Shaq Thompson has been described as Washington’s “best recruit in more than 10 years,” a “once-in-a-decade” talent, a blue-chip, ready-made, future star.
In short: can’t miss.
Which is ironic, because on another field — one with dirt and four bases and a batter’s box — that’s all he did.
During a brief stint in the Gulf Coast League in 2012, after the Boston Red Sox took a Boeing 747 of a flier on him in the 18th round, Thompson was woeful.
Make that 0h-ful, as in 0 for 39. Zero, that is, for 39. So bad, in fact, that Deadspin.com headlined his baseball career “The Worst Minor League Career Imaginable.”
Enough to break some people. Enough to make some cower into a corner, lost in the shadows somewhere, head hung in shame. We’re talking 0 for 39 here.
How could Thompson, who played just one year of high school baseball, show his face again?
Easy: He didn’t.
He went back to the football field, where the sins of his baseball past are atoned for every day and where he is able to deliver the hits, not just hope and pray for one.
“It wasn’t a good season for me,” the Washington sophomore outside linebacker said. “But it helped me realize that failure is an option in life. I had to learn to accept failure. Failure is not a bad thing.”
These days, Thompson is doling out hits with more regularity, even more than he anticipated when he stunned his friends and family and community by committing to Washington as the top-rated safety in his class.
Thompson’s older brother, Syd’Quan, starred in the defensive backfield at Cal before being drafted in 2010, and Thompson the Younger was expected to follow in his cleat-steps for all of 24 days. He originally committed to the Golden Bears on Jan. 7 at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, but the departure of defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi from Cal to Washington, the almost instantaneous disintegration of the Bears’ recruiting class and UW coach Steve Sarkisian’s hiring of defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox prompted Thompson to head north.
He also wanted to carve his own niche while carving up opposing backfields.
“It was a tough decision,” Thompson said. “I’m a family person. I wanted to stay close, but I also wanted to start my own legacy, apart from my brother’s. That was the reason. And then when I came up for the Cal game, I loved the environment, the fans. I loved it.”
The fact that Sarkisian was eager to let Thompson take a shot at a baseball career played a role. So, too, did the variety of ways in which Thompson expected to be used; at safety, where he was a rare No. 1-rated prospect at his position by Scout.com and Rivals.com, and on offense and special teams, where he hoped to make an impact.
Soon, though, the Washington coaching staff saw the nasty side of Thompson, the mean streak to go along with a still-growing frame and a clean, clear defensive focus. They moved him up to outside linebacker, and Thompson rewarded the decision with a second-team Freshman All-America season and an All-Pac-12 honorable mention selection.
“I learned that it’s way more physical when you come down in the box,” Thompson said. “It’s big on big. You’ll be outweighed by at least 100 pounds by most of those guys. You’ve got to be physical, use your hands. That’s where I’ve learned a lot — just knowing every play has to be a physical play, and you can’t take plays off.”
Thompson opened his sophomore campaign with nine tackles in a win over Boise State, putting a sparkle in Sarkisian’s eyes.
“Without a doubt, he’s a completely different player this year as opposed to last year,” Sarkisian said. “He’s still (got) only a year under his belt at playing the position, and (linebacker coach) Peter Sirmon has done a great job with him. That’s not easy to do. He’s just got such playmaking ability. He works at it without a doubt; he wants to be great. You see the physicality in his game is showing up more and more and more.”
It’s been there for a while. Latent, sure, but in concentrated bursts when needed.
Scout.com national recruiting analyst Greg Biggins remembers the first time he saw Thompson in the sixth grade, when Thompson’s uncle brought lil’ Shaq to a Nike camp he worked at with Biggins.
“I just said, “You can’t bring Shaq, he’s too young!” Biggins said. “Finally, we let him into the camp when he was a freshman. He ran around like he belonged. He looked like one of the guys already. He already had the athleticism, the competitive level.
“Three years younger than anybody else, going into his sophomore year; I knew he’d be special. He was already bigger than his older brother, Syd. Already bigger, more physical, and as he kept growing and growing, it was obvious he’d be one of the most gifted safeties to be around for a long, long time. You could tell he wouldn’t peak too early.
“You could tell he would be a freakish kid with the body to go along.”
Now, Thompson is getting used to punishing ball-carriers and attacking the quarterback and, yes, piling up the hits.
But he hasn’t forgotten when he didn’t, when he spent a summer whiffing and wishing, learning the hard way that athletic prowess isn’t always a foregone conclusion.
“I just know that you have to fight for what you want,” Thompson said. “Not everything is going to be given to you. Talent is not always going to be there, you have to work for it. Baseball, I let it go, but it’s still in the back of my head. And the thing I’ll never forget is the word failure. It will always be with me.”