VALDOSTA – Every four years, college football teams transform.
Whether that means there’s a new coach running the show, a new quarterback getting a shot or a brand new crop of players wearing that same set of numbers from 0-99, those teams always transform.
But with a smidge of luck (and a global pandemic), some players will come through that transform football programs and leave their mark forever.
For Valdosta State football, the 2022 season was not the year they had hoped for. The 2021 national championship runner-ups finished 5-6 on the season and at one point, came perilously close to a historic losing streak.
But for seniors Ivory Durham, Seth McGill and Jamar Thompkins – the final holdovers from the Blazers’ 2018 national championship team – 2022 saw them put a final footnote on their historic college careers.
Most importantly, the Blazers’ “Big Three” went out with a 30-28 win over Shorter in the season finale Nov. 12.
“For me and the guys, it was very emotional because we came in winners and we wanted to go out winners,” Thompkins said. “Now we’re leaving a good taste in the underclassmen’s mouths so they can keep it going.”
The game will be remembered as the day Thompkins busted a 66-yard touchdown run with 7:30 remaining in the second quarter to break Cedric O’Neal’s career rushing record.
“He’ll tell you that I told him on that drive, ‘You better go get it now. You should go get it right now, man,’” VSU head coach Tremaine Jackson said. “He was able to do that. Jamar’s been lights out. He’s had some unfortunate fumbles and things in the past that have kind of made his career look bad maybe, but you’re talking about a dude that’s the all-time leading rusher at a place like Valdosta State. The history and tradition and the amount of great players that have come through here, he sits atop of that list now and that’s phenomenal.
“We’re going to use it in recruiting. I’m going to say I coached him and we’re going to try to find the next Jamar Thompkins. We will always compare running backs in this program to, ‘Is he the next Jamar Thompkins?’ I think that’s special at a place like ours.”
Thompkins now stands alone with 4,151 yards rushing and stands tied for third all-time in rushing touchdowns with 36 – sharing the mark with Dominique Ross (1992-94).
“It means I’m the greatest,” Thompkins said when asked what the record means to him. “It’s what I’ve been working for since I got here. When I got here, they gave me a list of things I should accomplish while I’m here, so that was the last thing that was on the list and I’m happy to get it crossed off.”
Thompkins and his backfield brother McGill arrived at VSU at the same time – freshmen on the Blazers’ 2018 title team. Throughout their careers, both have held the mantle as the Blazers’ top back.
Despite splitting carries their entire careers, no one was happier to see Thompkins set the record than McGill.
“It was great to see him break it because all the hard work he put in through practice all the year,” McGill said. “I’m proud of him.”
McGill can be at peace knowing he too is going down as one of the greatest running backs in Blazer football history.
The 5-foot-9 back played in 50 games for the Blazers, carrying the ball 571 times for 3,369 carries – good for fourth all-time in career rushing yards. McGill’s 42 rushing touchdowns is the second-most all-time behind O’Neal’s 49.
“It’s pretty special to end on a W,” McGill said. “As a senior, you want to go out with a win so it felt really good. … It means a lot. It’s very special to know that you’re a part of something special. To be a part of Valdosta State University, it’s really a great thing.
“It’s been a ride, I can tell you that. The legacy I think we’re leaving is a good legacy for us and all the young running backs in our room to follow and hopefully, they break our records and more.”
Ivory Durham’s journey as a Blazer saw him go from a game-breaking change of pace athlete as a freshman to one of the best leaders at quarterback the Blazers have ever had.
Like McGill and Thompkins, Durham was another freshman out of Florida that chose the Blazers as his college home.
Durham finishes his VSU career as one of the most prolific dual-threat quarterbacks in school history – throwing for 6,804 yards with 69 touchdowns and 19 interceptions along with 2,403 yards rushing and 27 more touchdowns.
In the Blazer record books, Durham ranks in the top ten in five different categories. He ranks fifth all-time in passing yardage, tied with former teammate Rogan Wells for third all-time in passing touchdowns, sixth allt-ime in career rushing touchdowns, tenth all-time in career rushing yards and seventh all-time in career completions with 476.
Durham capped his Blazer career by leading a game-winning drive against Shorter that ended in an Estin Thiele 25-yard field goal with 1:31 left.
“It was a great feeling – just the moment was special, everything about it,” Durham said of leading the game-winning drive. “This day, waking up and knowing this is your last game as a Blazer is special. I’m blessed and I’m thankful that I came here.”
In a poignant moment on the sideline, Durham was embraced for several seconds by Jackson – the first-year head coach of the Blazers and Durham’s third head coach in his college career.
“I told him thank you,” Jackson said about his embrace with Durham after the game. “I don’t think we tell our players thank you enough. I came here 11 months ago. The dude didn’t know me from a can of paint and he had done more than me in this program and he accepted me and today’s player, I think you need to be appreciative of that because he’s bought into everything we were doing.
“We’ve had our struggles. He’s a young man – we haven’t had any arguments, but we’ve had our discussions on things and that kid has done everything we’ve asked him to do. Really that embrace was just sorry to see him go, but really excited about his future.”
Durham added: “It was great (to end on a win). My brother Jamar is the king of running backs as we know it. I’m happy for him. I’m happy for us seniors going out with a bang, pretty much just being here our freshman year and sticking it out through it all. I’m just happy for us as a whole and as individuals.
“Now they come back and have this confidence off of a win. Hopefully, that just sparks something in them. I just told them to learn from the mistakes we made this year and capitalize off them. If they do that, the Valdosta State Blazers should be back on top.”
Durham, along with Thompkins and McGill, was brought in by head coach Kerwin Bell. After winning the national championship in 2018, Bell left to join Charlie Strong’s staff as an offensive coordinator at the University of South Florida.
Enter former Blazer Gary Goff, who returned to lead the school that he played for from 1993-96 under then-coach Hal Mumme. Under Goff, the Blazers went 22-3 from 2019-21 and played for the national title in 2021.
Dealing with three different head coaches and a pandemic was not easy for Blazers’ Big Three. With the establishment of the transfer portal and loosened restrictions on players switching schools as well as an extra year of eligibility being granted in lieu of the pandemic, any one of the three could have opted to control their destiny and find a new place to shine like the two coaches they played for at the start of their careers.
“It’s just us sticking it out,” Durham said. “That’s why I have so much faith and trust in those guys that have been playing with me. We started with Coach Bell, then Coach Goff and now Coach Jackson and we trusted them throughout anything, so that was just a blessing for us to stay and stick it out and that was the last one and it is what it is now. It’s time to get to the next level.”
Thompkins added: “It actually turned out to be helpful because it gave me more insights of the game. It gave me different techniques that I could use, different plays. So I’m grateful that we had three coaches. I wish we didn’t have to have that, but I’m grateful for it.”
With Durham, McGill and Thompkins in the fold, the Blazers went 41-9 with two national championship appearances and one title. The 2018 team was also the only one in program history to complete a perfect season at 14-0.
Each player leaves a legacy to be remembered on the field, in the community and in the record books.
“Us leaving…damn, we’re leaving,” Thompkins said, realizing he’d played his last game as a Blazer. “This legacy that we’re leaving is going to be big. It’s going to help bring in guys just like us or better than us and help this program out hopefully. But us three, we’re the three-headed GOATs so for them to get there, it’s going to take a little work.”
VALDOSTA – Every four years, college football teams transform.