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Baseball experience ignited Shaq Thompson's growth

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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Carolina Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson is one of the most uniquely athletic players in the Super Bowl. And while that gift earned him a first-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft, it also forced him to grow up faster than he'd ever hoped. Thompson was born into a football family -- one of his brothers, Syd'Quan Thompson, was drafted in the seventh round by the Broncos in 2010 and stayed with the team for two years -- and despite his secondary relationship to baseball, he was drafted in the 18th round of the 2012 MLB amateur draft. Thompson admitted that it was essentially for his defense; he struggled to hit.

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So, at the age of 18, he went to go play in the Gulf Coast league, where he ended up compiling one of the worst stretches in professional baseball history.

"I think I would've been alright," Thompson said when asked what might have happened if he stuck with baseball. "I loved it when I was younger, I just grew out of it. I guess I wanted more contact. I wanted to be like my brother."

According to Baseball Reference, Thompson had 47 plate appearances over 13 games. He walked eight times and scored three runs. Thompson, however, did not record a single hit and struck out 37 times. His final slash line (batting average, slugging percentage and on base-plus slugging percentage) was .000/.170/.000.

"It was pretty tough," Thompson said. "But, I had to stick with what my heart was saying and my heart was saying football."

Thompson's performance was a running joke of sorts, but mostly to those who have only a cursory experience with baseball. The first time seeing a professional curveball whip into the batter's box at more than 80 miles per hour and drop off the table tends to add perspective. Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. Not everyone realized that Thompson was an experiment of sorts; a player freshly turned 18 that always struggled at the plate but could dazzle in the outfield and on the basepaths.

Thompson talks about the experience now with the maturity of a player twice his age. He does not bemoan his time with the Boston Red Sox organization. He -- kindly -- does not grimace when asked about it during one of the most important weeks of his life here at the Super Bowl.

"I just learned how to be a professional," Thompson said Tuesday. "Learned how to carry myself and it really taught me how to be on my own. I was on my own at 18, and I didn't have my mom or nobody down there. It was learning how to grow up."

This season, Thompson has been one of the best coverage linebackers in football. Though he's made it on the field for only 369 snaps, he managed to crack a lineup that features two of the best linebackers in football. And when he did, he logged 30 tackles and a sack. He discovered the perfect way to utilize the raw tools that Boston scouts coveted years ago.

"It wasn't difficult, it was just telling myself I have to grow up faster," Thompson said. "I have to make smarter choices with what I do by myself. I have no one watching me ... No one is there to tell me what to do."

Thompson is only 21 years old, still months from his 22nd birthday. But thanks to baseball, he sounds much older now.

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