is somewhat resemblant of former Green Bay Packer wide receiver Donald Driver, someone Thurgood Dennis idolizes for his play on the field and for his actions off the field.
Driver, a track athlete himself in his younger years, played the underdog throughout his professional football career. He was drafted in the seventh and final round of the NFL Draft, exceeded all expectations coming out of a small college and was seen by Packer fans as an undervalued overachiever.
“If I could be like anyone, Donald Driver would be that person,” Thurgood Dennis said. “Not only a great athlete, he’s tough. I love the fact that he was an underdog and gave 100 percent every time out there on the field, and he’s a great guy off the field too. That’s what I really strive for.”
Due to an injury to a teammate in the defensive secondary, Thurgood Dennis was somewhat forced into a starting role at cornerback for the Blugolds this past season as a sophomore. Although he did not record an interception, he said he looks forward to being a leader next season.
Eau Claire’s head football coach Todd Glaser said he is happy to have him on the football team.
“Besides the speed he brings to the team, he’s a true student-athlete,” Glaser said. “He’s a great competitor. He’s a great teammate, and he’s a great leader.”
Being a newly-awarded national champion in track and field, Thurgood Dennis doesn’t think he could compete in one sport without competing in the other. He said track and football go so well for him he would not be as successful if he was in only one sport.
He said certain parts of track make him excel in football and certain parts of football make him a better runner, a reason why he turned down scholarship offers from Div. I schools Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he could exclusively compete in track.
“Football makes me so mentally tough for track,” Thurgood Dennis said. “Then track makes me so fast for football. I would not be the same athlete in football at all if I wasn’t in track and vice versa. It really just goes full circle.”
For all the successes he has seen in sports; coaches, friends and the people closest to him have more to say about the kind of person he is in a social setting, away from the track or on the field.
Lifelong friend John Smith said when he heard the news about Thurgood Dennis winning the two national titles, he was ecstatic. Not because of the athletic feat he pulled off, but instead because he knew a genuinely nice and compassionate person got what he deserved.
“He’s just honestly a great kid, all around,” Smith said. “He’s not one who is going to be arrogant about winning, or anything for that matter. He’s going to give everyone else the credit, to who got him there, that’s what he’s about.”
Smith was in the same class as Thurgood Dennis from kindergarten all the way through high school and said he recalls numerous times he showed sparks of competitiveness growing up, even in elementary school.
He said he always knew he could be something, but was really surprised when he showed up to his junior year of high school and saw Thurgood Dennis.
“He was always the tiniest kid in our class,” he said. “He was always the kid that hustled the most though because he loved all kinds of sports. Then, all of a sudden he just got really tall. Had to have been like a foot over a summer.”
He used his newly acquired height, competitiveness and passion for sports to become the athlete he is today, a dual athlete at the college level.
A friend and floor mate of Thurgood Dennis’ in the dorms, freshman business major Adam Lewis said he had no idea Thurgood Dennis was an athlete until other members of seventh floor Towers North informed him that he was.
Lewis also said Thurgood Dennis is one of the most humble, nice, compassionate people he has ever met and outside of sports competition, he is just another one of the guys.
“I didn’t even know he ran track or played football,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t talk about it, he doesn’t brag about it. For being number one in the nation for several events, he is so humble and doesn’t look for any attention, which is extremely rare.”
Competing in athletics at a Div. III school, professional opportunities beyond college are rare, but Thurgood Dennis said he doesn’t listen to any of that. He said his situation isn’t unlike Driver’s, the idol he looks up to more than any other.
Thurgood Dennis will continue to play organized sports with his compassion, his competitive fire and his speed until he physically is unable to perform.
“It’s always a dream to play at the highest level,” Thurgood Dennis said. “The NFL, the Olympics, all that would be great. If there is any opportunity to run track, or play football somewhere, anywhere, I’ll be there. I wanna keep playing sports until my body screams at me that I can’t.”