Cal Poly assistant football coach Aristotle Thompson stood near midfield Saturday at Providence Park, surrounded by friends and family, as a brisk afternoon gave way to the rainy cover of nightfall.
Thompson gave out hugs and handshakes. He watched his 7-year-old son, Brock, run circles around the group, a small football of his own in tow. It was perhaps a brief moment of escape for the Mustangs’ respected running backs coach, a Portland native with deep roots in the city.
Cal Poly dismantled Portland State 55-35 on the strength of three 100-yard rushers and solidified its status as the gold standard in the FCS when it comes to running the football with an attitude.
Those close to the Mustangs program know that edge stems from the 36-year-old Thompson, a fiery presence in practice who looks like he could probably still hold his own between the lines.
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“He’s our coach and everything, but he’s more like a father-figure to us,” said senior Kori Garcia, who rushed for 141 yards and scored two touchdowns against the Vikings. “We’re family in this group.”
Three weeks ago, as Cal Poly was preparing to play a top-10 Montana team at home, Thompson received word his mother had died. The rest of that sun-drenched, late-September afternoon in San Luis Obispo unfolded in a dramatic style, with the Mustangs securing a wild 42-41 victory over the sixth-ranked Grizzlies.
Thompson, a father of five, was on a plane to Portland a few hours after the final whistle.
He would miss some practice time ahead of the Oct. 1 game at North Dakota — Cal Poly’s only loss to an FCS opponent this season — before returning full-time ahead of the matchup with Portland State.
Returning to the Rose City last week, Thompson estimated there were more than 150 friends and family members in attendance offering their support. Longtime prep football fans likely remember Thompson’s all-state career at Portland’s Jesuit High School, which propelled him to a scholarship offer at Boise State.
He’s put that experience to use while roaming the Cal Poly sidelines for the past eight seasons. Under Thompson’s guidance, the Mustangs have produced at least one 1,000-yard rusher in five consecutive seasons: Chris Brown (2015), Brown and Garcia (2014), Kristaan Ivory (2013), Deonte Williams (2012) and Jake Romanelli (2011).
“When I had to be away, they understood what they needed to do to hold down the fort and take control,” Thompson said of this year’s running back group. “That’s a big thing when you’ve got some veterans that have been with you for a while. They understand what’s asked of them and they know how to prevail from it.”
Saturday in Portland, Cal Poly’s deep group of running backs once again took on the personality of their position coach.
Kyle Lewis averaged more than 14 yards per carry in rushing for a season-high 158 yards and two touchdowns. The junior’s 70-yard scamper down the Mustangs’ sideline in the fourth quarter put the proverbial dagger through the Vikings’ fleeting hopes of a comeback.
Preseason All-American Joe Protheroe — who celebrated the birth of his second child the night before the Montana game — returned to form with a 101-yard, two-touchdown performance.
All told, Cal Poly (4-2 overall, 2-1 Big Sky Conference) was met with little resistance from Portland State’s defense in rushing for a season-high 462 yards and five scores while averaging 6.9 yards per attempt.
“Every game this season, whether we’re at the coaches’ home, whether it’s at our house, every single game this year,” Lewis said, “we’re trying to dedicate it to Coach AT and other people on the team that have lost their parents.”
With that in mind, the Mustangs have put themselves in position for a memorable season, already an impressive turn around from last year’s frustrating four-win campaign.
Cal Poly plays three of its final five regular season games at home, beginning at 6:05 p.m. Saturday against rival UC Davis in the Battle for the Golden Horseshoe. Fourth-ranked Eastern Washington (5-1, 3-0 Big Sky) and Northern Colorado (3-3, 1-2) also visit Alex G. Spanos Stadium in November.
All of the Mustangs’ preseason aspirations are still in front of them, head coach Tim Walsh said, and the trail to the postseason will be paved by a stable of dedicated running backs.
“We’re all about the goals these guys have set,” Walsh said. “Big Sky Conference championship, win the state of California and keep the Golden Horseshoe in San Luis Obispo.”
Cal Poly’s lone Big Sky championship came four years ago when Williams torched the conference to the tune of 1,506 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Mustangs had three 500-yard rushers that season, and it seems like a strong possibility this year’s team could have at least four players reach that threshold.
It’s an exciting time to be a Cal Poly football fan and, in Thompson, there’s certainly a story worth rooting for.
“Emotionally, it was a tough time,” Thompson said. “But, when I’m back with the guys in SLO and we’re traveling the road, it’s business at hand. I owe it to those guys to be focused on the game.
“With my mother, that’s how she would want it.”