MANHATTAN — From the time Skylar Thompson stepped on the practice field for spring drills last March, he felt as if he had a new lease on life.
When it came to his Kansas State football career, he certainly did.
The Wildcats had a new coach, Chris Klieman, who took over after Bill Snyder retired at the end of the 2018 season, bringing to an end the most successful era in school football history. For Thompson, it also signaled the end to a tumultuous redshirt sophomore season in which K-State went 5-7 and failed to reach a bowl game for the first time in nine years.
It left Thompson questioning his own future in the program.
"After last year, there were times where how I was playing or what was going on during the season, it was defining me," said Thompson, who had won the starting job after a months-long battle with junior Alex Delton, yet never really felt secure in his position. "There were times when I had no idea what my future was going to consist of here, if I was going to be here or not."
Enter Klieman, who was coming off a wildly successful run as head coach at North Dakota State, where he won four FCS national championships in five years. Not only had Klieman tried to recruit Thompson out of Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo., but shortly after arriving he effectively handed him the keys to the K-State offense.
With Delton moving on as a graduate transfer — he ended up at TCU, K-State's opponent next Saturday at Bill Snyder Family Stadium — Thompson was the clear choice from the start.
"It's just a confidence thing," Thompson said after K-State's spring showcase in April. "It feels good to have a feeling that my coaches and teammates believe in me and trust me. It gives me a lot of confidence.
"It gives me a lot of confidence to go make plays and not second-guess myself and never look over my shoulder."
That was not often the case during the 2018 season, where despite starting the first four games, he still had Delton's shadow lurking over him. In the second half of the Big 12 opener at West Virginia, Snyder pulled Thompson in the second half of a 35-6 loss and started Delton the following week against Texas.
Thompson constantly was looking over his shoulder, as well as second-guessing himself. The game that had served as a refuge during hard times had become a burden.
But with Klieman and offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham both expressing full confidence in him, Thompson's own confidence grew. It also led him to do some soul-searching and eventually come to the conclusion that there was more to life than football.
"I don't exactly know how to put it into words, but the way I shouldered last year, it was pretty tough on me," Thompson said the week before K-State's season opener against Nicholls. "It was a hard time, but I gained a lot from that time in my life and I learned a lot about myself. I think that's the biggest thing going into this season.
"I realize how much of an opportunity and gift that this game is and it's something I take really seriously and have worked for my entire life — moments like this.
"But being a quarterback doesn't define who I am and I think that's the biggest thing that I've learned in the past six months of my life, that this game is really important to me, but it's not who I am and it doesn't define the person who I am and I can't allow that to define me."
Senior defensive back Denzel Goolsby, Thompson's roommate and probably his closest confidant on the team, saw a gradual change in his friend.
"I see both sides of him, so I see who he is at home as a roommate, and then I see who he is here at Vanier (Football Complex) and how he shows up to practice every single day," Goolsby said. "So I think for him, one of the biggest things is he just seems a lot more free-minded and a lot more clear-hearted with everything that he does.
"I know at times in the past it seemed like he was putting a lot of pressure on himself, like he can't make mistakes. Now I think he's just been able to go out and attack everything a lot more, knowing that he's going to be the guy for us, and the team completely welcomes him and puts themselves around him like that's our go-to guy, that's our leader and we're all in on him and he's all in on us."
In addition to a greater self-confidence, Thompson also experienced something of a spiritual awakening during the offseason.
"I've turned over my life to God. I was baptized this summer and I just feel so much more free and lifted up and I'm not going to have any regrets," Thompson said. "That's one thing I've told myself going into this season and in my life in general moving forward, is I'm going to live my life to the fullest and I'm going to be myself and I'm not going to hold back on that.
"My dad raised me, and Denzel talked about this too: 'People are going to remember you for the person you are more so than the football player.' They're not going to remember that touchdown you threw — they might — but hypothetically they're not going to remember that touchdown you threw or whatever the case may be. They're going to remember the person you were and how you interacted with the fan base or just the person at the gas station, things like that."
Thompson's father, Brad, said he has seen a change in his son this year, as well.
