JASPER, Tenn. — Standing under an overcast sky, a slight breeze blowing across the Marion County football practice field, Jonathan Crompton surveyed the whirlwind of action taking place in front of him Thursday afternoon.
As more than 80 high school kids went through a list of drills, the former University of Tennessee quarterback nodded his head and smiled.
"Perfect day," said Crompton, never taking his eyes off the field. "I love this game, and especially at the high school level. I want to tell these kids to enjoy it, because this could be the last time in their lives that playing football will be this pure."
Players had come from more than a dozen high schools from Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama for a one-day instructional camp run by the staff of Reinhardt University. Besides catching passes, learning better blocking techniques and hoping to impress the college scouts, the players would also listen to a speech from Crompton, who had been invited to serve as the day's inspirational speaker and had chosen a subject he learned all too well during his UT career — how to handle adversity.
An Asheville, N.C., native, Crompton came to Tennessee after a celebrated prep career and was expected to become the next Heath Shuler. But instability on the offensive staff — he played for three different coordinators in four seasons — was a recipe for inconsistency and disappointment.
The frustration from the Vols fan base led some of the same people who had hailed his arrival as a freshman to eventually cross the line from rude to downright vicious, including one night after a loss when a stranger approached Crompton's mother and told her he hoped that Jonathan and the entire family would die in a car crash.
There were other similar verbal run-ins, some that escalated to the point of his family having to be protected from physical assault inside or near the stadium and more than one threat against Jonathan's safety. All of which created a wound that Crompton admitted still hasn't completely healed.
"I've only been back to Tennessee twice for games since I left," Crompton said. "'Animosity' is probably the best word for how I felt for a long time. I know it wasn't the majority of the fans, but there were enough examples that it really left a bad taste in my mouth. And I don't want to have that bad taste toward my alma mater anymore. I really don't.
"I could take it if they would just say things to me, but because they would yell things at my family, I developed a genuine dislike for that place. I'm not sure how to fix that, but there are so many people still there that I love and respect and would love to see.
"I still believe Tennessee has the number-one fan base in the country. It's just hard to forget some of the things that happened to me and my family while I was there."
Most of the incidents occurred during the disastrous 2008 season, Crompton's junior year, that began with soaring expectations after an SEC East title the year before but ended with just the second losing record in 20 years and longtime head coach Phillip Fulmer being fired.
The next year, under Lane Kiffin, Crompton lived up to the expectations, throwing for more than 2,800 yards — double his career totals from the three previous seasons — with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
"I know there are a lot of Tennessee fans who don't like him because he left, but Coach Kiffin was one of the best coaches I ever played for at any level," Crompton said. "I would've run through a wall for him. He did a lot to help me develop as a quarterback."
Crompton was drafted in the fifth round by the Chargers and had playing stints with the Patriots, Redskins and Buccaneers before playing for three years in the Canadian Football League. He has since retired from playing to open his own real estate company in Asheville.
But the lure from the game he has played since he was 7 years old still tugs at him from time to time, and as he stood on the sideline Thursday, he admitted he often thinks of getting back into it.
"I would want to coach at this level, work with high school kids," Crompton said as he pointed toward a pack of kids catching wobbly spirals. "I still get excited and want to jump around and be a part of it, because we're all big kids just playing a game we love. That's the part I do miss."
Tattooed over his right shoulder is the verse from Jeremiah 29:11: "For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Crompton admitted his faith was tested during his first three years at UT, but he wanted to have his favorite Bible verse inked onto his throwing shoulder as a reminder of perseverance and, as he passed along to the high school players who hung on his every word, the importance of overcoming adversity and finding hope in the future.
"I don't think there's been another player at Tennessee who had to deal with some of the things me and my family did," Crompton said. "I went through all those things in college for a reason. It was tough, but it made me appreciate that I have a good family that loves me and supports me, even during some really tough times.
"Maybe I can finally get past all the negative things and feel good about going back to visit Tennessee. I hope I can."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him in Twitter @StephenHargis
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