Super Bowl

Carolina Panthers’ Shaq Thompson saved by sports as youth in Sacramento

Joe Davidson talks with Carolina Panther Shaq Thompson

Sacramento Bee sports writer Joe Davidson reflects on Shaq Thompson's journey from Grant High School football star to playing in the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers.
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Sacramento Bee sports writer Joe Davidson reflects on Shaq Thompson's journey from Grant High School football star to playing in the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers.

Shaq Thompson couldn’t contain his joy.

“Can you believe it? Super Bowl 50!” Thompson, a rookie linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, bellowed over the phone last week, half out of breath as if he’d just climbed down from cloud nine.

Thompson, who starred at Grant High School, discussed cloud nine, “dreams coming true” and how sports was the ticket he embraced most, a positive for a youngster often surrounded by crushing negatives.

“Sports,” Thompson explained, “from a young age, was for me. I was a kid who put all of his marbles into sports, hoping and praying that it all worked, and school, and it’s worked. Very happy, proud.”

On his way to the biggest event in sports, Thompson dealt with profound hardship.

As a child, there were cold nights in a dark house in a North Highlands neighborhood, chaos and violence lurking at the nearest corner. Mornings with a cold shower because there wasn’t always the luxury of electricity. Buckets of hot water from a neighbor so he and his brothers could bathe without shivering. Nights with a long extension cord stretching into his home through the window of that neighbor for dining-room light.

It’s been an overwhelming experience. ... They say your rookie year is the longest. I can definitely vouch for that. But I’ve enjoyed every moment. It’s great, the best time of my life.

Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers linebacker

Through all that, Thompson had what mattered most to him – his family. He didn’t have a father growing up, but he had three older brothers – Syd’Quan, Ricky and Le’Arthur – and a strong foundation in his no-nonsense mother, Patty.

“We didn’t have a lot,” Thompson said. “Had my mom, my brothers. They’ve always been there. We went through struggles. Tough neighborhood, gangs everywhere, tough times. My family, they’re the people I still talk to every day. We had those struggles, we were down, but we knew how to maintain, how to stay strong. I play to honor them.”

Family ties

Patty Thompson’s phone was blowing up from well-wishers last weekend after Carolina routed Arizona in the NFC championship game. Oh, and how about some Super Bowl tickets? She changed her number. Thompson then took matters into his own massive hands.

Who’s getting Super Bowl tickets?

“My mom and three brothers,” Thompson said firmly. “They’re first on my list, and no one deserves it more. I owe them.”

One indication of how united his family is – their hair. All four brothers and Mom have dreadlocks, a tradition for years.

“He calls us ‘The Dread Heads,’ ” Patty Thompson said. “We’re the proud ‘Dread Heads.’ 

“The Dread Heads” will be at Levi’s Stadium for Super Bowl 50, all wearing Carolina No. 54 jerseys, pinching each other as if to wonder, “Is this real?”

“The excitement is still hitting us,” Patty Thompson, who’s retired from the California Franchise Tax Board, said from her Sacramento home. “I can’t believe Shaq’s made it, but I can believe it. He’s living the dream. Goose bumps, nerves all popping out.”

Tough neighborhood, gangs everywhere, tough times. My family, they’re the people I still talk to every day. We had those struggles, we were down, but we knew how to maintain, how to stay strong. I play to honor them.

Shaq Thompson, Carolina Panthers linebacker

Thompson flew his brothers and mother to Charlotte for a game at various times this season. They stayed at his apartment, a block from the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium. Like all mothers, Patty Thompson would like to get more calls from her son.

“I’d get on his case, ‘Call me, or I’ll call your coach!’ ” Patty Thompson said. “ ‘Your best bet, son, is to call me right now!’ Shaq would call and say, ‘Patrice! What do you want? You know I’m working for a living here!’ That’s just Shaq being silly Shaq.”

Sports were family affair

Patty Thompson directed her sons to sports to keep them active – and away from trouble – and required good grades. She held the ultimate hammer: No grades, no games. She also didn’t hesitate to pull out a belt.

The four boys were good students; they didn’t miss games. And they wanted to please Mom, to avoid the belt.

Syd excelled at Cal and played a season at cornerback for the Denver Broncos before his career was cut short by an Achilles’ tear. Now an assistant football coach at Grant, Syd is a Broncos fan, but he’s a bigger fan of his brother, who chose Washington over Cal to forge his own path.

Shaq Thompson had a dominant sophomore season with the Huskies in 2014, earning the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player. He also has started 10 games for the Panthers as a rookie, recording 50 tackles for a 17-1 team.

Another cornerstone in Thompson’s life was his maternal grandmother, Patrice Thompson. They all lived together for a spell, little Shaq piling onto the couch to cuddle with either or both of them.

Her vital signs immediately started to move, the first time in a week, when she’d hear Shaq’s voice. The nurses were like, ‘Wow.’

