Joe Davidson

Chasing their dreams: Arik Armstead, Shaq Thompson use the buddy system

Arik Armstead hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Armond Armstead played in the NFL and the CFL before an injury forced his retirement.
Arik Armstead hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Armond Armstead played in the NFL and the CFL before an injury forced his retirement. The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series chronicling Sacramento’s Shaq Thompson and Arik Armstead as they prepare for the NFL draft.

They met for the first time in the spring of 2009, at a skills and conditioning event where they performed 40-yard dashes and vertical leaps.

They were dressed in shorts and tank tops, with numbers to identify them among the mass of athletes.

Arik Armstead, 21, long and lanky, and Shaq Thompson, 20, compact and muscled, hit it off immediately, two quiet kids with warm personalities. At the time, they couldn’t have guessed that six years later their 40-yard times, vertical leaps and an assortment of other measurements and numbers will define them as they share a dream of playing in the NFL as projected first-round picks in this spring’s draft.

Armstead and Thompson met regularly for workouts in Sacramento before Christmas and, after playing in bowl games, have reunited for workouts in Southern California as they prepare for the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 17-23. After being studied, measured and scrutinized, Armstead, a 6-foot-8, 290-pound defensive end from Pleasant Grove High School and Oregon, and Thompson, a 6-2, 228-pound linebacker from Grant and Washington, will visit NFL teams to meet with coaches and executives, something of a repeat of the recruiting process they experienced in high school.

Both are projected to be first-round picks in the NFL draft April 30-May 2 in Chicago, but only when they sign their first contracts will their dreams be realized.

“It’s fun knowing Shaq is going through the same thing as I am,” Armstead said.

Also along for the journey are their families, including older brothers who have played football at all levels on defense, too – Armond Armstead with Pleasant Grove, USC, in the CFL and the New England Patriots as a defensive tackle before injuries forced an early retirement, and cornerback Syd Quan Thompson with Grant, Cal and the Denver Broncos for one season before a ruptured Achilles’ sidelined him.

Arik and Shaq nearly attended Cal together after their All-America senior seasons in 2011, when both were pursued by numerous colleges tugging for their services. But coaching changes at Cal triggered a domino effect, so they headed to the Northwest to separate colleges, though they always stayed in contact.

Work and stress mount

After Armstead and Thompson decided to leave college after their junior seasons, the level of stress and amount of work has intensified.

“You’d think this would all be a lot more enjoyable, easier, now that they’re out of high school and college, but it’s not,” said Patty Thompson, Shaq’s mother. “It’s more stressful. The anxiety is greater now.

“In college, we could check on our sons. Now, our kids are heading out to a larger, huge world, the unknown, and it feels like taking them to an island and dropping them off. These are our kids, our boys, and they’re now grown.”

Guss Armstead, Arik’s father, calls them “the boys.” To Patty Thompson, they’re forever “our kids.”

Kids or boys, or a combination of both, it was up to Arik and Shaq if they were ready for the NFL. They consulted family, college coaches and each other, weighing the pros and cons of entering the draft, and the idea of doing it together was too much to pass up.

“It’s a dream come true,” Thompson said. “I just feel it’s time.”

Added Armstead: “I’m ready. I just feel ready for the next level. Now comes the hard work, to be mentally prepared, physically prepared, get our minds and bodies right.”

Guss Armstead, a longtime area strength and conditioning coach, said maturity should also define them, and not just their athletic skills.

“They’re still just boys,” he said. “They’re only 21 years old, and a lot has been thrown at them. They leave school, and suddenly, they’re professionals. And it happened in a matter of hours, from sitting in a classroom to this. Now they’ve got to take care of a lot of grown-men stuff, but they have older brothers to help, parents who can help, and that’s what makes it fun for all of us.”

Bond began early

The Armstead family first learned of a youngster named Shaq Thompson in 2006, when he ran roughshod over teams as a running back for a youth team in North Sacramento. They couldn’t wait to see him, to meet him.

“We’d heard of this mythical player, this kid, this legend,” Guss Armstead said with a laugh. “And the neat thing was the first time they met (three years later), the boys just hit it off.”

Shaq was composed during competition, including at Grant where he played running back, linebacker, safety and filled in admirably at quarterback, but it took Arik more time to grow into his own.

“When he was younger, Arik had issues with his temper,” Guss Armstead said. “His mom (Christa) and I worked with him on that, how to turn it on and turn it off. I finally told him, ‘Arik, you’re going to be too big to lose your cool and you’re going to hurt someone.’ He learned to control it. Totally turned it around. Now look at him.”

When Armstead and Thompson were in high school, their families met for dinner and to compare stories about college recruiting and the chaos of it, and they have chatted about the upcoming draft. When they are working out in Southern California, the families likely will meet again to dine and discuss the process some more.

“The bond is there, and the boys are doing this together,” Guss Armstead said. “The relationships we have now will be in effect forever. We’re all rooting for each other, our boys.”

Both are mamas’ boys

Deep down, Armstead and Thompson, despite their hardened game-face expressions during competition, admit to one common trait beyond their NFL dream: They’re mamas’ boys.

Armstead, despite his large frame, doesn’t deny he sometimes fears his mother’s wrath, even if it’s just a hard expression from her. But he knows he is fortunate to have a mother and father in his life.

“I owe it all to them,” he said. “I’m so fortunate. They taught me how to be respectful, appreciative.”

Thompson said he pursues the NFL in large part for his mother – “I do a lot of this for her” – and she always has been his inspiration. “She raised four sons by herself, was our mom and our dad.”

Said Patty Thompson: “It was very hard, and I had to come to grips with doing this alone. I grew up in a military family and made our family structure very militant, strict, with order. The kids knew, ‘She is not playin’!’ When friends and cousins stopped by, they knew it was to do homework, to have something to eat. ... And I made sure the boys kept busy with school and sports.”

Thompson amused his mother with his game-day ritual while playing at Grant. With headphones blaring, he would vacuum the house, lost in his music and thoughts, covering every inch and corner.

“He’d get his adrenalin going, his thoughts in order, and I’d wind up with a clean house,” Patty Thompson said.

But nothing warms a mother’s heart more than a call or text from her sons.

“Sometimes,” Patty Thompson said, “you can tell when your kids still need their moms. I know the Armsteads know this, too. Sometimes, Shaq will just send me a text that has, ‘Mom.’ I know he misses me. I hear his voice.”

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

MEET THE PLAYERS

ARIK ARMSTEAD

Age: 21 (born Nov. 15, 1993)

Height/weight: 6-foot-8, 290 pounds

Position: Defensive lineman

High school: Pleasant Grove, 2012

College: Oregon (2012-14)

SHAQ THOMPSON

Age: 20 (born April 21, 1994)

Height/weight: 6-2, 228

Position: Linebacker

High school: Grant (2012)

College: Washington (2012-14)

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