Hometown Report

Pacers for life Booker, Thompson reunited in NFL opener

Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson celebrates after recovering a fumble from former Grant High School teammate Devontae Booker on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Denver.
Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson celebrates after recovering a fumble from former Grant High School teammate Devontae Booker on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, in Denver. The Associated Press

Mike Alberghini watched it unfold on television Thursday night as two former Pacers teammates faced off against each other.

Alberghini, the longtime Grant High School football coach, was in his element at home on his couch: encouraging, exulting, exhibiting all manner of body English as Devontae Booker ran the ball for the Denver Broncos and Shaq Thompson made tackles for the Carolina Panthers in the NFL season opener.

And then it happened.

Booker, a fourth-round pick by Denver this year out of Utah by way of American River College, fumbled on his first official NFL carry, and there was Thompson, a first-round pick in 2015, quick to recover for Carolina.

And there sat Alberghini with mixed emotions.

“Shaq should’ve given the ball right back to Devontae to make him feel better,” Alberghini said with a laugh Friday morning.

“To see them both in that game, playing, and knowing how hard they’ve worked to get there and how they’re both good kids, it was a great feeling,” the coach said.

Booker and Thompson were teammates in 2009 on Grant’s 12-1 team, Booker a punishing senior tailback and Thompson an electrifying sophomore who ran the ball and played wide receiver and linebacker.

Shaq should’ve given the ball right back to Devontae to make him feel better.

Mike Alberghini, Grant coach

Booker rushed for 2,884 yards and 45 touchdowns in 2009, second all-time on the Grant single-season list to Onterrio Smith’s 3,154 and 53 in 1998.

And Booker never stopped running, producing 1,000-yard seasons at ARC and Utah. Booker impressed Broncos coaches upon arrival and beat out Ronnie Hillman, Denver’s leading rusher last season, for a spot on the roster. Booker told the media after the game that he will learn from the fumble. The backup to C.J. Anderson, Booker had three carries for eight yards with a long of six.

Thompson had three tackles, one for a loss, at linebacker. He followed Booker as the next Grant great, earning Bee Player of the Year honors in 2011 and excelling at Washington as one of the nation’s most versatile players.

Booker and Thompson still hold their Del Paso Heights roots close. Both regularly visit home to catch up with family, Alberghini and former teachers and coaches. Booker had his NFL Pro Day on the Grant field, saying then: “It’s the least I could do for all that Grant has done for me. Once a Pacer, always a Pacer. Pacer for life.”

Thompson regularly tweets his support for Grant athletics and the Kings. He has found a home in Charlotte, N.C., and has even tried to pick up golf, though he can’t seem to swing the club the way he can deliver a forearm in football traffic.

Asked by the Charlotte Observer about his golf game, Thompson said: “Oh, it’s terrible. Just terrible. Golf is hard. There’s a lot I have to learn.”

And of the Kings, his favorite NBA team, Thompson said: “We’re rebuilding. Don’t worry. We’ll be back on top.”

10 Grant players coached by Mike Alberghini who reached the NFL

Thompson said he hopes to catch a Kings game in new Golden 1 Center in the offseason. He might even run into Booker again, this time without pads and fumbles.

Alberghini has long lauded Booker and Thompson for their loyalty to Sacramento and Grant.

“It’s awesome,” said Alberghini, who has helped put 10 Pacers into the NFL. “What more can you ask? The big thing is that Devontae and Shaq are such good people, and seeing them work hard, be successful, to be in the NFL, it makes you very proud and happy to even have been a part of it.”

Other Alberghini protégés that have played in the NFL are defensive back James Sample, Smith, Donte Stallworth at wide receiver, Syd Thompson (Shaq’s brother) at cornerback, Christian Tupou at defensive tackle, Reggie Walker at linebacker, C.J. Wallace at safety and Paris Warren at wide receiver.

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