Five-star safety Shaquille Thompson from Sacramento explodes some myths and explains the reasons he shocked many by deciding to play football for the Washington Huskies.
SACRAMENTO — Sitting in the house where it all happened, Patty Thompson points at the couch and laughs.
She had no idea that from that couch on Jan. 30 her youngest of four sons, Shaquille Thompson, had sent out the tweet heard around the college football world.
Expected to announce his decision on signing day at Grant High School, Thompson decided to end the suspense early.
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“Just committed to the UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON,” he wrote in a tweet at 10:05 p.m.
Patty sat a few feet away, but didn’t know what was going on until another son, Ricky, walked into the room, wearing a UW beanie.
“I got your tweet,” he told Shaquille.
“What’d he do now?” Patty wondered of a son who has never been short of surprises.
She’d seen him come home and announce he would take up skateboarding. Now this.
“He changes like the wind,” she said of Shaq.
She still remembers what he said when he got up from the couch: “Mom, I just had to do it. It was time.”
With those seven simple words on Twitter, Shaquille Thompson became one of the most celebrated Washington football recruits in recent memory.
The only player rated five stars by both Scout.com and Rivals.com to sign with UW in the past 10 years had been the subject of a fierce recruiting battle. He’d also seriously considered California, Oregon and UCLA, though he likely could have picked any school in the country.
He’d long been expected to go to California, a 90-minute drive from the family home in Del Paso Heights and where his older brother Syd’Quan played before going to the NFL.
In fact, he’d been regarded as a silent commit to Cal for months and made a public commitment to the Bears at the U.S. Army Game in early January before re-evaluating his options in the wake of Washington hiring three assistants with Cal ties to its staff.
So why Washington? Since his commitment to UW that Monday and signing two days later, he’s fielded the same question time and again, especially from locals who’d long assumed he would stay home — why Washington?
“They were always there on my list,” he said, standing in the hallway at Grant High School last week. “Washington always stayed in it, so from the get-go that should have told everybody ‘he’s coming to Washington,’ because that was the only school that didn’t change.
“I went up there for the Cal game (in September) and it was a beautiful atmosphere, a beautiful city, the fans really love their football, the team was fun to be around, the coaches were great. It was just like a great place for me.”
Still, he’d gone back and forth, especially the final two weeks, often giving the public a glimpse of his internal struggle with Twitter comments.
He made another trip to the UW campus the weekend before Signing Day, an unofficial visit.
Patty thought he was going to Oregon until a couple days before his tweet.
“People might say, ‘He was playing games,’ ” Shaquille Thompson says. “But I was in moments and then I would get back out of moments where I would rethink where I want to be. It was crazy at times, but I made a great choice for myself and my family.”
His mother isn’t surprised Shaquille ultimately went his own way.
“You know how if there’s a huddle and there’s 10 guys standing in it and one outside of it? He’s the one outside of it,” she says. “He’s a thinker.”
He has always stood out once the huddle breaks, as well.
Grant coach Mike Alberghini calls Thompson among the best players he has seen since coaching at the school in 1969. Grant alums include NFL receiver Donte Stallworth, former WSU quarterback Aaron Garcia, former Husky C.J. Wallace (Thompson’s cousin) and former Oregon running back Onterrio Smith.
Thompson weighs 215 and finished seventh in the state 200 meters. “He’s kind of the total package of size and speed,” Alberghini said.
Family members realized early he would be a star.
“We always knew it,” says his uncle B.T. Thompson. “It was like, ‘He’s the one.’ You can tell when they are little biddy fellows and it doesn’t matter what sport it is, they are dominating.”
Athletics has always been a focal point of the family. Patty played basketball and ran track in high school. She raised her family as a single mother, with lots of help from the extended family. She encouraged sports in part to keep her sons out of trouble in an area of Sacramento where it’s easy to find. Gangs are all around.
“It was hard because you have all these gangs outside around here and you can’t go out at dark or go out by yourself without something happening,” Shaquille Thompson said. “Sports really kept me out of trouble, kept my mom not worrying so much. Without sports I don’t know what I would be.”
Grant has a long and storied football tradition, including winning a state title in 2009. All four Thompson brothers played the sport. Due in part to injuries to others, Shaquille ended up playing quarterback last season, throwing for eight touchdowns, as well as running back and defensive back, and even punting.
Colleges recruited him primarily as a safety, but Thompson says he would like a chance to play both ways. Family members say Washington’s willingness to let him do that was another factor in UW’s favor.
Another, they say, was UW’s willingness to let Thompson play baseball if the opportunity arises. He played the sport for the first time since sixth grade as a sophomore, but B.T. Thompson says the Toronto Blue Jays have shown interest in Shaquille. He has taken private baseball lessons after school and plans to be a pitcher and center fielder for Grant this spring.
The family sees baseball as a safer alternative for Shaquille, B.T. Thompson says. A hamstring injury to Syd’Quan shortly before the 2010 NFL draft contributed to his slide to the seventh round.
“It could be serious,” Shaquille says of his interest in baseball.
The family also talks about Shaquille staying at UW just three years, and the plan Washington coaches offered that would enable him to graduate in three years was another factor favoring the Huskies.
“If he has to go four, that’s fine,” Patty Thompson said. “But the goal is three.”
She says her son always felt pulled to Washington, regardless of what the coaches might have said during final visits, remembering texts he sent during his official visit in September. “He said, ‘this is better for me,’ ” she recalls.
There was a strong family and local pull to Cal, and Shaquille likely would have ended up there if not for assistant coaching changes at both UW and Cal in January. He resists the notion that it was as simple as following Bears assistant Tosh Lupoi from Cal to UW.
B.T. Thompson calls new UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox the bigger influence. Wilcox coached Syd’Quan at Cal.
“When Wilcox went to UW, that opened up UW,” said B.T. Thompson.
Shaquille said Lupoi stepped aside from handling his recruiting once the coach went to UW, leaving it to coach Steve Sarkisian, new defensive backs coach Keith Heyward and graduate assistant Donte Williams (who was able to recruit during the time when the Huskies did not have a full staff of assistants).
“He didn’t have too much to do with it,” Shaquille Thompson said of Lupoi.
Since signing his letter, all Shaquille has talked about is the day he can finally leave for UW, says Patty. She says her son, who wants to become a sports therapist, can’t wait to put on his backpack and walk around campus like a regular student. He just wants to blend in, even though his athletic notoriety and braided hair he hasn’t cut since eighth grade makes that difficult.
Embracing his star status might be the biggest transition for Thompson when he arrives at UW next fall, Alberghini says.
“He just really isn’t a person who worries too much about individual stuff,” he said. “Some of our other great players were more that they wanted the ball and wanted to dominate games and that’s what made them what they are. I think Shaq has to develop into being a little more wanting to dominate things and wanting the ball in his hands all the time.”
Thompson shakes his head when he hears that.
“I don’t think I will be ready to take that on when I first get up there,” he said. “I don’t like when people congratulate me on all this. I will say, ‘Thank you.’ But I don’t like all this stuff on me because that’s how people get too bigheaded and just mess up.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta