2014 WINNER – SHAQ THOMPSON (University of Washington)
By Mason Kelley
Shaq Thompson walked out of Washington’s locker room and crossed the hall to one of the Huskies’ meeting rooms.
The junior had just finished a series of post-practice stretches. Wearing a white T-shirt and black shorts, he punched in a door code and sat down in a black seat with a purple “W” on the back. He leaned forward. He rested his elbows on his knees and ran both hands through his dreadlocks – a family trademark.
He took a minute to gather his thoughts and process the past. Then he started to talk about a life that began as the youngest of four boys raised by a single mother in Sacramento, Calif. and has led him to national notoriety at Washington.
Thoughtful and introspective, Thompson prefers to let his play do most of the talking. With six touchdowns (four defensive), that is exactly what the linebacker and running back – he plays where he is needed – has done in 2014. But, on this particular afternoon, he started his story from the beginning.
He explained the influence of his mother, Patty, who showed him “how to treat people, manners and how to act right in public.” He described how three brothers – Syd’Quan, Ricky and Le’Arthur – taught him to be tough. He talked about going from “having nothing to having something.”
Life in Northern California wasn’t easy for the Thompson family. Patty worked long hours for the state’s Franchise Tax Board to provide for her children.
“I was barely able to see her,” Thompson said. “She worked morning to night. She was able to keep a roof over our heads and pay the bills by herself.”
Thompson talks about his mother in reverential tones.
“Everything I do is for her,” he said.
Patty set high standards for her boys. She showed them that, even when times are tough, it is important to make people feel welcome.
“Even if we didn’t have anything, she would cook, not just for four boys, for everybody,” he said. “There were always a lot of people at the house.
“It’s hard to raise boys by yourself. My mom did a great job with that.”
When Patty was at work, Thompson turned into a target for his brothers. He was the one “always getting picked on.”
There was the time Ricky and Le’Arthur put him in a toy chest and sat on it.
“I couldn’t get out,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe.”
Then there was the day they put him in a bucket and sent him flying down the stairs of the family’s two-story home. Looking back on those moments, Thompson cracked a smile.
“I had to get tough,” he said. “I guess that helped. I’ve got tough skin. I really don’t care what people think. It’s hard to get to me. I thank my brothers for all that.”
Without a father figure, Thompson said his mother and brothers served as his role models. The family didn’t have a lot, but they had each other.
Then tough times got more difficult. When Thompson was in sixth grade, he went to live with his godparents for a few years. He called being away from his family the most difficult time in his life.
While he was separated from those who helped mold him into the man he is becoming, Patty did what she could to keep him pointed in the right direction.
Throughout much of Thompson’s look back at his childhood, his face was solemn and focused. Then he started talking about the time Patty gave him his first cell phone. She called his godparents’ house. Thompson didn’t recognize the number.
“Whose number is this?” he asked at the time.
Patty replied, “It’s yours.”
When Thompson was given that Nokia phone, he needed just one word to describe the feeling that gift provided. He was “happy.”
His freshman year in high school, though, that provided an altogether different set of emotions. Things started to go “downhill.”
“I skipped a lot of school, wasn’t into it,” he said. “I almost went down.”
With his life heading in the wrong direction, Reggie Harris, one of Thompson’s coaches at Grant High School, intervened. He described the bleak future in front of Thompson if he didn’t turn things around.
Faced with a choice, he focused on school and football.
“It changed my whole life,” he said.
He lived with Harris for a year. A strong sophomore season turned into a big junior campaign. He became a highly touted prospect with scholarship offers from power programs across the country. He moved back in with his mother and eventually faced another decision.
He initially committed to Cal. The university provided an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his brother, Syd’Quan, who was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 2010 before his NFL career was cut short after suffering a ruptured Achilles.
Cal wasn’t the right fit for Thompson.
“He (Syd’Quan) made a path for me, but I chose a different route,” Thompson said.
He looked at UCLA, Oregon and then Washington.
“I found a place here at the University of Washington,” he said.
Before he ever arrived in Seattle, the Boston Red Sox selected him in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB draft. He spent a summer in Florida playing in the Gulf Coast League.
“That was a start,” he said. “I wasn’t a good baseball player, but you’ve got to do what’s right in a time of need, so I had to take that. It’s an opportunity you can’t pass up.”
His brief foray into baseball made him mature at a rapid rate.
“I had to learn how to grow up fast,” he said.
The experience helped him become a starter at linebacker as a freshman. With a rare mix of instincts, intelligence and athleticism, Thompson has been an anchor for the Huskies’ defense. This season, he added running back to his Division I résumé.
“It’s shows a lot of versatility and it helps others who have potential get on the field and show their talents and skills off,” said Thompson, when asked about playing multiple positions. “In a way it’s a win-win. I’m doing whatever I need to do.”
Through 13 games this season, he has 71 tackles, three fumbles returned for touchdowns and a pick-six on defense. On offense, he has 61 carries for 456 yards and two touchdowns in addition to four catches for 56 yards. He averages 7.5 yards per carry and 14 yards per catch.
Projected to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft if he leaves after this season, Thompson faces a new decision in a few months.
“My mom always wanted a big house and a car, so I have to go get that for her,” he said. “That’s the goal, to make it and support my family.”
