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  • McLeod Bethel-Thompson

  • Thompson family photo Wilbur Thompson, grandfather of 49ers backup quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, won the 1948 Olympic shot put in London.

49ers' backup QB has special link to London

Published: Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013 - 3:20 pm

LONDON – McLeod Bethel-Thompson knows the stories about the gold medal his grandfather keeps in an old leather case in his closet and takes out only when someone asks to see it.

Wilbur "Moose" Thompson won it on a drizzly afternoon 65 years ago when he squatted low, sprang forward and heaved a 16-pound metal ball farther than anyone else in the shot put that day.

It's where Thompson, now 93 and living in Long Beach, made his throw that has special interest to Bethel-Thompson, the son of his daughter Patricia.

He did it at the 1948 London Olympics at the former Wembley Stadium. That facility, the site of five European Cup soccer finals and the 1966 World Cup final, was torn down in 2003 and replaced in 2007 by the new Wembley, a 90,000-seat stadium where Bethel-Thompson and the 49ers will play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday.

It will be his second visit this season. Bethel-Thompson, who played at Sacramento State, was the Vikings' third-string quarterback last month when they beat the Steelers at Wembley. He has the same role with the 49ers.

"The last time I was there, I thought about what he's endured and overcome in his life," Bethel-Thompson said of his grandfather. "I'll think about him for sure, pray for him."

Sunday's game, and the run-up to it, will be filled with NFL-style pomp and circumstance.

There will be a rally featuring a member of NFL royalty, Joe Montana, on Saturday at Trafalgar Square. More than 80,000 flag-waving fans will fill Wembley, the largest crowd many 49ers players have had for a game. About 2 million Britons watched last month's game on television, and more could tune in Sunday considering the 49ers are the third-most-popular NFL team here behind the Patriots and Dolphins.

It will be a pageant of plenty in stark contrast to the 1948 Olympics.

The previous two Games had been canceled by World War II and the world, Europe in particular, still was struggling after the six-year conflict. In a phone interview, Thompson, who is dealing with congestive heart failure, recalled that London had been bombed just a few years earlier.

"They were still rationing food," he said. "And they were still cleaning up the bomb damage."

Those Olympics came to be known as the Austerity Games.

Thompson spent three years in the Army before he began training for the Games while working a part-time job as a laborer at the Hollywood Bowl and studying part time at USC. He had his first child in 1947.

There was no Olympic Village when he and the American team arrived in England. The athletes slept on cots in an old air force barracks. Food was rationed, but in the spirit of the Olympics, everything was shared, even among competitors. Bottles of Burgundy brought by the French were passed from athlete to athlete.

On the morning of the competition, Thompson's pre-Games meal consisted of a small watercress sandwich. He said he lost weight while in London and estimated he was about 175 pounds on the day of his 56-foot, 2-inch toss, which broke the Olympic record by 3 feet.

In contrast, the man who won the shot put in the most recent Olympics, Poland's Tomasz Majewski, weighs 313 pounds and had a throw of 71-10.

When Thompson returned to the United States, there were no parades and only a few interviews. He tucked the gold medal away and went about his life.

He doesn't begrudge today's athletes the attention they receive compared to 1948. It was a different time, he said.

But Sunday's game gives his grandson a chance to redirect the NFL's klieg lights onto a long-forgotten event and a seldom-discussed gold medal.

After the Olympics, Thompson earned an engineering degree and raised a family, and Bethel-Thompson said the gold medal never defined his grandfather.

Still, it's nice to brag about your grandpa every now and then.

"He's a proud man, but a humble man," Bethel-Thompson said. "He'd never bring attention to himself. There aren't a lot of people around who remember those Olympics."

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320.

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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