One of the most decorated athletes to graduate from a San Francisco public school this century will be playing in the biggest game of his life on Sunday.
McLeod Bethel-Thompson, a 2006 Balboa graduate who went on to play quarterback at UCLA and Sacramento State, is starting at quarterback this Sunday for the Toronto Argonauts in the 109th Grey Cup, the championship game of the Canadian Football League (CFL)—also known as the "Canadian Super Bowl."
Bethel-Thompson’s Argonauts advanced to the title game with a 34-27 win over the Montreal Alouettes in the Eastern Division Final, in which he completed 19 of 27 passes for 299 yards and a pair of touchdowns. They’ll take on the back-to-back reigning champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers at 3 p.m. on Sunday at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan. The game will be televised to American audiences on ESPN2.
“It’s a weeklong festival,” the 34-year-old said. “There’s fans from every team and a lot of media. It’s part of the Canadian culture.”
It’s a culture he’s fully embraced in six years north of the border. The switch from American to Canadian football was simple enough; most of the differences are relatively minor, such as the inability for kick returners to call for a fair catch or rules about which offensive players can be in motion when the ball is snapped. The most significant differences are in the number of downs (Canadian football has just three) and the field dimensions (110 yards long, rather than 100, with goalposts at the front of a 20-yard end zone, rather than at the back of a 10-yard zone).
After graduating from Sac State, Bethel-Thompson spent six years bouncing around NFL practice squads, including three separate stints with the 49ers. He was the Minnesota Vikings’ third-string quarterback for 2012 and the first four games of the 2013 season, but never appeared in a game.
Bethel-Thompson turned to Canada in 2016, originally joining the Blue Bombers’ practice squad. He signed with the Argos the following year after playing in The Spring League, a developmental league that showcased players but offered no salaries. Toronto then lined him up on defense during the 2017 preseason and eventually kept him around as a fourth quarterback, a decision that paid off in 2018. With starter Ricky Ray, another Sac State alum, out injured and backup James Franklin struggling, Bethel-Thompson made eight starts. He was behind Franklin on the depth chart to begin the 2019 season but flip-flopped throughout the season.
“It’s been a blessing. You can look at it as a difficult journey with a lot of nos, or you can look at it as a great journey,” he said. “The time for perspective is afterwards, hopefully when we’re hoisting that cup.”
In 2020, the CFL season was canceled, and Bethel-Thompson once again appeared in The Spring League before rejoining the Argonauts. He regained his spot as QB1 after battling with Nick Arbuckle early in the 2021 season, and he’s started all 18 regular season games and the Eastern Final in 2022. In the regular season, he threw for 4,731 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead Toronto to an 11-7 record and the top spot in the Eastern Division.
Bethel-Thompson’s journey down unusual roads started long before he got to the CFL. Rather than attend one of San Francisco’s esteemed private high schools, he spent three years at Balboa after completing his freshman year of high school in an independent study program that allowed him to travel to play baseball and soccer.
“I’m so, so happy that I went to Balboa,” he said. “I learned so much in my three years there.”
The gap between SF’s public and private schools is more evident on the football field than it is in any other area, but Bethel-Thompson still drew Division I attention under head coach Keith Minor, who now coaches at Moreau Catholic in Hayward. Before initially signing with UCLA, Bethel-Thompson also drew interest from Stanford.
“Maybe I could have gone somewhere that had better gear or more coaches, but I love that community,” he said. “I’m a Buc for life.”
While Bethel-Thompson competes in the Grey Cup, where temperatures are expected to sit in the high 20s at kickoff and only drop as the night goes on, his high school is gearing up to defend its city championship. Balboa will face Lincoln in the 98th Turkey Day Game on Thanksgiving, with an 11 a.m. kickoff at Kezar Stadium. Bethel-Thompson played in the game as both a sophomore and a junior, losing to Lowell in 2004 and Lincoln in 2005. Balboa’s 21-0 victory in last year championship was the school’s first since 1984.
Bethel-Thompson plans to extend his professional career for as long as possible, but a return to his old stomping grounds could be possible after his playing days are over. He maintains contact with current Balboa head coach Fred Velasquez and routinely visits his alma mater during the offseason.
“I love the Bay Area, and I love the football culture there,” he said.
He also attained a master’s in education from UC Berkeley in 2020, which pairs with his master’s in history from Sac State.
“There’s definitely more schooling ahead. I’m interested in sports psychology,” he commented. “Football’s been my life since I was 6, and it’s a great way to teach you about life’s ups and downs.”