Shaq Thompson, a lightning-quick and hard-hitting rookie linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, will be on display for the world to see in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday. But it wasn't that long ago that he briefly pursued a professional baseball career with the Boston Red Sox.
In 2012, the Red Sox were trying to think outside the box with some of their later-round picks in the MLB Draft. Amiel Sawdaye, at the time the club's director of amateur scouting, told his scouts to find some standout athletes who might have fallen through the cracks due to limited exposure in baseball.
So in the 18th round -- at pick No. 571 overall -- the Red Sox called Thompson's name. Football had always come first for him, but at Grant Union High School in Sacramento, Calif., Thompson had also played varsity baseball in his sophomore and senior years. Red Sox area scout Demond Smith reported back to Sawdaye that Thompson -- an outfielder -- had freakish athleticism and perhaps could grow into a baseball player if he had enough reps and instruction.
When Thompson -- named after basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal -- was called, his mother, Patty, thought her own dream might come true of seeing her son avoid the sometimes harsh and brutal contact that comes with a career in the National Football League. Shaq's older brother Syd'Quan had his NFL career halted for good by an Achilles injury in just his second pro season with the Broncos.
"Shaq was obviously an elite athlete," said Sawdaye, now vice president of international and amateur scouting for the Red Sox. "His mom really wanted him to play baseball. His brother was in the NFL briefly and got injured, and I think his mom was really concerned -- the typical injury concerns that go along with football."
Thompson's brief baseball career wasn't exactly a success, and that's probably an understatement. Playing the same summer he was drafted -- shortly before taking the football field as a freshman at the University of Washington -- Thompson went 0-for-39 with 37 strikeouts in 13 games with the Rookie-level Red Sox of the Gulf Coast League. But the fact that he was even given a chance to play professional baseball is a testament to his incredible athletic gifts, which have helped him reach football's biggest stage at the age of 21.
With a commitment to play football for Washington in hand, Thompson had a few weeks to give baseball a shot first. After agreeing to terms, which included a modest signing bonus, Thompson reported to the Red Sox's facilities in Fort Myers, Fla., and was soon playing Rookie ball.
Thompson's manager was George Lombard, the current first-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers and a former Major League outfielder. Perhaps Lombard could be the perfect person to help mold Thompson into a ballplayer. After all, Lombard was a star running back in high school and had a commitment to play football at Georgia, only to reverse fields and commit fully to baseball.
"I think Amiel said, 'Hey George, one of our No. 1 goals is to get him to come back next year,'" Lombard said. "They knew it wasn't going to be easy. If we could get him interested enough, get him back and if the football thing didn't work out, then we've got a pretty good athlete. And he was still young and we felt as if maybe we could mold this kid."
The Red Sox worked with Washington football coach Steve Sarkisian to come up with a plan for Thompson to balance the two sports and give both of them a fair shot.
"Steve had said that if [Thompson] wants to do this, he'd work with us and make it work," said Sawdaye. "He said, 'Let's set out a yearly plan for him so he comes to Spring Training for a week and a half and then he goes to spring football, and then he goes to extended spring camp and plays baseball. We had drawn up this whole plan, and the kid really worked hard. It seemed like all the stars were aligned for it to possibly work, and then when he came in, everyone was raving about how great a kid he was. You were like, 'Man, this is going to be pretty interesting.'"
Once the games started, Thompson's lack of experience in baseball showed. Due to the upcoming report date for UW football practices, the outfielder had time to play just 13 games for the GCL Red Sox. Over 47 plate appearances, Thompson never got to experience the joy of getting a hit. He did walk eight times, but the .000 batting average made life tough.
"You bring kids from the Dominican and other places to the GCL, and they are throwing hard, they are throwing bullets," said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. "A lot of times, they are all over the place, but they're throwing hard. He gave you everything he had, that's for sure."
Taking the heat
During that summer of 2012, Deadspin posted an article disparaging Thompson as a baseball player. There was criticism and mockery from other outlets on social media as well.
"Deadspin writes an article, national baseball writers are crushing him. It was so disappointing to see that," said Sawdaye.
Talk to people who knew Thompson during his brief baseball career, and you can't find anyone who says anything negative about his work ethic or the way he carried himself.
"He was a very good kid," said Rodriguez. "Even though he probably didn't have the success he wanted to, he was very coachable. He wanted to get better. He wanted to learn. He put a good effort in everything he did.
"He was a football player trying to compete at a professional level in baseball. Even guys who have played their whole lives have trouble when they become professionals. You never saw any negative out of this kid. He didn't have the success he would like to, but he always had a smile. He paid attention to everything you told him. He was into everything that we did with him."
Two-sport athletes at the level of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders hardly ever come along. The most realistic chance Thompson would have had in baseball is if he had abandoned his dreams of playing football.
"There were some phases [in 2012] where he might have been more advanced than me when I was in my first pro season," said Lombard, a second-round Draft pick in 1994. "I tried to tell him, 'You have a better arm than when I started, you look more comfortable in the outfield than when I first started.' Listen, I battled ... and it started to pay off in year No. 4, year No. 5. There's no miracle to playing baseball. You have to get out there and grind it out and catch a lot of balls and hit a lot of balls and throw a lot of balls and do it over and over again."
Considering that Thompson has gained so much praise as a rookie in the NFL, it appears that he may have chosen the right career.
"I think I would've been all right," Thompson said earlier this week at Super Bowl media day. "I loved baseball when I was younger, but I just grew out of it. I guess I wanted more contact. I wanted to be like my brother. I wasn't as good at baseball."
"I remember a lot," Thompson said at the 2015 NFL scouting combine of his pro baseball tenure. "It didn't go as I wanted. I had a couple media people make a joke out of it, but it was motivation to me. I really wasn't tripping off of it. Hey, that's what the media does -- well, some people. I felt like I used it as motivation going into my freshman year, and that's what I did. I met some great people there. I met this thing called failure, learned how to overcome it and move on."
If Thompson had committed to baseball, there might have been some moments to remember.
Danny Chavez, Thompson's high school baseball coach at Grant Union, will never forget the double to the pitcher's mound.
"He hit a popup in the infield, and he hit it so high, it looked like a golf ball," Chavez said. "If he would have squared that ball up on the bat, he probably would have hit it about 600 feet. Everyone was starting to converge on the ball. 'I've got it, you've got it,' and the ball is getting closer to the ground. The ball hits right on top of the pitcher's mound, on the dirt. As the ball hits the ground, I look, and Shaq is slowing up at second base. I said, 'Wow, no one touched the ball, so is that an infield double?' No matter what, he went real hard, full speed. He understood his speed was a weapon for him on the baseball field."
On Sunday, Thompson will use that same weapon to shut down the Denver Broncos.
"He's a football player, and it shows," Rodriguez said. "He's in the Super Bowl!"
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com.