Commentary

Safety prospect stays disciplined

Shaq Thompson hopes to use football as a way out of gang-ridden neighborhood

Updated: January 6, 2012, 5:26 PM ET
By Damon Sayles | ESPN RecruitingNation

SAN ANTONIO -- Shaq Thompson would love for everyone to walk a mile in his shoes. Visit his neighborhood. See what he has seen.

Thompson isn't ashamed to say his North Sacramento, Calif., neighborhood is full of drama. There's violence. There's crime. There are drugs. There are even unsolved mysteries.

"There are a lot of gangs out there," Thompson said. "You've got Bloods, Crips, Mexican gangs, Samoan gangs ... there's a lot of commotion going on."

[+] EnlargeShaq Thompson
Miller Safrit/ESPN.comShaq Thompson has a final four of Cal, Notre Dame, Oregon and Washington.
There's also football, and while some of the people he's the closest to chose alternative lifestyles, Thompson chose to focus his attention on using football as an avenue for a better life for himself and his family. It helps that the four-star Grant High School safety has had his brother, Denver Broncos cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson, to use as a blueprint of sorts.

"I'm going to keep it real; football was a savior for me," Thompson said. "I have some family members in gangs. They played sports, but it didn't work for them like that. I want it to work out for me. That's why I work so hard."

Thompson is one of those players to whom coaches like to tip their hats. When offered the chance to take a negative route, he has decided to go the other way. Thompson sees every hit, interception, catch and touchdown as a reason to keep striving to be a standout -- and a reason why not to be led astray.

"I'm trying to get my message out to the young people out there trying to get into gangs," Thompson said. "Everybody can do something in their life. You've just got to stay focused and work hard for it."

Mr. Everything

One look at Thompson's football resume says a lot. He's ranked No. 2 among California players behind four-star lineman Arik Armstead (Elk Grove, Calif./Pleasant Grove). He's also ranked the No. 3 safety in the country behind five-star Landon Collins (Geismar, La./Dutchtown) and four-star Clemson commit Travis Blanks (Tallahassee, Fla./North Florida Christian).

Thompson (No. 22 in the ESPNU 150) was named the Sacramento Bee's Player of the Year. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, he was a multipurpose standout at Grant, lining up at safety, running back, quarterback and punter. He rushed for 1,135 yards and 15 touchdowns and threw for 893 yards and eight touchdowns in a reserve role. Defensively, Thompson recorded 57 tackles.

Thompson makes it a habit to be the best overall player, and his diligence has been rewarded with multiple scholarship offers. More than a dozen schools have expressed interest in him, including Alabama, Florida, Michigan and Auburn.

He's a player who simply loves football. Someone who said he probably wouldn't do anything else athletically if he couldn't play football.

"To tell you the truth, I'd just go to school and get my education," Thompson said. "That's real big to me, and I'm thinking ahead. If I don't make it to the NFL, what's next for me? What are my opportunities? What are my connections?"

The four candidates

Thompson committed to California in March after the Golden Bears' Junior Day. Thompson, however, reopened his recruitment a week later simply to keep his options open. Cal always has been a favorite of his, but many are wondering if he decides to go a different route on Saturday.

Thompson, in addition to Cal, has mentioned Washington, Oregon and Notre Dame in his final list of schools. USC also was a school on the radar, but Thompson recently decided against the Trojans.

"With U-Dub [Washington], I'm cool with all the coaches, and the atmosphere is just like San Francisco," Thompson said. "The team is great, the dorms are nice, and the education is great there. With Notre Dame, it's all about the education. I can't say enough about the education there. You're connected with almost everybody on and off the field.

"Cal is almost just like Notre Dame with the education. There's a lot of Cal alumni in California. If I don't make it to the NFL, I can apply for a job, say I'm from Cal and feel good about getting a job. With Oregon, they have nice facilities and a great program for sports medicine."

On Saturday, the world will find out if Thompson recommits to Cal or chooses to leave the state. Wherever he goes, he feels he can't make a bad decision.

"To me, they're all basically the same," he said. "All four are good schools, and I don't think I can go wrong with any one of them."

Jekyll and Hyde

When Thompson isn't playing football, he's spending time with his family. He said he likes playing with his niece and nephew, hanging out with his friends and relaxing at home.

"You've got to remember it's California," he said. "In some places, the best thing is just to stay inside."

His family members and friends see the lovable, happy-go-lucky Thompson who wouldn't hurt a fly. They see the guy who's compassionate and humble. Unfortunately for opposing football teams, they see a different person.

Totally different.

When Thompson is on the field, he's a warrior. He's a modern-day gladiator who refuses to let anyone be better than he is. He isn't cocky, but he hits opposing players with all kinds of confidence. There's no holding back with Thompson.

"I've been taught that since my freshman year," Thompson said. "My personality includes humbleness off the field. That's how I was raised. On the field, my coaches tell me to leave everything on the field. I go all out."

This past week has given the West roster a chance to know the good-guy side of Thompson. He has joked with teammates and has kept a smile on his face on and off the field.

Saturday will give the West a chance to see the other side of Thompson.

"I can't wait," he said. "I love playing with top players. It really helps to get ready for the next level. This kind of speed and talent is what I'm going to see every day, and I'll be ready for it."

Damon Sayles covers Midlands recruiting for ESPN Recruiting. He can be reached at dsaylesespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DamonSayles