Putting ‘journey’ in Journeyman: Sac State quarterback catches on in Canada

How McLeod Bethel-Thompson kept his football dream alive for 17 years


Pins on a map represent different stops in former Sacramento State quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s professional playing career. He has played organized football for 20 years, professionally for 12. Photo: (L-R) Ezra Wright, Getty images, Bob Butrym. Graphic made in Canva by Isaac Streeter

Isaac Streeter

McLeod Bethel-Thompson has played professional football across four leagues, nine teams and 13 stops in 12 years.

He spent five years split among two different colleges before graduating from Sac State — that’s how long it’s taken him to earn the helm as a bonafide starting quarterback. 

Now, with the reins finally in his hands, he stands atop the Canadian Football League as a champion with the Toronto Argonauts.

“I felt vindicated,” Bethel-Thompson said. “I’m not a crazy person. I really am good at this game” 

Bethel-Thompson’s journey started at Balboa High School in San Francisco, where he picked up the sport as a sophomore. The game came to him easily and shortly; he was named the starting varsity quarterback by Balboa’s then-head coach, Keith Minor.

“On the first day of practice, you always have six or seven kids show up who believe they can play quarterback,” Minor said. “[Bethel-Thompson’s] arm talent was elite at 15-years-old.” 

Bethel-Thompson’s high school success granted him a preferred walk-on offer to UCLA, which he accepted.

Following a redshirt year in 2006, Bethel-Thompson split the starting reps in 2007. 

After UCLA’s head coach was fired, Bethel-Thompson was advised to transfer and ended up on the radar of Sacramento State. 

“It was the hardest three years of my life, to be honest,” Bethel-Thompson said. “[My time at] Sac State was really disappointing.” 

He spent time in-and-out of the starting role, suffered two injuries and ended his college football career in 2010 with little to show for it.

Despite the lack of on-field success as a Hornet, the following fall, Bethel-Thompson found himself on the San Francisco 49ers preseason roster. 

The 2011 NFL season saw a players union lockout and the 49ers organization was looking for local quarterbacks to come in and throw; Bethel-Thompson fit the bill.

At the time, he was trying to find his way in professional football as a member of the San Jose SaberCats in the Arena Football League.

After members of the 49ers staff saw him throw, he signed with his hometown team.

“How the hell did this happen?” Bethel-Thompson said, reminiscing on his first taste of the NFL. “I went from not being able to start at Sac State to being in an NFL training camp.” 

While his stint with the 49ers organization was brief, it led to an offer for his third league in a year, joining the United Football League’s Sacramento Mountain Lions..

“The UFL was good pay” Bethel-Thompson said.  The bad parts of it were we were living out of a hotel [and] there were no locker rooms” 

The game reps of the shortened UFL season led Bethel-Thompson to finishing out the 2011 NFL season as a member of the Miami Dolphins.

From 2011-2016, Bethel-Thompson bounced from team to team seeing practice squad opportunities and preseason scrap playing time. 

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The ability to hang around the NFL for this long is uncommon. To Toronto Argos quarterbacks coach Mike Miller, it is no wonder his starting quarterback managed to do so. 

“It’s no surprise to me that [Bethel-Thompson] had those opportunities,” Miller said. “His perseverance is just outstanding. He’s a mentally tough guy and it has helped us in games and definitely benefited him throughout his career.” 

Following his release from Philadelphia and the expiration of his practice squad eligibility, Bethel-Thompson received advice from the Eagles’ front office that opened a whole new world of football.

Bethel-Thompson found himself in the fourth  league of his career: the Canadian Football League .

The CFL plays with different rules than the traditional American game: a larger field, 12 players as opposed to 11 and three-down series compared to the NFL’s four. 

“[It’s a] huge amount of adjustment,” Bethel-Thompson said. “I think it’s a harder game, I really do.”

Bethel-Thompson spent his first year in Canada with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers practice squad.

“It was cold as shit,” he said. “And [there was] nothing to do.” 

With the conclusion of the 2016 season, Bethel-Thompson returned to Canada with the Toronto Argonauts for 2017. 

The first three years in Toronto saw little playing time, however he did earn a championship with the team in 2017.

In 2021, Bethel-Thompson earned his first all-star appearance and the confidence of quarterbacks coach Mike Miller. 

“I heard nothing but great things about him,” Miller said. “Just right away I was so impressed with his knowledge base.” 

Bethel-Thompson helped Miller get up to speed on the Canadian game and compared him to Kurt Warner in terms of preparation.

The 2022 season was magical for the pair as the Argonauts  captured another Grey Cup championship.

Bethel-Thompson led the CFL in passing yards as well as a second all-star selection in a row.

Bethel-Thompson’s perseverance finally bore fruit; his first full season as a starting quarterback in nearly 17 years, he led his team to a championship. 

“From the time I left high school, no one gave me the keys,” Bethel-Thompson said “I know I can do this. I know I can lead men. I know I’m good at what I do.”

As the confetti settles, Bethel-Thompson has decisions to make regarding his future, as his contract with the Argos is set to expire in March. 

Many terms can be applied to McLeod Bethel-Thompson: ‘walk-on’, ‘camp arm’ ‘backup’ and  ‘journeyman’ all are ones he has looked to shake throughout his 17 year collegiate and professional career.

Now with a championship as a full time starter under his belt, ‘franchise quarterback’ remains on the table no matter the league that comes knocking. 

While Canada has been good to him, Bethel-Thompson will not drop his eyes from the highest level of the sport. 

“If you’re asking me honestly, I think I can still play in the NFL,” he said. “It’s just about an organization believing in me.”