Carolina Panthers

For Panthers’ Shaq Thompson and his buddy Milo, friendship is a matter of the heart

Shaq Thompson (left) then a Grant Pacer, hugs Milo Graniel after a game.
Shaq Thompson (left) then a Grant Pacer, hugs Milo Graniel after a game. Courtesy Jennifer Graniel

Jennifer Graniel had no idea what was going to happen to her newborn baby boy.

Milo was born with Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), meaning he had a hole in one of the lower chambers of his heart. The doctors missed the defect during Jennifer’s pregnancy, but discovered it the day Milo was born.

There were other complications, too. Milo’s esophagus wasn’t connected with his stomach, so he couldn’t eat. And his aorta was pressing against a bronchial tube, which hindered his breathing.

Jennifer said one of the two most emotional days of her life was finding out her son would need multiple heart surgeries, the first when he was just seven months old.

The second?

The day Milo met Shaq Thompson.

Thompson is a linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, but in 2010 he was a local high school star in Sacramento, where he played for the Grant Union Pacers, who were solidifying themselves as a California powerhouse.

The Pacers, led by coach Mike Alberghini, were churning out Division I athletes who were top-notch people, too.

They were important to the community because of the example they set, Alberghini said last week.

“Our community is not economically high-based,” he said. “We have a lot of kids that are one-parent families.”

Enter Thompson, who was raised alongside three brothers by his mother, Patty, in a no-nonsense household. By his senior year, Thompson was the No. 1-ranked high school player in California by 247 Sports, and No. 4 nationally.

“I’ve been here for 48 years and I’ve coached all of Shaq’s brothers,” Alberghini said. “He was the last and he was, in my opinion, the best of all the boys. He went out of his way to be a good person to people, and when he could do something for someone, he would.”

Without really knowing it, Thompson did something for Milo.

Grabbing Milo’s attention

Thompson played everywhere for Grant Union – quarterback, running back, defensive back, receiver, linebacker and all over the field on special teams. During the team’s spring scrimmage in Thompson’s junior year, he caught the attention of Milo, then an 8-year-old, who watched him thoroughly dominate.

That was all it took.

“They played at home one game and my dad took me to see it,” said Milo. “He scored like five touchdowns and I told my dad, ‘He’s a good player and I’d like to meet him.’

“He said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ 

They played at home one game and my dad took me to see it. Shaq Thompson scored like five touchdowns and I told my dad, ‘He’s a good player and I’d like to meet him.’

Milo Graniel

At the time, Milo was awaiting his fourth surgery, and he had a choice to make. Involved in the Make-A-Wish program, he could ask to meet any professional athlete he wanted, or any celebrity for that matter.

But his mind was set.

He wanted to meet Thompson, the star of the Grant Pacers.

Milo’s choice surprised Jennifer.

“Not a superstar pro athlete. Not a player from like, the Raiders or wherever,” Jennifer said, laughing. “He wanted to meet Shaq Thompson, a 17-year-old high school football player. That was his big thing.”

Richard Graniels, Milo’s father and an alumnus of the Pacers, reached out to some friends to help set the meeting up. He and Jennifer picked him up from school, and Milo had no idea what was coming.

They took Milo to the locker room at Grant Union, where all the Pacers were standing to greet him.

He ran right to Thompson. Then, he started bawling.

“Shaq gave him a hug and he just started crying,” said Jennifer. “All he kept saying was ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’

“He had so many medical complications when he was born, that this time it was a good emotional moment, not a sad one.”

‘I love that boy so much’

Thompson still smiles when he remembers that day.

“It was a good feeling,” he said. “I had never had that before, being somebody’s role model that they wanted to see. It was a good feeling.

“That’s what we’re here for as athletes – to give kids something to look up to.”

About a month later, Milo was back in the hospital for his fourth surgery. Afterward, when he opened his eyes and peered through the tubes and wires that surrounded him, Thompson was there.

Milo saw him as an idol. And Shaq is so humble, he was always just like, ‘I’m just a 17-year-old kid that an 8-year-old wants to meet?’ ... I love him for taking the time to be there for Milo even if he had just five minutes.

Jennifer Graniel, Milo’s mother

“I love that boy so much,” said Jennifer, voice brimming with emotion. “I know he’s not a boy anymore. But I love him so much. He gave Milo so much love and so much of his time.

“Milo saw him as an idol. And Shaq is so humble, he was always just like, ‘I’m just a 17-year-old kid that an 8-year-old wants to meet?’ And he’d still take five minutes to see him (after games), even if the bus was threatening to leave him.

“It just meant so much to our family. I love him for taking the time to be there for Milo.”

Milo’s first love is football. He can’t play tackle football because of his heart, but he still goes to every Grant Pacers game and has for the past seven seasons.

“He comes to all our games and it had a lot to do with Shaq getting in his life,” Alberghini said. “He and his family come to all of our games. They can’t say enough good things about Shaq.”

A continuing relationship

When Thompson was at the University of Washington, he got Milo and his family tickets to see the Huskies play at Cal and they got to go onto the field with him. Milo said that’s his favorite memory of Thompson, other than when they first met.

Milo doesn’t see Thompson much anymore, because of his NFL schedule and his new family – Thompson has a baby girl born a month ago, named Kya, and his time is devoted to who he calls his “perfect” little girl.

Milo said he understands, and he begged his mom to sign up for an NFL television package so he can watch Thompson – and his now-favorite quarterback Cam Newton – every weekend.

And when it’s not the season?

“I play Madden as Shaq,” Milo admitted, giggling.

He wins a lot, he said. He tried to use Thompson as a running back, the way the Pacers and Washington did, but the game won’t let him switch Thompson’s position from linebacker.

Wednesday, Milo celebrated his birthday. He’s 15 and though he’s doing much better, Jennifer is still concerned about his health. She said he’s getting chest pains, and his cardiologist noticed a small amount of leakage in his surgically repaired aortic valve.

He might have to have surgery again, she said. The only question is when.

“We’re just hoping for the best,” she said.

For the Graniel family, which has been through so much in Milo’s 15 years, it’s the little things that matter.

Like Wednesday, when Milo was elated to see Thompson’s name pop up on his phone.

Thompson, between a West Coast road trip, practice, team meetings and checking in on his own family and month-old daughter, had texted him to wish Milo a happy birthday.

“I looked, and I smiled and replied ‘Thank you,’ ” Milo says. “I’m glad he still thinks about me.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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