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Bearcats' biggest fan loses battle with cancer

Norma Thomson said her husband, Bobby, never met a stranger; that he liked to talk and would do just about anything to help someone in need.

For the last eight years, Bobby was particularly aware of what he could offer others. He was diagnosed with stage three cancer in August 2003. Bobby's doctors said he was living on short time.

They didn't know the Bobby folks had come to love. They did not know that Bobby never backed away from a battle and wasn't about to surrender in this one.

Bobby died at Piedmont Medical Center early Wednesday morning. Norma was at his side, her chair pulled close to the bed when he slipped away. He was only 48 years old and had plans. The most important to him was returning to his volunteer job with his beloved Rock Hill Bearcats football team.

He loved football, flew a Bearcats flag from his porch all football season. He had a football room, Bearcats on one wall, South Carolina Gamecocks on another and Washington Redskins on a third. The other wall, he said several years ago, had items devoted to all three of "my teams.''

Bobby attended Rock Hill's spring game at District Three Stadium, but he was so weak from the weight he had lost that Norma called him off the field and into the stands with her before taking him home before the scrimmage ended.

Bearcats coach Joe Montgomery put Bobby to work after the two met face-to-face two years ago, gave him the job of equipment manager. He made sure he had extra mouth pieces, extra jerseys, face masks and screws to fix helmets in the tool pouch attached to his belt. He helped assistant coach Sam Betz with the uniforms.

Montgomery made sure Bobby was part of the staff. He got the same Bearcats clothing and hats the coaches wore. When the team pulled out for a road game, he was on the bus with "his'' boys.

"I can't tell you how much the boys loved and respected Bobby,'' said June Wessinger, starting quarterback Cory Wessinger's mom. "They absolutely adored him and when he was sick and not there, they worried and wanted him to come back.

"After I heard the news Wednesday night, I called Cory. He's at The Citadel for camp. I was crying and it was tough on both of us. Cory had developed a strong bond with Bobby and he couldn't believe he was gone.''

Bobby never played football at Rock Hill, but became a hardcore Bearcats' fan after he graduated. Said he couldn't remember missing more than one game since. He switched his chemo treatments to a weekday that would allow him not to be sick on Friday nights. Instead, Thursdays were his bad days.

It was a ritual for the Thompsons to be in the stands behind the band. Norma said when Bobby started "coaching,'' it was hard for her to sit in the stands without Bobby at her side as he had been for the 28 years they were married.

Norma made funeral arrangements Thursday morning. On the way to her home in the Mt. Holly area, she stopped by The Herald and talked about her "special husband.''

"On Aug. 16 of 2010, Bobby's doctors sent him home and said there was nothing more they could do for him,'' she said. "We started praying every day and Bobby was hospitalized five times since then. The fifth was this week.

"He was losing blood and it was thought that his tumor was bleeding out. He was getting a transfusion and the blood began backing up. He pulled the sheet back and there was blood all over the bed. He said not to worry and we thought he would be OK. We didn't think he would pass away.''

Norma said Bobby loved the Bearcats' players, coaches and fans. When he brought his Rock Hill football wardrobe home, he told her he had enough Bearcats gear to wear something different ever day. And his fitted baseball cap; Bobby told Norma only the coaches had those.

She said Bobby had a passion for Rock Hill football. He asked Montgomery to take him on so he would stay busy and not sit around thinking about his health problem.

To pass more time, Bobby would go to the chemo clinic and sit with friends he had made, to comfort them with his words and faith. He often told them not to give up, to battle back and tell them their cancer wasn't going to lick them.

And he stopped by The Herald nearly once a week to talk football. He was, which was obvious, really becoming a coach.

"He was so gung ho about this season,'' Norma said. "He felt bad he couldn't get out there during spring practice because he was sick. Bobby said there were kids there who needed him; that he felt bad letting them down.

He teared up when the players came out for a game wearing eye black that read: "Bobby Thompson.'' And there was the day he was helping a player with his football shoes and saw one said Thompson.

"Bobby told the kid his name was Thompson,'' Norma said. "He told me the player grabbed his other shoe and he had Bobby written on it. He smiled at Bobby and said he knew that.''

Cory and Bobby had a special bond, one that had been made at a website breakfast at the Golden Corral, months before Bobby joined the team.

Wednesday night and Thursday during camp breaks, he texted his teammates to let them know about Bobby and to be at the Saturday service at Rock Hill's First Church of Nazarene on North Jones Avenue. Visitation is 9-11 a.m., with the funeral service to follow.

"I'm sure we will have a big turnout,'' Cory said. "Everyone loved Bobby and this is going to be tough on all of us. We have talked about dedicating our season to Mitchell Jeter's late granddad, another strong supporter.

"But Bobby was the No. 1 fan and I don't see why we can't have two. I will for sure be playing for both of them. I'm going to suggest adding Bobby, but it's a decision the team has to make. I will not tell them what to do except when we are in the huddle.''

Norma bought Bobby a 1992 blue T-top Camaro, his "dream car,'' several years ago. But it was a 5-speed and his legs became too weak to work the clutch. She still has the car, but replaced it with a 1999 model he could drive.

Bobby loved the first car, said he'd often ride around town and enjoy the sights he had come to love since his youth.

One trip he'd make was a spin past District Three Stadium, home of the Bearcats and Northwestern Trojans.

Bobby loved the stadium like most people love a beach or mountain home. Two years ago and before he went to work for Montgomery, Bobby said there was a "special reason'' he always drove past the home of maybe the best football in the state.

"I look toward the sky and say a prayer,'' he said. "I'd ask him to please let me make it through another season because I love my Bearcats.''

He won't be there in body this year, but his spirit will be felt every time the Bearcats hit the field. After all, the late RHHS principal Eric Lessmeister coined a phrase that has become the motto for Bearcats Nation.

It goes: "Once a Bearcat, always a Bearcat.'' Bobby Thompson took it to the max. He was without a doubt, a Bearcat in every way.