Running back Chris Thompson exited the Washington Redskins' team facility on March 6 and stepped into the NFL free agency unknown. For the next two months, Thompson’s NFL career came down to two questions: Which team might sign him and when?
After seven years with the team that drafted him in 2013, Thompson was now a free agent. While free agency can be a quick, get-rich moment for some NFL players, others endure a different experience -- one similar to Thompson's. Their patience is tested, whether from the overall uncertainty or the questions from others. Their hearts skip a beat when their agents call.
Toss in an unprecedented offseason because of the coronavirus pandemic and it's an even bigger challenge to stay calm and relaxed. There is also having to detach from the only NFL home he had known -- one he did not want to leave.
"Too much sitting back, guessing and thinking," Thompson said. "I'm glad that's over."
Thompson took ESPN inside his 45-day journey from Washington to Jacksonville:
March 15: Bittersweet ending
Three days before the start of free agency, Thompson traveled from Virginia to Tallahassee, Florida, where he works out each offseason. He left behind his girlfriend, Kash Barb, their 3-month-old daughter, Kali, and Barb's 10-year-old son, Khalil. Thompson arrived there knowing his Redskins' tenure was almost assuredly over.
A few weeks earlier, he had received a text message from Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who thanked Thompson for his contributions on and off the field and let him know what he had meant to the organization. He was never a Pro Bowler, but he was a popular player -- both with teammates and fans.
Thompson was a talented but oft-injured fifth-round pick out of Florida State. In seven seasons as Washington's primary third-down back, he gained 2,966 yards from scrimmage. In 2017, before breaking his leg in Week 11, Thompson had 804 combined yards from scrimmage and averaged a career-best 7.8 yards every time he touched the ball. But he played all 16 games once (in 2016), and in his final five years, he appeared in 60 games but missed 24.
"The last four years I've been here was probably my most enjoyable years of football in my life, even though we weren't winning," Thompson said.
That's why it was hard for him to leave Redskins Park on March 6. He said his goodbyes, from the team chefs to longtime receptionist B.J. Blanchard. The hardest one for Thompson: assistant trainer Elliott Jarmyn, whom he called "my dude."
"I almost did cry, almost did," Thompson said.
Change was evident at Redskins Park with coach Ron Rivera's arrival. Thompson walked around a familiar building seeing unfamiliar faces, uncertain if this would be their first meeting -- or their last. But Thompson liked the changes Washington made.
"That's what makes it harder," he said. "I truly feel that things are about to change there and in a really good way. I always wanted to be part of this team when it all turned around. ... I wanted to be with one team for my entire career -- not only on the team, but to make a big impact."
Thompson knew from talking to his agent, Jason Chayut, after the scouting combine in early March that several teams were interested. But Thompson didn't know which teams were poking around; in fact, he didn't want every nugget of information because, as Chayut told him, actions speak louder.
Thompson knew his injury history would be a concern, but there were several former coaches -- Sean McVay (Los Angeles Rams' head coach) and Jay Gruden (Jacksonville's offensive coordinator) -- who could vouch for him.
The job uncertainty can be difficult and unsettling not only for the player, but for his significant other. Barb would text Thompson photos of various cities, wondering which city would be their next home.
"I'm like, you've got to calm down," he said, laughing. "I give it a couple days and she's sending me stuff again. On Saturday, I texted her and was like, 'Two to five more days and we'll know something.' She's like, 'I'm ready. I'm tired of it. ... I just want to know what's going to happen.' Yeah, we've had those conversations."
Thompson vacillates between wanting more information, not thinking about it at all and having a touch of anxiety.
"I get frustrated when I don't know something," Thompson said. "And I don't know how teams feel about me or what teams want out of me or what teams are truly interested. I want to know right now where I'm going to be.
"I truly hope I don't have to wait. That would be too nerve-wracking."
March 26: Still waiting
Thompson wanted an offer from an NFL team, but what he needed more than anything was patience. After free agency started, Thompson constantly checked his phone.
"Way more than I ever do," Thompson said of the frequency. "I'm not on my phone too much, but it was real crazy. I kept waiting, and my agent would call me and we'd have conversations, and I'm thinking he's calling about something and some of our conversations wouldn't even be about anything."
Chayut laid it out for Thompson: Teams were concerned about his injuries and would want their doctors to examine him. He knew he might have to wait until June before signing.
"Ever since we had that talk, I haven't been worried," Thompson said. "Now when he calls, if it's about nothing, he'll be like, 'It's nothing, I'm just checking up on you.' He says that as soon as I answer."
The ripple effects from the coronavirus pandemic added to the uncertainty.
"It's the worst time to be a free agent, especially in my shoes," Thompson said. "Nobody can see me as far as doctors. For some guys, if you're going through it right now and you don't have the right people around them, they probably get nervous -- 'Am I going to have a job. What's going to happen?'"
Thompson continued his offseason training in Florida, working out often in a nearly empty gym. Throughout his training, he stayed connected with his daughter via video calls.
"It's been killing me to be away. I know I'm going home in two weeks, but now this stuff is happening. ... I might be away longer than I expect to or hope," Thompson said.
In the meantime, he watched shows on Netflix, finishing "Arrow" and starting "The Office." Also, Call of Duty provided a distraction.
"I try to get into video games if I can," he said. "That's the only thing that can take my mind completely off everything that's going on."
May 1: It's over
Thompson had hoped a team might sign him after the NFL draft (April 23-25). Instead, after 45 days of free agency, his wait ended when the Jaguars called. It should have resulted in a big celebration, but given the circumstances, that wasn't happening.
"We ordered some food and hung out," he said. "That was it.
"I was super excited and happy about it, but it didn't show, and [Barb] kept asking me, 'How are you feeling? What are you feeling right now?' I kept saying I am excited, but she kept saying you're not acting like it.
"Trust me, I really am. I called my mom and told her, and she was happy that I got a job. ... I was super happy and just glad that process was over with."
Florida boy coming back home! Let's go!! https://t.co/dzTYneLkJC— Chris Thompson (@ChrisThompson_4) May 1, 2020
Thompson said he was confident about his future when free agency began but admitted the uncertainty got to him.
"I started thinking and was hoping my agent would call me with something done," he said. "I started stressing. My family, my girl, could all tell I started thinking about it more than before. When I stress I get quiet. I start zoning out. That happened a couple times."
Now that Thompson has a new team, he can point to another positive: playing closer to his mom and stepdad, who live in Greenville, Florida -- roughly 90 minutes from Jacksonville. Cynthia and Maurice James would previously try to attend at least one Redskins game every season. Thompson's move to Jacksonville gives the family a greater chance to make more games or simply spend more time together.
"I can make up for a lot of lost time, missing Christmases," he said. "Now I'm able to do that and have the holidays like old times. I'm excited about that. That was a big factor as well."
Thompson is now attending virtual meetings with Jaguars coaches and teammates and handling team paperwork that is sent to his iPad. Barb and Thompson are also searching for a new home in Florida -- and former Jaguars linebacker Kyle Bosworth is their real estate agent.
With the journey ending in his home state, Thompson is ready for what's next.
"Once I get moved in, then I'll be able to chill out and wrap my head around everything," he said. "But now that I'm with a new team, I'm good and I'm ready to go."