But, while he plans on taking care of his family, he isn’t in a hurry to end his college career. Patty wants her son to get his degree, so he plans to finish school.
“She doesn’t really care about the money,” he said. “She would rather I have that degree, something to fall back on.”
Once the season ends, he will sit down with Patty and talk about the future. No matter what happens, for Thompson, “A degree has to come first.”
These days, whenever times are tough, Thompson thinks about his journey from Sacramento to Seattle.
“I think back on having nothing and use that to motivate me,” he said.
Patty taught him how to be a good person. His brothers taught him to be tough. Everything he does now is aimed toward one day taking care of those who took care of him.
“That’s the goal, to make it and support my family,” Thompson said.
And with that, Thompson brought his story full circle. He stood up to head back across the hall to the locker room. Practice was over, but his day wasn’t done. He still had a literature class to attend. He didn’t want to be late.
Click here to view the 2015 Paul Hornung Award Banquet program.
Click here to view all photos from the 2015 Paul Hornung Award Banquet.
Four offensive stars who performed double duty on special teams and a two-way “runningbacker” were named finalists for the Fifth Annual Paul Hornung Award, presented by Texas Roadhouse and given annually to the most versatile player in major college football. The five players represent four power conferences: the Pac 12, Big 12, SEC and Big 10.
In 2014, the five Paul Hornung Award finalists accounted for 2,950 rushing yards, 1,121 receiving yards, 1,317 kickoff return yards, 512 punt return yards and 220 interception/fumble return yards. Reminiscent of Hornung during his playing days, the finalists demonstrated a knack for scoring, accounting for 48 total touchdowns six different ways – rushing, receiving, punt return, kickoff return, interception and fumble returns.
Nebraska running back and return specialist Ameer Abdullah ranked among the top 10 nationally in all-purpose yards per game (third), rushing touchdowns (fourth), scoring (seventh) and rushing yards per game (ninth). Abdullah rushed for better than 200 yards four times during the 2014 season, tying a Nebraska record. He also produced a pair of games with more than 300 all-purpose yards, making him the only player in the nation with two games with 300-plus all-purpose yards. Abdullah set a Nebraska record for career all-purpose yards (6,700), while ranking second in Big Ten history in career all-purpose yardage. He was the dominating factor for the Huskers in a 41-31 win over the Miami Hurricanes: 313 all-purpose yards, including 229 rushing yards and two scores on a career-high 35 carries. He added a three-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter and 81 yards on four kickoff returns to finish the night as Nebraska’s career all-purpose yardage leader. In the Cornhuskers win over Rutgers, Abdullah set a school record with 343 all-purpose yards.
TCU tailback and kick return specialist B.J. Catalon, was a huge part of the team’s rise to the top of the Big 12 standings and number five ranking in the College Football Playoffs. He led his team in all-purpose yards (910), touchdowns (12) and kick return yards. Catalon led the Horned Frogs with 144 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a 37-33 upset win against the number four-ranked Oklahoma Sooners when he carried the ball 11 times for 48 yards and a touchdown, caught a pass for 39 yards and a touchdown, and returned a kickoff return for 57 yards. The following week, he scored three times and recorded 213 all-purpose yards in a last-second loss at number five-ranked Baylor, 61-58. Catalon ran the ball 13 times for 48 yards and two touchdowns, caught two passes for 71 yards and returned a kickoff 94 yards for his third score of the game. Catalon was one of five active players with 1,500 career yards rushing (1,644) and 900 in kickoff returns (997). He was named to the All-Big 12 Academic team in 2013.
Missouri running back and punt/kickoff return specialist Marcus Murphy touched the ball 180 times in the 2014 season running, receiving and returning kickoffs and punts, and scored touchdowns in each of those categories. He carried the ball and returned a punt in every game, and caught a pass and returned a kickoff in 10 games. His season totals: 128 carriers for 607 yards, 20 receptions for 143 yards, 21 punt returns for 274 yards and 11 kickoff returns for 362 yards. Murphy’s breakout game came against Florida when he recorded 224 all-purpose years and three touchdowns – a five-yard reception, 96-yard kickoff return and 52-yard punt return. He averaged a workmanlike five yards per carry, seven yards per reception, 13 yards per punt return and 33 yards per kickoff return. He was the NCAA active leader in career return yards, and owns the Mizzou records for special teams touchdowns (seven) and the career return yards record with 2,686.
Stanford wide receiver and return specialist Ty Montgomery piled up 1,401 all-purpose yards, recording 23 carries for 146 yards and one touchdown, 60 receptions for 590 yards and three touchdowns, 12 punt returns for 238 yards and two touchdowns and 17 kickoff returns for 429 yards. He averaged 140.1 all-purpose yards per game in the 2014 season, recording two games of more than 200 all-purpose yards. He averaged 19.8 yards per punt return, 25.2 yards per kickoff return and 9.8 yards per reception. During week four of the season, Montgomery went up against Shaq Thompson and the Washington Huskies and accounted for 149 all-purpose yards and a touchdown in a 20-13 Pac-12 win on the road. Montgomery summed up the hard-fought win in the second quarter when he caught a two-yard pass, steamrolled several Husky defenders down the sideline and backpedalled the final five yards for a 17-yard score. Montgomery was first among FBS active leaders in combined kickoff and punt return yards with 2,732.