Carolina Panthers

Big year for Panthers LB Shaq Thompson? How, and why, he’s speaking it into existence

Is Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, left, ready for a big year alongside safety Mike Adams, right, and the rest of the defense? “He’s been ready for a long time,” Luke Kuechly says.
Is Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, left, ready for a big year alongside safety Mike Adams, right, and the rest of the defense? “He’s been ready for a long time,” Luke Kuechly says. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

We see one side.

We see the leaping, one-handed, seemingly impossible interceptions, the full-speed blitzes through mounds of bodies, even the routine calls on the field, the diagnosing and dissecting of plays at practice – we’re witness to it all.

And yet, that isn’t even scratching the surface with Shaq Thompson.

Now, we’re not talking potential as it relates to football, even if that’s all any NFL fan or reporter has done with Thompson this offseason.

They’ve all touted the 24-year-old Carolina Panthers linebacker, entering his fourth NFL season, as this team’s breakout star, a temporary fill-in for and heir apparent to Thomas Davis.

Shaq’s gonna break out.

This is Shaq’s year.

We’re expecting big, big things outta Shaq.

That may all be true, and it’s fine, but it’s not anything Thompson cares about. Rather, he’s just as invested in the other side of his life, the side we don’t get to see — what’s beyond the surface.

Such as his infant daughter, Kya – or as Thompson calls her on his Twitter page, his ‘beautiful princess.’ Or Gabby, his longtime girlfriend he proposed to in July. Or, as if that wasn’t already enough, his soon-to-be baby boy, name pending.

“What we do, it’s not easy,” Thompson says, “but everybody has a reason. Everybody’s reason might be the same, everybody’s reason might be different, but most of the guys here, that reason is they’ve got to feed their family.

“That’s my reason. That’s my why. That’s how I come out here and motivate myself.”

‘I think he’s been ready for a long time’

Thompson isn’t much interested in talking about his ‘big year’ anymore — who could blame him? — but it’s at least worth mentioning why everyone else is.

Really, all the talk began the night of April 6.

That was the night Davis posted a video to social media explaining he would serve a four-game suspension to start this season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

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If the preseason is any indication, Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson, left, is due for a monster year. What motivates Thompson, though, is about more than football. Adrian Kraus AP

Like that, the whispers about his temporary replacement — about Thompson — were off ... and they haven’t stopped.

“Everybody has asked me this training camp and during the preseason games, ‘Is Shaq ready?’” Luke Kuechly told reporters Tuesday. “I think he’s been ready for a long time.”

And so far this offseason, Thompson has backed that up with his play.

Last season, his best yet as a pro, he finished with 61 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in 14 games. In limited time this preseason, he already has 12 tackles and an interception, not to mention a highlight-reel tackle for loss against Miami.

Of course, those sorts of numbers have made the talk grow louder. But how Thompson sees it all?

“I don’t let nobody put pressure on me. I don’t put pressure on myself,” Thompson says. “I like to speak things into existence. So I’m going to speak it, and then I’m going to go out there and prove it, whether I had believers or not.

“All that, big year, big year. … Just sit back and watch. That’s what I’ve gotta say. I’m going to go out there, I’m gonna make it exciting, and I’ma be there for my teammates.”

Football teammates, that is. But Thompson has to be there for more than just the other 52 guys in that locker room.

‘I do it for my family’

No matter how sore he is, no matter how good or bad a practice it was, Thompson always makes time for Kya.

“I still play with her a little bit (every night), just so she knows I’ll play with her and not kick her to the side,” Thompson says with a smile. “Even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes and then I go to sleep. Just something so she knows.”

Thompson said his daughter, who doesn’t turn 2 until the middle of this season, doesn’t quite understand what her dad does yet. That on Sundays, an entire city roots for the man she loves to climb on.

“When she’s at home watching me, she always goes, ‘Da-da,’” Thompson says. “I’ll tell her bye and she’ll wave to me. She probably doesn’t know what I do, but soon she will.”

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Until then, Thompson is just savoring this moment. That means this point in his career, on the cusp of his greatest opportunity yet with the Panthers, but also this moment in his personal life.

He relishes playing music on his phone for Kya, watching her jump around and dance while Da-da joins in.

Or (very) tentatively planning his wedding – no date yet, but the plan is 2020.

It’s those moments, as much as any on the football field, that drive him.

“That’s who I do it for,” Thompson says. “I do it for myself, but ultimately I do it for my family.”

So yes, fans will cheer whenever No. 54 makes a tackle this season, or returns a pick for a touchdown. They’ll wear his jersey, chant his name, make him someone in this city.

But Thompson isn’t worried about any of that. He just wants to be, to enjoy this exact point in his life. With his team, but also with his family.

“This is already a big year for me,” Thompson says. “Hopefully it continues to be.”

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