April 4, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - True to his unique talents, Shaq Thompson had an absolutely atypical spring break.
The 18-year-old is in the last months of his freshman year at UW. But he didn't party on a beach last month. He wasn't home in Sacramento, Calif., lounging and hanging with his buds from Grant High School, which he left less than a year ago to become a starting linebacker for the Huskies.
Days after ending his first six spring college football practices, Thompson was in Fort Myers, Fla., grinding inside batting cages and working on the fundamentals of being a center fielder and left fielder for 10 days on the back fields of the Boston Red Sox' minor-league baseball camp.
Boston drafted Thompson in the 18th round last summer, despite the fact he hadn't played organized baseball since sixth grade. That was after Alabama, California, Oregon, USC, UCLA, Florida, Notre Dame, Michigan, Auburn, and Notre Dame all offered the nation's top-rated high-school safety a football scholarship. But he said Thursday Washington was the only school that was OK with him playing both football and professional baseball.
"The only one," he said. "But even if they said I couldn't play baseball, I was coming to Washington."
Thompson knew of coach Steve Sarkisian and the Huskies allowing Jake Locker to pursue baseball with the Bellingham Bells collegiate summer team in 2008. A year later the Los Angeles Angels selected Washington's star quarterback out of Ferndale High School in the 10th round of the Major League Baseball draft, though he is way fine now with being the Tennessee Titans' starting quarterback.
Thompson made his professional baseball debut last summer in 13 games for the Fort Myers Red Sox rookie team in the Gulf Coast League. Months later he was a ball-hawking, hard-hitting linebacker and instant starter for the Huskies.
Two weeks ago, he was reunited with many of his baseball friends from last summer's rookie-league team.
"It was good to see everyone I played with at first," Thompson said Thursday, back in his "other" sport for a wet, two-hour spring football practice on East Field.
His baseball teammates kept tabs on Thompson last fall, watching on national television as he and the Dawgs played LSU, Oregon and Cal.
"They said I had a couple big hits," Thompson said, smiling.
"Everybody remembered me. ... We really connected. Had laughs, joked. Stories to tell. It was all right."
Left fielder Iseha Conklin, catcher Beau Bishop and second baseman Mike Meyers are Thompson's closest friends on the Fort Myers team. Conklin, 20, was a baseball and football recruit out of high school before setting on baseball in junior college. Bishop and Meyers are both 19.
Thompson turns 19 on April 21. He is the fourth-youngest of 27 players the Red Sox list on their Florida rookie-league roster.
His older friends were envious of the life Thompson is living at UW.
"They asked me about college. They said, `Man, you are living the life!'" Thompson said.
"I said, `Man, school is school. If you want to go back, go back.'"
That is, Thompson told them it wasn't the college they envision. He recited to them his daily schedule: he lifts weights in the early morning; he studies; he goes to class; he rushes off UW's main campus down the hill to daily afternoon football meetings; he practices for two-plus hours; he goes to training table for dinner and then he studies some more before sleeping a few hours and getting back at it all again the next school day.
Most baseball guys have gone straight from high school into lives of independence, of long bus rides, of and free time by day, games by night.
His baseball pals in Fort Myers couldn't comprehend what Thompson is doing at Washington.
"It was basically, `How are the girls?' Typical boys," Thompson joked.
They admire him for all he is doing.
"You've got to respect the guy. He's the only one really doing a two-sport thing. You've got to respect the fact that he has a whole different life than us, just focusing on baseball," Conklin told Alex Speier of Boston's WEEI radio last month in Fort Myers.
"He's a good guy to be around. I honestly missed him when he left. I think it was the whole baseball team. He has a great personality.
"Some people would think, `He's a two-sport athlete and he's going to be cocky.' But he's the most humble guy I know around here. He always makes you feel smile and feel good about yourself. He's a good teammate."
Thompson gained national attention - and some ridicule - last summer when he went 0 for 39 with 37 strikeouts in that 13-game, rookie-league stint. Few of those accounts mentioned Thompson was doing a cameo in a sport he hadn't played in six years.
"The hardest thing is to hit the curveball," he said. "Have to get the timing from when he throws it and then track it all the way in."
The Red Sox think he has so much potential and raw talent as a outfielder that they gave Thompson a $45,000 signing bonus. The contact says he can earn up to $100,000 if he plays four years.
He immediately felt more comfortable in Fort Myers last month compared to any time last summer.
"I started off better than I did last year," he said. "I felt like I improved more, even though I really didn't do anything (baseball-wise since last summer)."
Asked if he considers himself a better football player or baseball one, Thompson's expression turned blank.
"I'm not going to comment on that one," he said.
He is scheduled to report back to Fort Myers and the Gulf Coast League season in June after spring quarter ends at UW. By the first of August he will be returning to Seattle to start the Huskies' fall football camp before the Aug. 31 opener against Boise State at new Husky Stadium.
After that? The Red Sox and Thompson will wait and see. Both are waiting for his professional football prospects to develop.
"Nah, they aren't telling me anything," he said of the Red Sox. "They are just waiting until time gets closer (to him having to decide on a future football career)."
Thompson believes there are skills and traits related to both sports.
"Eye control," he said. "(And) mental toughness. You have to learn that you are going to fail, both sports."
Not that he's doing much of that in football.
The Huskies think their rising sophomore has the speed, instincts and skill, plus a humbleness and work ethic, to become among the best defensive players in the nation. And Sarkisian notes that the one time he let Thompson return kickoffs last season, late in December's MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, the 30-yard return he almost broke for a touchdown on Boise State was perhaps Washington's best kick return of the 2012 season.
"Yeah, he's doing great," said Justin Wilcox, the defensive coordinator who moved Thompson from safety to linebacker last season. "He's a real bright guy. Football makes sense to him, and he picks it up very well. He's got things to work on, just like everybody, but I'm pleased with his progress."
The former coordinator at Boise State and Tennessee played safety at Oregon then began his coaching career in 2001. He says Thompson is the only player he's coached that has pursued a second, full-time sport -- other than a few who have dabbled in track.
"I wouldn't know the difference," Wilcox said of Thompson balancing football and baseball. "He handles it well. He's a humble, hard-working guy. When he comes to meetings he is prepared. I assume he does it the same way when he's playing baseball.
"He's got to be down there (in Florida) on his own. He's doing a lot of things guys his age aren't doing. That takes commitment, in terms of playing football and being a student and having a baseball career, too. That's a lot for anybody - let alone a freshman in college.
"He's handled it extremely well."
Thompson said it "feels good to be out here, getting back in shape, getting to be with my `family' again, just play football again" now that he's back at UW.
"You do have to switch, switch my mindset," he said. "It's not that hard. It's more of a mental thing. People might think there is more to it, but it's not."
So what does No. 7 at linebacker for the Huskies hope to get out of baseball?
"It depends," he said. "Whenever I enter the draft or something, I just have to choose between football and baseball."
"I just have a love for it. I played baseball when I was younger. I should have continued it. I just stopped and got back into it. Learned the hard way.
"I just want to get the feeling, to get really taught to play baseball."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: The best moment of Thursday's practice came when Keith Price scrambled away from pressure and chucked a pass well out of bounds over the chain-link fence that separates the practice field from the adjoining renovation of Husky Stadium. A construction worker immediately threw the ball back over the fence, showing the hard-hatters are indeed aware of the work the Huskies are doing along with them. ... The next, closed practice is Saturday. ... The spring game is Saturday, April 20 at 4 p.m. at Seattle Center's Memorial Stadium, under the Space Needle. Admission is free.