From goat to hero. From freshman to veteran leader. The career of Cal sophomore cornerback Syd'Quan Thompson has already recorded its fair share of ups and downs. Now only days away from the Bears' highly anticipated rematch with SEC traditional powerhouse Tennessee, Thompson is being constantly reminded more than ever about the nightmarish memories of what happened last season in Knoxville. That's okay though. He wouldn't have it any other way.
So far this year, interviews have been a piece of cake for Thompson. There's no surprise questions that throw him off, no inquiries that fluster him into pausing, no specifics that make him take a step back and put his guard up. Instead, every sit down the sophomore has had this offseason with a reporter has been about one thing and one thing only.
"Damn, let me guess," Thompson says sarcastically. "You want to know about that Tennessee game right?"
Yeah, that Tennessee game.
The game where Thompson stepped in to replace injured senior Tim Mixon in front of a nationally televised audience.
The game where he basically played with one hand tied behind his back.
The game where then-Volunteers' wide receiver Robert Meachem burned the fresh-faced freshman for 182-yards and two touchdowns in the most standoffish of ways.
No matter how much he tries to avoid it, tries to deflect it, tries to talk about everything else going in his football life from his teammates to his long dreaded hair, Thompson understands he's not going to be able to deflect answering questions about his horrid performance in that contest last year until after September 1 when Tennessee comes to Memorial Stadium for Round Two of the Bears vs. the Vols.
Don't get it twisted though. Don't get confused. Thompson is not upset or frustrated at the jabs that come his way about Tennessee. He realizes what happened that day more than anybody else in the country. He doesn't need to be reminded of it.
"After all," Thompson says. "I had a front row seat to the action."
The sight of Meachem running down the sideline, taking one long stride after another, with scores of random people on the other side of the white stripe furiously waving him on is still fresh in the memory of everyone this side of People's Park.
Thompson knows he missed that tackle.
Actually, make it two tackles. One costing Cal 80 yards, the other going for another 41 yards, both for back-breaking momentum changing scores. The youngster who came into the Bears' program as one of the premier athletes in the country sat in a daze, lying on the turf on both knees, looking down at that left wrist. That heavily tapped injured left wrist. Damn that left wrist.
Replays, over and over again on Sportscenter that night, kept on it. Analysts called the Bears' performance by far the most "disappointing" of the week. Fans questioning whether this team was for real or not.
The quiet hush that hovered over Berkeley is still eerily fresh as well. Telegraph Avenue fell silent that day. Berkeley as a whole was in shock, especially in the jam-packed Bears' Lair where students and alumni alike who jumped in jovial excitement at Robert Jordan's opening 31-yard reception against the Volunteer secondary were soon knocked off their feet, flustered and woozy like a tired boxer in the 12th round. Of course, even Jordan's catch - which was unseen by many Cal fans due to a glitch on ESPN's coverage - didn't get much of a spotlight.
Back in Tennessee, the roar of that 100,000 plus orange-powder southern crowd, the melodramatic tunes of Rocky Top blasting from the massive confines of Neyland Stadium were all too real. And through all of that frustration, all of that disappointment, all of those emotions, all of it fell – in one way or another - directly onto Thompson's shoulders.
"Fair or not," Cal defensive back coach R. Todd Littlejohn now says. "That's how the media perceived it to be."
The uber-talented, confident, controlling freshman from the inner city of Sacramento just had his football soul shattered harder than a window shield being smashed by a pissed off Carrie Underwood and her Louisville Slugger. And you know what? He had to sit back and take all the punishment.
To call it grim would be putting it lightly. Your first game as a collegian is forever remembered as the time where the big bad bully from the SEC kicked your "you know what."
Already a quiet person at heart, Thompson sure wasn't going to say anything to anybody after that game. He remembers getting on the team flight, putting his headphones on, closing his eyes, attempting to leave everything that happened in good ol' Knoxville behind.
The very next day, as the team gathered back at Memorial Stadium, Littlejohn tried to make sure the message went through.
"Syd was sitting down in the team room and I walked up to him," Littlejohn recalls. "I told him right then and there. 'Syd, you're going to be our starter next week.' Don't even worry about it."
A player's psyche is just as important as a player's talent and Littlejohn - who himself like Thompson was in the midst of his first action as a member of the Cal program last year – understood how much the Bears' needed Thompson.
With All-American senior, and eventual Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Daymeion Hughes lined up on the other side of the field week after week, everybody and their mother's mother knew teams were going to throw the ball towards Thompson's way.
