Darrell Thompson: Bolder Options

A mentoring program run by Plymouth resident and former Gophers great Darrell Thompson steps out of the norm to help troubled youth.
Former Gophers (and yes, Packers) star Darrell Thompson, right, with a mentor/mentee pair at a recent graduation ceremony.

During the offseason as a Green Bay Packers running back, Darrell Thompson would return to his alma mater state of Minnesota and call on troubled youth to make positive impacts in their communities.

Once he hung up the green and gold jersey in the mid-1990s, the Plymouth resident heeded his own advice.

“I wanted to do something for young people,” says Thompson, one of the greatest University of Minnesota football players of all time. “A lot of people, they have different callings, and for me it was getting involved with young people to shape or mold them. That was in my heart and in my mind. That’s why I got involved with Bolder Options.”

Instead of providing speeches, Thompson began to lead by example. In 1998, he became executive director of the non-traditional nonprofit youth mentoring group that hosts operations in Minneapolis, St. Paul and his hometown of Rochester, Minn.

Bolder Options, which draws its name from a similar program in Boulder, Colo., began in 1993 with six mentees in a three-month program and has grown to 280 children enrolled in a year-long course in 2010. Among other honors, Bolder Options was featured on NBC’s Today Show with Al Roker in 2006.

“It’s far more than I ever envisioned,” Thompson says.

Thompson, himself a father of four, touts that Bolder Options has a success rate 20 percent above the national average for mentoring programs because of an intensive curriculum that includes more face time between mentor and mentee and fewer totals of individuals given to case workers. The mentor and mentee focus on goal setting, physical fitness, life lessons and community service.

Graham Hartley, a Bolder Options mentor for six years, is a part of the organization because of the impact mentors had on his life. His understanding of the needs of inner-city kids as a former teacher and current administrator for an the educational nonprofit are a big bonus.

“I’ve seen it have a real positive impact with kids,” says Hartley, a father of two. “It’s enjoyable for me to participate and good for my kids to see me volunteer in a mentoring program that helps other kids.”

Thompson, who rushed for more than 4,600 yards as a Gophers player, is uniquely skilled to run a mentoring group that includes sports such as running and biking, yet isn’t reliant on these pastimes.

“It’s a facet of the program, because everyone should do something physical, and it gives our mentors something to do,” Thompson says. “A lot of times [with other mentor groups], its just ‘hang out’—mentors don’t have a curriculum and don’t have any activities for the kids. With Bolder Optoins, we bike with them, do group activities, cook food, and talk nutrition, healthy habits, sexuality and goal setting.”

Yet Thompson, also a radio commentator for Gophers football, will always be tied to sports. He gets in front of Rotary groups because they want him to talk about his glory days as a Gophers or Packers player, or about his insights into the Vikings, but he uses it as an in to talk about mentoring.

“It’s a one-two punch,” says Thompson, always with a sports reference at the ready.

It was Thompson’s role as coach of Denise Sartor’s son’s baseball team that turned the Plymouth mom and Maple Grove salon owner on to his infectious and warm personality as well as the positives of his program.

“He takes troubled youth that might be varying off track, and he brings them back on track, and I love that perspective, because youth need a lot of adult mentors,” Sartor says. “He is a really warm, energetic person, really personable. I felt like I knew him right away. He’s the type of person you feel like you’ve known for a long time.”


To get involved with Bolder Options, call 612.379.2653.