Patty Thompson, Shaq’s mother, recalling her mother’s coma

The only anguish for Thompson during the whirlwind leading to the NFL draft last spring was his grandmother’s failing health, caused by diabetes. She lapsed into a coma, in a Florida hospital room, surrounded by family. A phone was pressed to her ear so Thompson could talk to her.

“Her vital signs immediately started to move, the first time in a week, when she’d hear Shaq’s voice,” Patty Thompson recalled. “The nurses were like, ‘Wow.’ 

As the draft unfolded on ESPN in that hospital room, the announcement finally came: Shaq Thompson to the Carolina Panthers with the 25th pick.

“Mom heard it, squeezed the hands of those with her, then raised her thumb up,” Patty Thompson said. “We lost her a while later. That took a toll on Shaq. He bundled that inside, but he continued to pound away.”

Said Thompson: “It hurt, still does. Miss her. She got to see me, hear me get drafted, and I’m glad for that.”

Big kid, big heart

Thompson drew crowds after Grant’s games. Despite near exhaustion – the 6-foot-1, 225-pound athlete played quarterback, running back, linebacker, safety and on special teams – he always made time to chat with fans, especially children. And he grew especially fond of one, Camilo Graniel.

In 2010, Camilo, then 8, had multiple heart surgeries. The shy little boy had one request: He wanted to meet this Shaq Thompson fellow, a junior at Grant he had read about and seen on TV highlights. Word got to Thompson. He and teammate James Sample, now a safety with the Jacksonville Jaguars, visited Camilo in the hospital, lifting his spirits.

Graniel is 14 now, healthy and happy, no longer so shy. He’s still a fixture at Grant’s games as a ballboy, and Thompson keeps in regular contact.

Thompson is still a giver. He sent his mother money, despite her insisting against it. In Charlotte this season, he worked with a local charity to get an ill child into the NFC championship game against Arizona.

“Shaq is still there, still that wonderful guy who cares,” said Graniel’s father, Richard. “Shaq’s just a different kind of person, special. His presence does things to people. My son is an example. We can’t thank Shaq enough.

“Shaq is what Sacramento has been waiting for, a great representation of what goodness is all about. Terrible things happen in our neighborhoods, like the shooting of JJ Clavo of Grant this season, but beautiful things happen, too, like Shaq. He’s ours, he’s Grant, he’s Del Paso Heights, and he’s also Sacramento.”

Thompson is still a giver. Despite his multimillion dollar contract, his mother insisted he not lavish gifts on her, yet Thompson sent money anyway. In Charlotte this season, Thompson read about an ill child named Jordan, and he worked with a local charity to get him into the NFC championship game against Arizona.

“I felt for the kid, his sickness, how he’s fighting through it, and this was an opportunity to help him smile,” Thompson said. “It was a great experience for him. He was very happy. I made a dream come true.”

None of this surprises Mike Alberghini, Grant’s longtime football coach.

“Shaq’s been a great kid his whole life,” Alberghini said. “He’s worked hard. He’s had success, and then he just so happens to be a first-round pick that is playing in the Super Bowl. What kind of great reward is that? I feel so fortunate to have coached him.”

Oh, I was upset. Totally out of character for Shaq. I didn’t get into it with Shaq about it. It would’ve been nasty. I let the brothers handle it.

Patty Thompson, Shaq’s mother on his profane tirade directed at Seahawks fans

Tirade out of character

A side of Thompson no one close to him recognized briefly emerged this season.

Upset by how some Seattle fans taunted him through social media, Thompson vented after Carolina eliminated the Seahawks. On Snapchat, he unleashed a profanity-laced tirade directed at Seahawks fans. Thompson regretted doing it, and he heard from his coaches. And his family.

When Thompson was young, his older brothers would stuff him into a big box at home. They’d sit on it and giggle as he pounded on the walls to get out. When Patty Thompson heard about her son’s rant, she wondered where that box was.

“Oh, I was upset,” she said. “Totally out of character for Shaq. I didn’t get into it with Shaq about it. It would’ve been nasty. I let the brothers handle it, and you know, we wanted to put him back in that box. And let me sit on it this time.”

Said Alberghini: “I saw what Shaq said and wondered, ‘Who is this?’ I’ve never seen him so angry. Shaq’s like a duck, lets things roll off his back.”

Now Thompson is rolling back into Northern California, for the biggest sports extravaganza of all.

“It’s been an overwhelming experience,” Thompson said. “It’s been a long year, the whole process, the predraft training, the draft, training camp, rookie season. They say your rookie year is the longest. I can definitely vouch for that. But I’ve enjoyed every moment. It’s great, the best time of my life.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

The particulars

  • Who: Denver Broncos (14-4) vs. Carolina Panthers (17-1)
  • When: Sunday, Feb. 7, 3:30 p.m.
  • Where: Levi’s Stadium
  • TV/radio: Ch. 13, 1140
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