Her jersey waves from the rafters in the United Supermarkets Arena. He’s waved a Texas Tech flag atop many of the world’s tallest mountains. Carolyn Thompson and Rob Junell played different sports at Texas Tech and have lived different lives since their time as Red Raiders – but now share a prestigious honor – the first Distinguished Letter Winner Award recipients.
“Most of our awards honor Red Raiders for what they did during their playing careers, but we want to recognize what our Letter Winners have accomplished after leaving Texas Tech,” said Rodney Allison, director of the Double T Varsity Club.
This honors letter winners who:
- Completed their education at Texas Tech at least 10 years ago.
- Earned at least one varsity letter.
- Gained distinction in their respective careers and communities.
- Brought honor to themselves and Texas Tech University through their contributions and activities.
- Strive to live as a Fearless Champion for Life.
The pair was honored at the recent football game against West Virginia.
After Junell played linebacker on coach J.T. King’s Red Raiders more than 50 years ago, he served in the Army, became an attorney, won six terms in the Texas Legislature before becoming a United States District Judge for the Western District of Texas in 2003.
Almost 40 years after Thompson finished her Lady Raider career, she still holds the record for most career points by a men’s or women’s basketball player with 2,655. She went into coaching and eventually became a principal with the Lubbock Independent School District.
“I was really surprised when I visited with Rodney,” said Thompson about the honor. “I don’t consider myself distinguished but I am truly grateful.”
Junell said: “I am speechless. I feel honored to receive this award and I’m proud to be a Red Raider.”
Thompson, who grew up in nearby Hobbs, N.M., was recruited by Texas Tech to play volleyball, her favorite sport. “I didn’t like basketball. It was a lot of running and too physical,” said Thompson.
Her brother was showing her the Texas Tech campus. She saw some friends she knew from New Mexico summer league hoops and joined them for a pickup game at the rec center. Lady Raider Coach Gay Benson asked Thompson if she wanted to play basketball and her plans changed. Thompson benefited from coaching – eventually under Red Raider legend Marsha Sharp, who took over the program during Thompson’s career and let it for almost a quarter century.
“I would rebound the ball and go back and like a running back,” Thompson said. Coaching “toned me down and helped me become a fundamentally sound basketball player.” When asked to recall a favorite game, Thompson mentioned playing No. 1 Texas for the Southwestern Conference Tournament title in 1984. “We wanted to beat UT so bad and I was basically running on adrenaline,” said Thompson, who scored “42 or 44 points” but the Lady Raiders fell, 83-73. “We competed. Just because you lose doesn’t mean you actually lose,” said Thompson, named the tourney’s most valuable player. After graduating, the professional Dallas Diamonds wanted Thompson to play for them or she could go overseas to continue playing, but decided to go into coaching, becoming the head coach at Lubbock’s Estacado High School at age 22.
After almost a decade of coaching, she switched to administration. “I wanted to do more and make decisions that could help kids’ lives,” She said. Thompson also got back to playing volleyball in a Lubbock city league for almost 20 years. When the Lady Raiders won the NCAA title in 1993, Thompson was “glued to the TV.”
“It meant a lot. When they won it was like we won too,” she said.
Thompson likes the attend Lady Raider and high school games. “I watch the kids of kids I coached at Estacado,” she said of the high school games. When she’s in the arena where her jersey hangs and her name is on the Ring of Honor, what goes through her mind?
“I understand the accolades, but I prefer to be unknown when I walk into United Supermarkets Arena,” she said.
It’s different when she gets around her Lady Raider teammates. “I’ll tell my teammates and brag to them about being acknowledged and they’ll say, ‘what have they made up now to give you?” Thompson said.
She loves hanging out with her teammates. “It takes you back to the ‘80s when you were young and innocent and didn’t know any better,” she said, adding the relationships have endured because they were built on trust, respect, admiration – and a healthy dose of trash talk. Thompson said her teammates love to bring up the “pass me not shot.”
“If they passed it to me, I would not pass it back out. It was a nice way of saying I was a ball hog,” Thompson said. “When we all get together, they all talk about how horrible I was as a basketball player. Coach Sharp would agree with them but when they leave, she’d cay ‘C.T. – you were the best.”
“No one called me Carolyn,” she said, adding even though her teammates still tease her, they tell others how much they liked playing with her.
She’s impressed with the evolution of women’s basketball. “It’s become so much more… the beauty of the game … women are just as creative and talented as the men You have women who can dunk. And women have so much more to look for in WNBA,” she said.
