SPARTANBURG, S.C. — When Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson walked into his meeting room at Bank of America Stadium for the first time, he didn't mind admitting to being a little awestruck — since the guys he met in there were already his role models.
So he got to see what leadership looked like, and now it's his turn.
While he's on the physically unable to perform list after a minor knee procedure, Thompson is still an active participant in every practice at training camp, coaching and teaching, and doing all the things he learned from two of the best — Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
"When I first came here, the leadership was already there. I had two great leaders in my room alone," he said. "It's not that I wanted to do it; it was just handed down to me in that room with Luke and TD. It fell to me, so now I do have to become that leader."
Thompson, now entering his eighth year, is that guy for a bunch of young players. He's the one trusted with showing the kids the standards; he's the one encouraging players such as Brian Burns to take up the role for the next generation.
But he also remembers what it's like to be on the other side of the equation, admitting he was a little awestruck when he walked into the room with Kuechly and Davis the first time. Thompson and college and current teammate Cory Littleton used to watch film of the Panthers duo when they were at Washington, and to be in a room with them brought a sense of gravity for Thompson.
"Me and Littleton, we used to watch TD and Luke, and it was crazy," Thompson said. "Our linebacker coach was a big fan of TD and Luke, how they played, their tenacity, the grind, the grit, how physical they played, downhill and covering.
"So it was crazy when I got here; I was like, 'damn man, we used to watch you in college.' It was crazy. I had a little fanboy moment. But then it was bigger than that. When we hit that field, and realized what they expected of me, being a first-round pick and all that. I had things to do. I had to grow up kind of quickly."
Kuechly, who will call his former teammate's games this fall as a member of the Panthers Radio Network, laughed when asked about being idolized by a young Thompson.
"That's kind of where he's at now, like 'damn, I'm the old guy now,'" Kuechly said. "Which is good though; it's kind of fun.
"There's such a process of being a player, you're the young guy, you're a young vet, you sign a deal, and you're like I'm going to be here and now I'm the older guy and gets to teach the young guys. He's done a good job with that."
Kuechly recalled Thompson as a quick study, and talked about his transition from being a two-way player in college to being one of the most versatile linebackers he played with.
"He was very excited to learn; he was excited to do whatever we wanted him to do, whether he played inside, outside, in the slot," Kuechly said. "But football was easy for him. He understood it really well, and for a young guy to come in like he did and pick it up was impressive. When we played the NFC Championship Game here, Thomas breaks his arm, Shaq didn't get any reps all week at will linebacker because he was playing in the slot the whole time, and he literally trots into the game and is like, 'I got it.' And he got it.
"I just think he loves football. I think certain guys just pick it up really naturally. He's one of those guys that conceptually makes sense to him. He can see the game really well. I'm sure him playing on all sides of the ball helped him. You saw it from the secondary in college, the second level as a backer, you saw it in the slot as a nickel, and then from an offensive perspective. I'm sure he had a good feel as a running back for where he's trying to get to, and I'm sure that translates to playing defense."
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule would obviously like having Thompson on the field in his normal capacity, but said this camp is a chance for him to increase his understanding and share the knowledge he's built with other players.
"I think this is a tremendous time for Shaq," Rhule said. "When you're sitting in meetings, and you're not evaluating your own performance, you're hearing all the coaching points. Or sometimes mentoring the young guys. Your mastery of the defense takes a step forward.
"I think it's a great chance for Shaq too, because he's loved by his teammates. He can say things, and guys don't take it personally. I think it's a good chance for him to step back and watch practice. Watch meetings and reinforce standards. Really elevate himself as a leader even more.
"I told him. I said, 'hey, I'm going to consider you kind of like an assistant coach during this process. We're going to visit. We're going to talk. We're going to do those things.' I think this can be really good for him."
Despite missing three games last year with a foot injury, Thompson was second on the team in tackles with 104, and also had two interceptions and two sacks. But he also had the kind of presence that elevated the entire defense.
"He played really good football last year," Rhule said. "When you watch Shaq (Thompson), especially when he's healthy. I thought he would play Pro Bowl-caliber football. But he affected games and made plays. What's unfortunate is he's missing some time. I can't wait to see him come back healthy and be able to play, and be able to play a lot longer at the standard he's capable of."
Thompson didn't have much to say when asked by reporters Friday about his timeline for a return, or the specifics of his condition. But the expectation is he should be fine by the start of the regular season, when it matters most.
Having benefited from time and perspective, Thompson also knows that time doesn't stand still in football. That's why he's always approached his job as if it was tenuous, even when it wasn't. He thinks he has five or six more good years in him, but he knows not to take it for granted.
"My mindset has been the same since I got here; somebody's coming in to take my spot," he said. "This is the way I feed my family. I'm not going to let somebody come in here and take food off my plate or my kid's plate. Even in year eight, somebody they drafted is trying to take my spot. That's always been my mindset.
"But I'm not going to be one of the guys who don't help young guys, because we're only going to be as good as the weakest link. And as long as they come up to speed with us, we'll be good to go."
That's the lesson he learned from Davis and Kuechly, lessons that transcended football.
"They just had an understanding of the game, formations, how people attack us," Thompson said. "It's also understanding work ethic, how to be accountable. Understanding nobody's bigger than the team. We're all here for the same reason, we all have the same goals.
"And the way they play, the way they practiced is the standard. And that's what everyone follows."
That's how Thompson's leading now, having learned from two of the best.
Check out action photos from the Panthers third day of training camp at Wofford.