Long before he achieved stardom as a defensive lineman at North Carolina from 1977-80 and for 11 seasons in the National Football League, Donnell Thompson was a business man.
"I used to cut grass and wash cars to earn my own spending cash,'' Thompson said. "So, if you were to ask me how long I've been in business, I'd say since I was eight years old.''
Thompson, 54, has used that entrepreneurial spirit to build a mini-business empire since his playing days ended in 1991 with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts.
He has successfully owned and run a string of restaurant franchises, been a hotel developer, and created his own construction company.
The most recent business ventues have seen Thompson join former Tar Heel teammate Ron Wooten build and run franchises for Denny's restaurants in Fayetteville, Durham and Greensboro.
The first of those has already opened to great success on Raeford Road in Fayetteville, which is just 30 minutes North up I-95 from Lumberton, where Thompson's business and football careers got off the ground.
A 6-foot-5 athlete who had the agility of a running back, Thompson caught the attention of Coach Bill Dooley's coaching staff at North Carolina at Lumberton High School.
He played on the defensive line and at fullback in a triple-option attack for the Pirates from 1974-76, and earned a spot on North Carolina's Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas team as a senior.
It was during the Shrine Bowl experience that Thompson first met Wooten, who would go on to become an All-American and All-Atlantic Coast Conference offensive guard at UNC.
"We have been dear friends with his family ever since,'' Thompson said. "His wife, Ann, went to Carolina with us.''
Wooten and Thompson would be part of two ACC championship squads at North Carolina. The first occurred during their freshman season in 1977, the last the Tar Heels would play under Dooley.
UNC went 8-3-1 overall and 5-0-1 in the ACC in '77 to edge out Clemson for the conference championship.
Thompson and Wooten were letterwinners on that squad, but the lessons learned that season watching the work habits of veterans like Buddy Curry, Rod Broadway, Dee Hardison, Ricky Barden, David Simmons, Bobby Cale, Doug Paschal and others would set the tone for another ACC title in 1980.
"All those guys were remarkable people to follow because they showed us the way to succeed,'' Thompson said. "They, as a senior class, trained the younger players. They taught us how to conduct ourselves, they taught us not to concentrate on me or I, but to think about the team first. We saw them going to class and graduating.
"When I reflect on the most important things I learned at Carolina, I think about the lessons those seniors taught the underclassmen. I think it set the tone for the ACC championship we would win later, and beyond.''
The Tar Heels would slip to 5-6 in 1978 under first-year head coach Dick Crum. But they improved to 8-3-1 in 1979, capping the year with a 17-15 triumph in the Gator Bowl against Michigan.
A lineup featuring some of the best players in UNC football history would produce one of the greatest seasons ever for the Tar Heels in 1980.
They would roll undefeated through the ACC (6-0) and finish 11-1 overall, their only loss coming at midseason against national powerhouse Oklahoma on the road (41-7). UNC closed the year with a 16-7 triumph against Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
The offense that year featured dynamic running backs in "Famous'' Amos Lawrence and Kelvin Bryant, plus an offensive front led by Wooten and center Rick Donnalley.
All four are regarded as among the best to have played their positions at North Carolina.
But it was the defensive unit that really stood out with players like Thompson, defensive lineman Harry Stanback, safety Steve Streater, outside linebacker Calvin Daniels, safety Greg Poole and an outside linebacker named Lawrence Taylor dominating opposing offenses.
"There's no question we had some talent you don't normally see on one team,'' Thompson said. "It was one of those teams we could have played anybody on a given Sunday, and as a defense we probably could have held up.''
Thompson said in addition to talent that the Tar Heels were a mentally strong team in 1980.
He gives credit to Crum for helping develop that mental toughness by exposing the Tar Heels to what was then a new innovation in college athletics - a sports psychologist.
"I remember in the summer sessions before my senior year, Dick Crum brought in this psychologist,'' Thompson said. "The psychologist talked specifically about mental toughness. He talked about how many times as youngsters we are challenged with things physically, but told us really good players had to be just as tough mentally.
"That's what Dick Crum was best at - getting between your ears and making you believe something could happen that you never thought was possible. When that season started, we firmly believed we couldn't lose a game and that nobody would score on us. Coach Crum deserves a lot of credit for that.''
Thompson earned All-ACC honors that season playing defensive tackle for the Tar Heels and was later selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts.
But even Thompson acknowledges the pulse of that UNC defense was Taylor, who collected 16 quarterback sacks and earned ACC Player of the Year honors.
"There is no question, I've never seen a better defensive football player in the world,'' Thompson said. "Offenses changed their entire schemes because of Lawrence Taylor. We were fortunate to have been able to play with him because we played with a legend. He'll be talked about until the end. His football overshadows anything that has happened in his personal life.
"He was a great guy and had a great personality. He was fun to be around. I do think whenever history is told, it'll tell the story of the type of football player he really was.''
Taylor would be the second overall pick in the 1981 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, and Thompson went 18th to Baltimore. Thompson went on to a stellar career in which he started 143 of 146 games he played at defensive end for the Colts. He retired at age 33 after the 1991 season in which he ranked fifth on the Colts in tackles (76) and shared the team lead with five sacks. Thompson ended his NFL career with 40 total sacks.
Although he didn't earn the multi-million dollar salaries of today's NFL players, Thompson smartly invested his pro paychecks into a partnership with the McDonald's corporation and opened up six of the fast-food chain restaurants in the Atlanta area after his retirement.
"I was smart enough to save a few pennies along the way,'' Thompson said.
Thompson operated the franchises for eight years before selling them back to McDonald's. He turned the profits from that endeavor into Thompson Hospitality LLC, which was involved in projects ranging from developing, constructing and running hotels to commercial work for larger general contractors.
Thompson moved his base of operations from Atlanta to the Research Triangle in 2002 and has been there since, although he does split time between there and a family home in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Working in close proximity to Chapel Hill has allowed Thompson to watch the events surrounding North Carolina's football program in recent years.
Although disappointed in some of the issues that have plagued UNC, he sees a bright future under new head coach Larry Fedora.
"I think we kind of got a little confused about the kind of athlete and coaches we went after,'' Thompson said. "Everybody is not a Carolina person. Even if you run the fastest or jump the highest, it doesn't mean you should be admitted to Chapel Hill. Character should come first."
"Maybe I'm old fashion, but where I come from men get hair cuts. Where I come from men put their shirt tails in their pants and don't let their pants sag. There are basic things when you step off a plane representing the University of North Carolina you should know. If you can't follow certain standards, you need to go back home."
"We're talking about character here."
"I think now, with our new athletic director and new coach, we are going to get back to preparing young men for life, not just for football. That's what we should be about," Thompson continued.
"We may not win the ACC now and then doing things that way. But I'd rather be competitive and also have some character. I hope that's what we're getting back to.''