Editor's note: We welcome one of the nation's premier prep sports writers - Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee - to join the MaxPreps team and help with its 50-in-50 series. SACRAMENTO, Calif. -
For years, the mere mention of the name "Shaq" elicited myriad emotions in Sacramento.
Doom, despair, anger, defeat.
That was Shaq as in Shaquille O'Neal, immovable force for the Los Angeles Lakers, chief nemesis and antagonist for the Sacramento Kings a decade ago when those NBA teams waged annual playoff wars. These days, the Shaq that roams the playing fields in the state capital has an admiring and growing-fast regional following.
is the Maxpreps preseason All-American tailback for Grant (Sacramento, Calif.)
, nestled in Del Paso Heights, just up the road from the Kings arena.
Much like the Shaq of a previous era, the current edition is a sight to behold. He has size – 6-foot-2 and 210 muscled pounds. He has speed – a three-time state-meet sprinter. He glides up and down the line of scrimmage as a tailback and then explodes at the first sight of day light, a blur in cleats, destination: end zone. He can also throw the ball, catch it, punt it and buckle teams on returns.
And to think Thompson's best position just might be in the secondary, as a shutdown corner or a strong safety.
That's why he is listed simply "athlete" as the No. 39 recruit in the country
on Tom Lemming's Top 100 list from the class of 2012.
"Shaq can do it all," Grant coach Mike Alberghini marveled. "He doesn't even know how great he is."
He is great enough to be considered one of the top recruits in the country. As humble as he is dominant and as unselfish as he is spectacular, Thompson aims to add to his 1,892-yard, 25-touchdown rushing season from last fall. He is fit and eager, forever pained that he wasn't close to even 70 percent in the playoffs last fall due to a deep bone bruise on the ball of his heel. He was still fast, mind you.
Just not Shaq Fast.
"That still bothers me," Thompson said. "It took me a long time to get healthy."
Grant was the state's top-ranked team for 13 weeks last season and nationally ranked in the top five by several prep sites before the Pacers succumbed to Folsom in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II title game in front of 22,000 fans at Sacramento State. Folsom went on to win the CIF State Division II Bowl Game in Carson.
Grant won the Open Bowl in 2010, helping usher in a new era of football for the region. Grant plays host to Folsom on Aug. 27 in what is sure to an overflow gathering in Del Paso Heights, an old yet proud and hard-boiled community with muffler shops on one corner and trouble on the other.
Del Paso Heights has for decades embraced its football players as campus heroes and examples of perseverance and pride.
Thompson is a community favorite well beyond his football prowess. He is a mentor to younger children who flock to him after games. He has visited youngsters in the hospital. He has a general theme to all the children he talks to: stay in school and stay out of trouble.
Thompson is quiet by nature, but his grin radiates a room. He never says no to an autograph seeker, or to a fan just wanting to talk. He always has time for a hug for an aunt, a cousin or a friend of the family or a newcomer to the Grant fan club. Grant games are an event, the town's social meeting spot with generations of folks streaming through.
No player draws a crowd quite like Thompson.
"Shaq doesn't even realize how people admire him in this community, how special he is," Thompson's mother, Patty Thompson said.
Said Thompson, "I am proud that kids look up to me. Makes me feel good. All athletes should take time to talk to the younger kids. They look up to us. It's never too much to give an hour."
Alberghini, a Grant coach for 44 years and the Pacers head man for 21, said he will unleash his senior leader this fall. Thompson will be the primary ball carrier, but he will also take some snaps out of shot-gun formation and line up at receiver or in the slot.
He is also a breathtaking return specialist and superb in the secondary, his likely position in college. Thompson very well may play every single down in the big games, as Grant opens with Folsom
, ranked No. 2 by The Sacramento behind MaxPreps national No. 8 Pleasant Grove (Elk Grove)
, followed by a visit from longtime power Long Beach Poly.
Meanwhile, amid the games, school, social and family life, there is this matter of recruiting and Thompson's future.
Thompson is running out of bins to store his mail from all the heavyweight programs in the country. He is on everyone's radar with offers from Alabama, Auburn, Notre Dame and from throughout the Pacific-12 Conference.
He can look to his brothers for recruiting experience, including Syd, a national recruit out of Grant last decade who started four years at cornerback for Cal and is now in his second season with the Denver Broncos. And to think kid brother is bigger, taller and faster – and he'll add handsome – than older brother.
Thompson said he plans to take recruiting trips to Florida, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington. He has been to Cal on unofficial visits and for prep combine workouts. He gave the Bears a verbal commitment earlier in the spring then said he wanted to keep all of his options open.
"I don't know where I'll go, but it's early and there's no rush," Thompson said.
Thompson said if there was an early favorite – and there really isn't at the moment – it would be Washington.
He said he likes the coaches and his best friend, James Sample, is a freshman there. Sample was a prep All-American for Grant last season. Thompson and Sample also ran on state-meet qualifying 400 relay teams together. Joe Davidson is a senior staff writer for The Sacramento Bee. He has covered preps since 1988. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: sb_joedavidson