From blocking to building: How an NFL TE became a carpenter on HGTV

Jordan Thompson sits on the stairs, small scissors tucked behind his left ear, in the Atlanta home of Carly and Patrick Milyo. Thompson's hands methodically work in and out, grabbing the cloth as he stitches. With a television camera in front of him, following his every move, he is in the final moments of what has been an arduous two days.

It was something that took getting used to, both his new life and the pressure that comes along with it. Once an unknown NFL tight end who played two games in two years with the Detroit Lions before a knee injury ended his career, Thompson, 29, transitioned in retirement to the world of carpentry and home improvement.

Television, at least initially, wasn’t part of the plan. Renovating homes around Rockford, Ohio, was. Then a friend called. He had an idea. A little over a year later, Thompson ended up in Georgia as a carpenter finishing up a trying 48-hour project with designers Nicole Curtis and Robert Van Winkle -- better known as rapper Vanilla Ice -- as part of the HGTV/TLC surprise home renovation show "While You Were Out."

"Eight months prior, I had never even thought of being on TV," Thompson said. "It was a lot of fun and a lot of people say, 'It's so neat to see you on there and you're the same person on that show as you are day to day.' I told them when I agreed to do it that what you see is what you get and I'm not going to, I don't like scripted parts.

"There's no script, but I don't know if I would like that, portraying me in any other way than just being me. I think they did a great job with that."

Thompson didn't know how much of a role he’d have in the four-episode series. He became one of three permanent cast members along with another carpenter, Eric Griffin, and the host, former MTV VJ-turned-carpenter Ananda Lewis.

Thompson's prior television experience came from interviews in the NFL and in college at Ohio. Otherwise, he had mostly worked in the background. He thought this might be the same way. It wasn't. His face is in almost every scene. He's in every episode. By the end, it seemed like he had been doing the television portion of this for years.

Lewis, with years of television experience, saw Thompson become more comfortable with each episode -- interacting more, letting more of his personality show and gaining a greater understanding of when the camera was on him and when to subconsciously look up and explain what was going on to the viewer. Lewis called him "a natural."

"I think Jordan should have his own show, honestly," Lewis said. "And I think he will. For the kind of viewers that HGTV and TLC have, DIY, all these networks that do renovation kind of based stuff, he's perfect. He's perfect for it.

"He's fantastic to look at. He's a sweetheart. He knows what he's doing. He has the actual chops. And he's fun. I think that might be in his future somewhere, I hope. I'd love to watch that myself."

For now, Lewis and Thompson hope there's a second season of "While You Were Out" to prepare for. Thompson, though, wouldn't be here if he didn't actually know how to do the work.

While he considers himself a "high-level YouTube DIYer," Thompson learned carpentry from his grandfather, Roy Thompson Jr., an engineer who also owned rental properties. When homes needed maintenance, Thompson would tag along to help fix toilets and sinks. Between those trips and helping his grandparents with their seven-acre garden, where they grew sweet corn and planted 80,000 onion shoots every year, he picked up the nuances of manual labor and the intricacies of building.

He picked up more knowledge in shop class while attending rural Rockford (Ohio) Parkway High School, where National FFA (Future Farmers of America) membership was popular. At Ohio, he studied engineering. Though this was never the definitive plan, all the skills fit. He just never imagined he would end up on a show where he’d be doing $10,000 room renovations in 48 hours, creating floating shelves as an idea from Curtis or helping to install wood floors with Vanilla Ice.

"Sometimes it's really difficult to jump into a situation and you work with somebody who is new," Curtis said. "I've worked with the same guys for years, so I don't even have to say anything. I just have to point and wave my arms and they know exactly what I mean and they go and build it.

"Within just a little bit of time, Jordan and I had that, we already had that routine down. It was really cool and made my job a lot easier."

They worked together well enough that Curtis said she would enjoy working with Thompson again, even if he joined her Detroit-based construction site when she goes to Michigan to do work in the summer.

This happened because a former high school classmate, Kaela Kinney, reached out with an idea. Kinney knew about Thompson's carpentry and had connections in Nashville and Los Angeles, where she was a country music singer and began a popular guitar-strap business. She asked him if he had ever considered television home renovation.

They taped a sizzle reel and sent it to 15 production companies. Thompson said they received eight responses and signed with Half-Yard Productions. They put together a more professional reel and HGTV expressed interest. They flew out to renovate a bathroom in California in a span of a week. Then a kitchen in Nashville.

The Half-Yard producers called Thompson while he was in Nashville sanding a kitchen island to paint and asked him if he'd join "While You Were Out." A week later, he was in Atlanta.

"Things happened really fast. The details of that, I didn't really know in advance of doing it," Thompson said. “So I show up and they say, 'This week you're working with Ty Pennington and Hildi Santo-Tomas.' Well, everybody knows Ty and Hildi in 'Trading Spaces.' So this lineup of people, like, wow, I don't watch much TV, but everybody I worked with, it was like, 'Wow, I've seen you on TV. I've watched your show a time or two.'"

Which is the reaction Thompson now elicits. Back in his normal life, Thompson is still not even used to the mild celebrity. A farm boy from a small town where football ruled and still does, he's starting to get recognition for something other than his short NFL career.

While supply shopping at Menards for a basement remodel, he went to the same efficient cashier he always does. As she was helping him check out, she started telling him he had to watch this show called "While You Were Out."

Thompson smiled.

"She was trying to convince me why I should watch that show because she thought my twin was on TV," Thompson said. "And so I let her talk for a while and then I was like, 'Well, actually, I am that guy.'

"She was shocked. I’m amazed that people watch those shows and they retain that."

If his trajectory in home improvement continues, it might be something he has to build on.