Staff Photo: Jason Braverman . Brookwood's Nick Tompkins
Fans at Brookwood Community Stadium probably saw Nick Tompkins at football games for years before he ever played a down for the varsity team.
Like the packs of other elementary and middle school students who attend Bronco games, he made the night a social event. Unlike the many of those kids, however, he also kept an eye on the field.
"I did a little bit of both," a laughing Tompkins said. "I watched the game for the first half and then I walked around back and hung out."
Those Bronco memories run deep for the standout, now a high school senior.
He has gone to Brookwood games as far back as he can remember, sporting the same No. 32 on his youth jersey that he currently wears on the varsity. Every down of football he's ever played, dating back to his 6- and 7-year-old team, has been as a Brookwood Bronco.
He's also been a running back every step of the way, so he envisioned himself carrying the ball as he watched past Brookwood running backs score touchdowns. He watched Chris Covington, Cameron Smith and Kenny Miles. He hoped that one day he would be the team's main guy.
Now he is.
"I always thought I'd love to be the Brookwood running back," Tompkins said. "I enjoyed watching those guys run and then I tried to do the same things they did at my (youth football) games on Saturday. They pumped me up for my games on Saturdays."
Tompkins did something last year that few other Bronco tailbacks (except Paul Freeman in 1996) can boast - he was the leading rusher on a state championship team.
After starting in the secondary as a sophomore, the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder made a huge offensive impact last season with his breakaway speed. He regularly reeled off long runs, averaging 8.3 yards per carry and rushing for 22 touchdowns.
He rushed for 1,890 yards despite averaging just 15.3 carries because of his heavy duty on defense. He shared the tailback role with then-sophomore Jamaal Cole, who rushed for 1,146 yards and 18 scores himself.
The big season still was way off the 2,544-yard school record set in 2007 by Miles (now at South Carolina) in 12 games. But Miles averaged 23 carries a game that season because he played only offense.
"Those two guys (Tompkins and Cole) have to be team guys," Brookwood head coach Mark Crews said. "Kenny Miles had all those yards, one of the best all-time in state history for yards gained in a season, and there's no doubt in my mind if Nick carried the ball that many times, he probably would have done the same and maybe gained 3,000 yards. So they've got to be unselfish guys who put the team first and that's Nick and Jamaal."
Though he was a team guy during the season, Tompkins had to think about himself a good bit in the offseason as he tackled recruiting. He spent plenty of time on the road to visit his favorite colleges, in addition to numerous visits to nearby Georgia Tech, the first school to offer him.
Tech, Michigan State and Maryland, three of his finalists, recruited him heavily as a running back, while Wisconsin and Stanford liked him at defensive back. He's been a lifelong Big Ten fan -- his father Reggie, also his youth football coach, played at Wisconsin -- and he regularly attended Wisconsin games growing up.
After months of thought, he committed to Michigan State, where he will join two of his former Brookwood teammates, A.J. Sims and Eric Yang.
"I just felt like they had the complete package," Tompkins said of Michigan State. "They've won Big 10 championships back to back. Coach (Mark) Dantonio is going to be there. The coaching staff was very honest with me, like here's what we can offer you. They weren't trying to flatter me. It just felt like home."
Tompkins is satisfied with his decision and just as importantly, is relieved to have it out of the way before his senior season. He's eager to get back to football and hopeful that the Broncos can match their success of a year ago despite some heavy graduation losses.
Other schools have emerged as state-title favorites in the preseason, so Tompkins gets the feeling that this season will start like the last, with not much expected from Brookwood.
"I still feel like we're kind of underdogs," Tompkins said. "Not a lot of people really believed in us last year. Since we lost Andre (Sims) and Cameron Lynch and those people, we really feel like we have to prove ourselves again. That's what we're going to go out and do. We're not going to go out and play like, 'Oh, we're champions.'
"We're going to go out there and play like we're trying to prove something. We're trying to win another championship and prove last year wasn't a fluke."