"I think Skylar's always been committed to that program and worked his tail off," Brad Thompson said. "When Coach Klieman came in, after the first meeting and telling him he was the quarterback and the leader of this team and having an opportunity to run this team, Skylar just got really excited about this program and just dove in."
Brad also credited Collin Klein, Thompson's position coach and himself a former K-State quarterback, for helping his son find some peace of mind.
"I did see that through this process, too," Brad said. "(Skylar) got baptized and I'd say Coach Klein has been one of the biggest influences on him since he's been there, because he really respects him as a person.
"As a father to a son, I'm glad to see that he's found a peace and that he's more comfortable in his own shoes. He's got a great circle of friends surrounding him that have just allowed him to grow as a person, and I've enjoyed watching it."
It helped that K-State rolled through its first three games and Thompson excelled in blowout victories against Nicholls and Bowling Green at home, then led the Wildcats to a 31-24 come-from-behind road victory at Mississippi State.
"People who know my story, football has always been my rock," said Thompson, who lost his mother to breast cancer in 2004 at the age of 6. "It's always gotten me through hard times and has always been my escape to kind of show my raw emotion and passion toward life. But coming to the Lord and understanding that and putting him first before any of my wants and needs has completely just freed my soul and I can just go be myself and not try to be a people-pleaser and not try all that extra stuff.
"It's just serving my teammates and doing the best that I can to help this team win, but understanding that whether I win or lose or how I play, that doesn't define who Skylar Thompson is. That's the greatest asset that I've come upon this season in my life."
That was Sept. 17, during a bye week following the Mississippi State game. The Wildcats were riding high and even cracked the Associated Press national rankings at No. 24. Then came two straight losses to open Big 12 play — 26-13 at Oklahoma State and 31-12 last Saturday at home to Baylor.
Thompson had a rough game against Oklahoma State, completing 11 of 23 passes for 118 yards while under constant pressure from the Cowboys' defense. He was a little sharper in the Baylor game, completing 13 of 24 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown, but the Wildcats reached the end zone just once.
Still, Klieman's confidence in Thompson has never wavered.
"He's a winner," Klieman has said time and again, as have Thompson's teammates.
After the Baylor game, Thompson clearly took the losses hard, but remained resolute.
"Any time you lose, it's never fun," he said. "It definitely hurts. We're all frustrated, obviously, but it's part of the game sometimes, part of the journey, and we've just really got to buckle down, man, and focus on what we need to work on, our mistakes, and have a great couple of weeks.
"This bye week we've really got to improve and just get better at a lot of different things. I truly believe that our team just didn't stop fighting. I don't think giving up or that kind of stuff is an issue."
If the two losses had shattered his confidence, Thompson did not let on.
"I’m shouldering a lot of it with my position, playing quarterback," he said. "I’m taking ownership in everything. If you want to blame the loss, blame it on me.
"I threw an interception (his first of the season). I fumbled the ball. I could have played better (and) that's my fault."
He sounded at once determined and defiant.
"I want that ownership — put it on me," he said. "I'll carry that and handle that and take this weight off this team. I've been down this road.
"I've had people tell me I'm the worst quarterback ever and I'm the best quarterback ever. I understand how it goes when everything's going great and people love you and when everything's not going great, people hate you. That's how it goes."
He lived it just last year and at times it ate him up. Thompson insisted that things are different now.
"I've been fortunate to have some experiences and been around the block a couple of times and that stuff doesn't faze me," he said. "I'm going to be fine and this team's going to be fine, I promise. Nobody said this was going to be easy.
"I'm doing my best to lead this team and I'm giving it my absolute best. I'm doing the best I can every opportunity I get out there. Sometimes you just come up short, but at the end of the day that's what makes the story and journey great, overcoming adversity — and we're going to overcome it."
Looking back to the previous bye week, he clearly was determined to recapture the joy he felt through the first three games. And he repeated some words of wisdom from his quarterback coach.
"I've always had fun playing football, but I've never had fun like this before," he said then. "This game is meant to be fun and in years past, obviously I was stressed out — I've got to play so good, I've got to do this, I've got to do that.
"Coach Klein, before every game, he always tells me that, 'Your best is always good enough,' and I think that says it all."