When asked what she’s most proud of during her playing and professional career, Thompson quickly mentions her 20-year-old son Blair Conwright, a wide receiver at TCU, who went to Coronado High School in Lubbock. She goes to almost all his games, although she had to miss the Horned Frogs’ Oct 24 game against Oklahoma to be in Lubbock for this honor. “I enjoy watching him from the background,” she said. And she enjoys helping her alma mater, speaking at events and to younger girls and helping her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Reaching for the Heights
Junell grew up in Lubbock and his dad took him to Texas Tech football and basketball games. He played football for James Odom and baseball for the legendary Bobby Moegle at Monterey High School.
Junell went to the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell for two years, hoping to get into the U.S. Naval Academy.
That didn’t happen – but he learned more about discipline and focus playing football at NMMI – before ending up at Texas Tech.
“If I had this to do all over again, I would do the exact same thing going to Tech,” he said. His favorite game were two games – beating the University of Texas in back-to-back years. “We were never supposed to win, and we did. Twice,” said the former linebacker.
After beating the No. 8 Longhorns 19-13 in Austin his junior year, the team couldn’t land in Lubbock because excited fans were on the runway. “Students had come out to the airport and covered the runway. We had to circle a couple of times and fly to Amarillo to refuel. There were still 100 students waiting when we got back. It was quite the evening,” said Junell. It was only the second time in 17 tries the Red Raiders had beaten Texas.
The next season, they beat the Longhorns 31-22 in Lubbock in front of the first home crowd or more than 50,000 fans. “Coach King was great because he gave me confidence in myself,” Junell said in a separate 2017 interview. “He was a great man and a great inspiration for all of us. He was a great role model. As I went into the military, then into law and now as a judge, Coach was an incredible role model for how he treated people and how he lived his exemplary life.”
“One of the things you learn about football is you have to ready. You have to be prepared. That’s a lot like life. You can’t as a lawyer just show up in court and say ‘here I am.’ ‘You have to prepare for what’s happening. Same thing as a judge, I prepare myself for the cases coming before my court, so I do a good job. At Tech, I had outstanding coaches who weren’t just coaching football. They were coaching life.”
Junell joined the Army after graduation as a second lieutenant after being in ROTC – or Reserve Officer Training Corps while in college. While based in Germany, he started hiking in the mountains.
After the Army, Junell got a master’s degree from Arkansas, then a law degree from Texas Tech. A career in law followed, along with a dozen years as a Democratic state representative from the San Angelo area.
In 2002, President George W. Bush nominated him to the federal bench, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in February 2003. In 2015, he took senior status, allowing him to take a reduced traveling docket of cases.
Along the way, he’s climbed mountains in every corner of the planet, going above 20,000 feet. His favorite ascent?
“Sometimes, the easiest one to get back down,” he said. “I’m not sure I have an absolute favorite.”
Some of the best known are:
- Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa
- Denali – formerly known as Mount McKinley – in Alaska
- Mount Whitney in California – the highest peak in the continental U.S.
- Mount Ranier in Washington State
- Climbing in Nepal near Mt. Everest
But attempting Everest is not an option. “That’s a special deal and out of my climbing lane,” said Junell. One climbing lanes Junell knows well is Guadalupe Peak – the highest point in Texas in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park – tucked under the New Mexico border and a three-hour drive from his Midland home.
He’s climbed the 8,751 peak 203 times – his latest time the day before he and Thompson were honored at the West Virginia game.
Junell still runs and is on the ski patrol. He recently moved to Midland because of his wife Jayne’s job as a petroleum engineer. Before that, her job took them to Santa Fe. He and his first wife Beverly have three children and were married more than 40 years before she passed away from cancer.
Since moving back to Midland, he’s close enough to come back to Texas Tech games but also keeps up with his Red Raiders by attending as many events as possible and by following along wherever he may be.
Carolyn Thompson’s Accomplishments
- Women’s Basketball Letter Winner 1981-1984
- Three-time All-American and All-Southwest Conference player
- Record holder for career points by a men’s or women’s basketball player at Tech with 2,655
- First Lady Raider to have her jersey retired on Jan. 3, 1985
- Became the girl’s head coach at Lubbock Estacado High School at age 22
- Went into administration in 1993 as the assistant principal/principal at Alderson Junior High
- Principal of Matthews Alternative High School since 2010
- Serves as numerous boards for businesses, the City of Lubbock and organizations
- Inducted into the Southwest Conference Hall of Fame in 2014
- Inducted into the Texas Tech Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997 and The Texas Tech Basketball Ring of Honor in 2019
Rob Junell’s Accomplishments
- Texas Tech Football Letter Winner
- Graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s in education from Texas Tech
- Earned his law degree at Texas Tech in 1976
- Graduate assistant football coach
- Served in the United States Army
- Elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1988
- Nominated by President George W. Bush to be United States District Judge for the Western District of Texas in 2003
- Received the Heritage Award from Texas Tech in 2017