The Linebacker Who Couldn’t Hit

Washington’s Shaq Thompson spent the past three seasons proving he’s capable of just about anything on the football field; he’s a likely first-round pick in this year’s draft. But the first time he went pro, as a centerfielder, he proved to be anything but a can’t-miss prospect
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CARLSBAD, Calif. — Growing up in Del Paso Heights, a hardscrabble neighborhood in northern Sacramento, you develop an aptitude for sniffing out phonies. So imagine 17-year-old football prodigy Shaq Thompson’s skepticism the first time a professional team reached out.

The Red Sox? The baseball Red Sox? Yeah, O.K.…

It had to be a prank. He hadn't played baseball since sixth grade. Thompson’s talents were on the gridiron.

A 6-foot-2, 220-pounder with a rare blend of strength and speed, he was the youngest of four brothers to star at Grant Union High. The eldest, Syd'Quan, was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2010, but would always tell people, “Wait until you see Shaq. He’s better than all of us.” Shaq became the country’s top-rated safety, turning down Oregon and Cal-Berkeley (Syd’Quan’s alma mater) for Washington; he was the Huskies’ most-prized recruit in more than a decade. He’d go on to become an All-America, starring on defense, special teams and even, briefly last fall, at tailback.

But as a high school senior, having just fended off the last of the college recruiters, it was indeed the Red Sox—the baseball Red Sox—on the line.

Hey Shaq, we just want to gauge your interest in playing professional baseball.

Neither party knew it at the time, but that phone call launched what would be the worst career in the history of professional baseball.

* * *

When you first meet Shaq Thompson, you’re immediately struck by his presence. It’s an air of understated confidence, calm and quiet, reminiscent of Earl Thomas.

“I’m not a guy that talks a lot,” Thompson says. “When I do, it’s because I have something to say.”

He commands a room, even a sprawling warehouse-style weight room blasting Big Sean. There are 31 other prospects training at the EXOS facility in Carlsbad, Calif., Heisman finalist running back Melvin Gordon and massive defensive tackle Danny Shelton, a potential top-10 pick and one of Thompson’s UW teammates, among them. “All these guys are leaders, the big shots at their schools,” says Brent Callaway, a strength coach at EXOS. “But there’s something about Shaq—he has this aura. Everyone gravitates toward him.”

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Thompson can run and he can hit. Work ethic, leadership, football IQ—he marks every box on the intangibles checklist. His weight is currently in the 230-pound range. Maybe he’s an outside linebacker, the position at which he’s considered a first-round prospect. Or maybe he’s a running back; he rushed for 456 yards on 61 carries last year; a 7.5 yards-per-carry average as an emergency fill-in. Or perhaps he’ll make a return to defensive back, where he’d be an oversized, instinctive and unsparing hitter at strong safety.

Or maybe Shaq Thompson is something different altogether. In his freshman year at Washington, coaches created a hybrid safety/linebacker position just to get him on the field. Over the next three years, he played five other positions. His mere presence was a weapon. “We put him at personal protector, not only because he’d be good at it,” says Huskies coach Chris Petersen, “but also, teams would be so worried about us snapping the ball to Shaq that they backed off on trying to block our punts.”

That’s the paradox of Shaq Thompson: Nobody knows exactly what he is. They just know they want him.

* * *

They were four years removed from a World Series title. He was five years removed from his last organized baseball game. That call from the Red Sox immediately begged two questions. How did they find me? And more importantly, Why do they want me?

In the winter of 2012, Amiel Sawdaye, Boston’s director of amateur scouting, posed a challenge to his staff: Find us athletes. It doesn’t matter how unpolished; don’t be afraid to deviate from the typical mold. An intrepid area scout took the task to heart. He found the best athlete in Northern California.

The Sox had piqued Shaq’s interest. And they certainly had the attention of Patty Thompson, a single mother of four boys. She saw the temporary nature of football through Syd’Quan, who ruptured his Achilles in the final preseason game before his second season and never played another NFL game. If someone opens a door, Patty said, you should at least peek inside.

Thompson played varsity baseball that spring, and the linebacker patrolling the outfield became a spectacle. He barely tallied more hits (18) than strikeouts (17), but crowds buzzed anytime he hurled a ball from right field. One scout noted Thompson could be drafted for his defense alone.

