The trajectory of Kevin Thompson’s life took a solid turn the day he got his driver’s license. On the way home from passing the test, with his father buckled beside him in the passenger’s seat, Thompson witnessed a devastating, fatal accident. An impaired driver hit the car in front of Thompson and his father, killing the driver, a woman whose baby was also in the car.
“The images are still in my mind. My father was a fireman so he got out to help. I saw a woman trying to crawl out of the car with blood running down her arms. I don’t remember anything about the impaired driver, but I know after the EMTs got there I looked into his car and beers were pouring out everywhere,” says Thompson. “This was prior to cell phones. It was 1983 and I was excited to go home and tell my mom I passed. Within 30 minutes of getting my license I saw a fatality.”
Though Thompson admits to drinking a bit during his college years, he’s not had a drop since. For the past 27 years, he’s been the token designated driver for his circle of friends.
“The funny comment is that if you see a minivan in the hip area of town late at night, that’s Kevin,” he laughs.
That’s why, when friend Chris Modern suggested that he sign the pledge for the Designated Drivers Are Legendary campaign, it was a no-brainer, particularly since participation was an automatic entry into a statewide contest ideal for sports fans. The winner would enjoy a behind-the-scenes National Baseball Hall of Fame tour with New York Yankee Hall of Famer Goose Gossage. Thompson, an avid Yankees fan and local baseball coach, signed the pledge online thinking his chances were slim to none.
Designated Drivers Are Legendary, a campaign designed by Alliance Sport Marketing and in conjunction with STOP DWI New York, included on-site pledge collections at three minor league hockey games in Binghamton, Utica, and Albany, two minor league baseball games in Buffalo and Rochester, and a Syracuse Orange Basketball game. Along with online pledges, the campaign received thousands of signatures - fans agreeing to either drive sober or use a designated driver. The STOP DWI program, which stands for Special Traffic Options Program for Driving While Intoxicated, was created in 1981 to empower New York counties to coordinate local efforts to reduce alcohol and drug-related traffic accidents. Today the nonprofit receives federal funding to focus on training, education, and enforcement.
“Since the start of the program we’ve seen a significant decline in crashes, injuries, and fatalities from alcohol impaired driving. Alcohol is a drug and depressant. It slows your brain and body down, impairs your judgement, and causes crashes,” says Chris Marion, STOP DWI coordinator for Broome County and chair of the board of directors. “The problem is the increase of drugs other than alcohol. The younger generation understands alcohol but doesn’t connect it to meth, marijuana, and other drugs.”
Drugged driving differs from drunk driving in that substances react in the body with less predictability than alcohol. When one drinks alcohol, the body recognizes it as such and reactions tend to be textbook. Other drugs, such as heroine, become different chemicals in the body over time. While alcohol lasts in the body for an established state, every other drug is different when it comes to impairment length and severity.
When it came to the campaign, Marion says pairing STOP DWI’s efforts with sporting events was ideal.
“Sports and entertainment events relate very well because people consume more alcohol at those events. We have overlapping demographics, mostly male and younger, but also a good cross-section of demographics. We’re delivering the message to people when they need to hear it most,” he says. “People don’t wake up and decide to get hammered and go driving. Those decisions happen at the event. If we’re delivering our message at the moment when people make the decision, we’ll help them make the best decision.”
Though Thompson didn’t sign the pledge at a sporting event, he’s no stranger to ballparks. Winning the contest was a dream come true for the Monroe County resident.
“The Baseball Hall of Fame is somewhere I’ve gone many times. I actually submitted a piece of my own collection to the Hall of Fame, a Randy Johnson baseball hat. There was a part of the tour that was behind the scenes and there on a table was the hat,” says Thompson. “The last time I’d seen it was when I FedExed to them. That brought everything full circle for me.”
Upon learning that he won the contest, the first decision Thompson had to make was choosing who to take with him to Cooperstown. He and wife, Susan, have three children, a daughter Catelyn, 21, and two sons, Michael, 16, and Nicholas, 13. Fortunately, Thompson’s family members and friends didn’t have to draw straws. When schedules and interests sorted themselves out, Nicholas was the natural choice, even though he’s a Red Sox fan, just like the rest of the family.
“We actually met Goose last year during Induction Weekend and he took a photo with me and my boys. I brought it with me this time so he could sign it. It was funny, he wrote, ‘To Kevin, Best wishes to a great Yankee fan. What happened to your kids?’” Thompson laughs.
On Monday, July 31, Thompson and his son were picked up in a limousine, treated to breakfast, and driven to Cooperstown for the unforgettable day.
“We held Reggie Jackson’s 1974 World Series glove. We got to swing Honus Wagner’s bat,” he says. “We were holding history in our hands.”
One moment Thompson says he’ll never forget is actually in picture form. It’s a photograph he saw after the fact of Goose talking to Nicholas.
“Behind them is a painting of legendary manager Casey Stengel looking down at two little leaguers. How perfect is that?” says Thompson. “There was a lot of personal stuff for me for sure, but just seeing my son’s face and how they included him? I loved that he was the focus.
“I can’t say thank you enough,” he continues. “There were a lot of people who played a role in that day for my son and me. Who knows? Maybe the stars aligned this way.”