The home visits are over, the road trips, too. Now it's extra think-tank time for Shaq Thompson.
The Grant High School All-American safety said he has narrowed the final four college scholarship destination programs down to three, with the real sense it might actually be down to a final two. The programs are, in no particular order: Cal, Oregon, Washington and UCLA. He said, "There are three schools still in it, and I can't tell the schools, but everybody will see Wednesday (on National Signing Day) and I'll make my final choice."
Thompson is the Sacramento-area's next real curiosity. On Sunday at his family church in Sacramento, Pleasant Grove All-American lineman Arik Armstead announced that he will go to Oregon. Armstead and Thompson have become close friends in the past several months, a bond that grew during their week together at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio when Thompson ribbed Armstead as "Big Ole Arik."
The two talk and text regularly. They share ideas, compare schools, academic settings, football facilities, coaches, cities. Their mothers - Patty Thompson and Christa Armstead - also talk about the recruiting - of being so fortunate and of bearing headaches. And yes, Thompson and Armstead talk about playing together, but it's no pact.
Said Armstead on Sunday, "I don't know where Shaq will play but it would be great to have him at Oregon. He has to make a decision that's best for him."
For Thompson, four possibilities, three serious contenders, one winner. Which program is the odd one out? Thompson has twice given Cal a verbal commitment, so is the third time - the officially binding version this time - the the charm? Thompson first gave a Cal verbal on Bears Junior Day last spring, then de-committed so he could accept recruiting trips across the country to Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, Washington and to Cal. De-committing is very common, and no different from a college offering a scholarship and then pulling it, or offering more scholarships than it has, understanding well that teenagers change their minds, too.
Thompson isn't being a showman here with a final collection of possibilities. It's not his style, but he admitted that a little suspense doesn't hurt this sort of game - and it's the norm with scores of 5-star recruits across the country any more as this is their golden moment as a prep, announcing where they will go. Thompson at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds is rated by most as the No. 1 safety prospect in the country. He'd surely be rated high as a tailback, too, given his ability with a ball in his hands.
How unique is Thompson? The last time the Sacramento-area had a non-linemen this heavily recruited was Kevin Willhite of Cordova in 1982, the National Player of the Year who went to Oregon, started four years in the backfield at fullback after leg injuries robbed him of his breakaway speed, graduated and now manages a paper manufacturing firm in Sacramento.
Thompson is the most sought-after Grant athlete since Onterrio Smith in 1998, when he set NorCal career rushing records. He finished college at Oregon and played in the NFL. Thompson will immediately impact a college program. The coaches will appreciate his work ethic and skills. His professors will appreciate that he cares about school just as much. Fans will be moved by his movements in the open field.
All told, Thompson is as genuine and humble a high school super star athlete as I have encountered in all my years at The Bee, dating back to 1988. Coaches at Grant remind Shaq that he has no idea how great he can be, and he disdains statistics and highlight footage in reminding it's a team game and he's merely a part of the machine. Yeah, as the diesel engine with speed.
Thompson always talks about how he can be a better leader, how he can improve his game, his team's game, how he can impact the lives of students on campus, or in his hard-boiled neighborhood where so many kids just hope to get into a college.
The one image I have of Thompson isn't him reversing field as a tailback and buckling foes with his breakaway speed. It isn't separating a receiver from the ball with a closing-speed tackle that makes you think 18-wheeler vs. VW Bug. It's Thompson with Grant teammate James Sample visiting an 8-year old boy in a Sacramento hospital after the boy's third open-heart surgery. The boy asked his parents for one wish: To meet Shaq and Sample. He got that wish, and he wept when they entered the hospital room.
Said Shaq then, "I had no idea people knew who I was and that I was that important to them. Very humbling."
That boy, named Camiloo Graniel, is now healthy. He was a regular at Grant games this past season, wearing a Shaq photo button and jumping every time his hero made a play. The boy jumped a ton (look up hospital footage on Youtube).
Thompson knows how fortunate he is. His older brother Syd was a four year starter at cornerback for Cal and is a second-year corner for the Denver Broncos. Syd has said that football got him into college, got him an education, matured him.
So you can guess where Syd wants kid brother to go - Cal. And Cal is where Thompson gave a verbal commitment earlier this month, ecstatic over the chance to come in with other heralded freshmen. But when Cal assistant coach and recruiting guru Tosh Lupoi suddenly bolted for Washington, Thompson was suddenly torn. He said then it was Cal and Washington "50-50." Then Jeff Tedford of Cal, who landed Syd years earlier, made a home visit on Thursday.
Then Lupoi and Washington applied a full-court pressure of sorts on Thompson to consider Washington, where Sample - Thompson's teammate that went to visit Camilo at the hospital - is in the secondary. Lupoi and an army of Huskies coaches visited the Thompson home on Thursday as well.
Then Chip Kelly of Oregon on Friday charmed Thompson with the idea of being a Duck, of competing for a BCS title, of the academic structure in Eugene, the wow facilities.
And quietly, UCLA made inroads. New coach Jim Mora made a home visit last month and assistant coach Angus McClure stopped by the Grant campus earlier this week. And over the weekend, on Jan. 28 and 29, Thompson took an unofficial visit to Washington.
Thompson said he was touched and flattered to learn that so many fans are curious as to where he will go, understanding that scores of those "fans" will turn on him via Twitter venom if he doesn't wind up wearing their colors.
"(The home visits) were all good," Thompson said. "I'm still deciding. I love all my fans. I just have to make the best choice for me."
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