Photo by Ethan Faggett/Boston Red Sox

Photo by Ethan Faggett/Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox were sold. They selected Thompson in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB draft.

The Sox had done their due diligence, consulting his family to reaffirm interest and contacting then-Washington coach Steve Sarkisian with a five-year plan. Sarkisian is a former baseball player himself, at USC, and three years earlier had encouraged Huskies quarterback Jake Locker to explore something similar. (Locker was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2006 and ’09, but never played professionally).

Three months before reporting to Washington for two-a-days, Thompson flew to Fort Myers for rookie ball. The Sox had tempered expectations, and even considered stashing him in batting cages and annexed fields for extra instruction. But the 18-year-old wanted to play, and how do you know if you can hit a 90-mph fastball if you never see one?

Thompson saw fastballs—he stared gravely as they whizzed by. He flailed at anything off-speed. He didn’t even put a ball in play until his ninth game. Over a 13-game stretch that would ultimately encompass his entire professional baseball career, he went 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts. (With due respect, Thompson also drew eight walks.)

Deadspin periodically posted about his futility. A national baseball columnist tweeted that he had finally found a professional player with less ability than himself. Some in scouting circles mocked the Sox; Thompson’s raw athleticism was incredible, but you can’t just pluck a kid who doesn’t play and develop him into Major League talent. Said one rival scout: “What were the Red Sox thinking? This isn’t some Disney movie.”

* * *

“We knew there would be a distinct possibility he would struggle,” Sawdaye says. “That was expected. But in the best case scenario, maybe we could catch lightning in a bottle.” The Sox found the criticism to be frustrating and more than a bit hypocritical—as baseball tried to stem the tide of its dwindling popularity, why discourage an 18-year-old star from another sport from putting himself out there?

Every night, Syd’Quan called to check in. You know, you don’t have to do this. You’re not a failure. But he could never get a read on Shaq over the phone; his little brother internalizes everything.

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The Sox coaches, too, did their best to keep Thompson in a positive frame of mind.

Baseball is predicated on failure. Don’t stress the learning curve.

Shaq would respond: “Of course. I know.”

Because of his football commitment, his baseball season would end early. In his final game, he struck out in his first at-bat. A funny thing happened in his second plate appearance. He worked deep into the count. With two strikes, he fought off two pitches to stay alive. As the at-bat wore on, many of his teammates crept to the top step of the dugout. Then, boom, he ripped a line drive to right field. The moment of jubilation was cut short when the rightfielder made a shoestring catch. When he returned to the dugout, everyone high-fived Thompson anyway. That was his last at-bat before heading to Seattle.

Between his attitude, his work ethic and his personality, he was a favorite within the Red Sox organization. When he left, they had just one goal in regard to Thompson: get him to come back for one more year.

Three months after the stint in Fort Myers, Sawdaye tuned into Washington’s game at Berkeley. He watched Thompson make seven tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage. With the Huskies protecting a one-point lead and Cal driving midway through the fourth quarter, Thompson picked off a pass and ran it back 33 yards, setting up a short field for Washington’s clinching touchdown. Sawdaye realized he wasn’t getting his prospect back.

* * *

Baseball’s loss is football’s gain. Seemingly anyone who meets Thompson can’t stop gushing about him. How many 20-year-olds send 5 a.m. text reminders to his coaches about afternoon doctor appointments?

In the lead up to the draft he’s hoping to get faster—drop his 40 time to 4.4—improve his footwork, and, just like the baby of any family, make his mother proud. Patty worked for the California tax board until she went on disability three years ago. The family didn't have much (Shaq remembers the electricity turning off in their home on various occasions because of missed bills) but they had a strong core in Patty, who always put a home cooked meal on the table. Shaq calls her almost every night after workouts. “She’s not proud of me yet,” he says. “She’ll only be happy when I get my degree.” A semester shy of graduating, Thompson will resume classes in the spring.

His baseball career doesn’t come up often anymore, but despite the hard knocks he knows there was value in the experience. In preparing for the draft, he is among a sea of players who went from ballyhooed high school recruits to pampered college stars. For many, the NFL will be the first time they ever have to face adversity. Thompson has already been to hell and back.

“I learned how to accept failure,” he says. “I learned not to be afraid of it, to embrace it, that it’s O.K.”

Maybe there’s a Disney movie in there after all.

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