"As a coaching staff, as a team, we wanted to make sure, we needed to make sure that Syd'Quan knew we were behind him 100 percent," Littlejohn says. "We wanted him to know and understand that whatever happened didn't matter anymore and he needed to move on and prepare for the rest of the season."
Almost true to form, Thompson prepared. Slowly, but surely, he built his confidence back up, eventually forcing teams to throw a ball or two towards Hughes' side. One game went by. Then another. The Bears' kept on getting better, and so did Thompson.
"People were quick to criticize his performance that day," Littlejohn says. "But those same people also forget that we won ten games with him right after that."
Not soon after Littlejohn's talks with Thompson came a breakthrough.
His first career interception.
At home against Arizona State midway through the season, backpedaling down the field, Thompson jumped a pass thrown by Sun Devils' quarterback Rudy Carpenter and picked it off with an athletic dive as he landed inbounds right next to the left sideline.
He was excited. So were his teammates. Thompson ran to the Cal bench. Took off his helmet, juiced as ever. Bears' running back Marshawn Lynch, who took Thompson under his wing of sorts, saw how animated Thompson was after his interception. Lynch, who had been on the other side of the Bears' sideline when the play happened, rushed over, pushing teammates aside to get a piece of Thompson. Lynch ran up to "Syd the Kid," grabbed his No. 5 jersey and almost as if they planned it all along, started shaking their dreads in celebration harder and faster than any of the young bucks you see in an E-40 music video.
That confident persona Thompson exhibited at the beginning of the season was back.
"See, that's the thing people truly didn't understand about Syd'Quan's season last year," teammate and fellow cornerback Brandon Hampton says. "That Tennessee game, that was just one game. It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. A lot of fans really don't know what goes on during a football game. They really don't."
If people wondered whether Thompson actually had the skills – both physically and mentally to get the job done of the Division I level - all you have to do is ask his teammates about it. Mention Thompson and the Tennessee game to them in the same sentence and prepare for a heated response.
To his credit, Thompson "manned up" and took full blame for the Volunteers' loss. His teammates weren't going to give him the pleasure though.
"All those things that people have said about how Syd'Quan is and who he is, they're not true, let's just get that straight right now," Hampton vehemently remarked. "All of last season he's grown into a more mature, more calmer player, teammate, and person. As a team we don't have any doubts at all that Syd'Quan can and will be the shutdown guy this season. Period."
Signs of Thompson one day becoming that "shut-down" guy were evident as the season progressed last year. While Hughes was racking up one interception after another on his way to earning Pac-10 defensive player-of-the-year honors, Thompson was in the background delicately having a solid season himself.
Standing 5-foot-10, 181-pounds, Thompson might not look like the biggest player out there on the gridiron, but man-for-man his teammates will tell you he's is one of the toughest guys on the Bears' roster.
"His ascension last year was amazing, simply amazing," says Cal rover Bernard Hicks. "Right after that first game last year I think it was an eye opener for Syd'Quan about how rough Division I football can be sometimes. He sat there in his locker and right at that moment he said, 'I got to step my game up.' He's been ridiculously dedicated since then and he's just been carrying that momentum."
Eventually, Thompson worked his way to becoming the last piece of a consistent and steady Bears' secondary last season, a unit that included the aforementioned Hughes, Hicks, Hampton along with rock solid free safety Thomas DeCoud.
Take a look at the tape of the Tennessee game last season and you'll see a wide-eyed freshman, trying to find his way in his first game of his career, looking a little in over his head in the midst of the insanely hyped season opener at Rocky Top.
But take a look at the tape of the USC game later the same season and you'll see a player who was aggressive, decisive, always around the ball, who played as confident as ever, sharp as ever, en route to racking up a courageous eight tackles against the potent Trojans offense.
Thompson finished the season helping Cal earn a share of the Pac-10 title and a convincing victory in the Holiday Bowl over Texas A&M. Oh, he also notched a spot on Rivals Freshman All-American team, plus The Sporting News Pac-10 All-Freshman awards list.
How's that for rebounding from a tough first impression?
"Just being thrown in the mix last year, I learned a lot from that," says Thompson. "I really had to mature as a player and as a person. That Tennessee game, whew, it didn't turn out the way I had hoped. I just sat back and listened to what everybody had to say about me. Some people had very negative remarks, some people had very positive remarks. I took that all in and used both sides as motivation to keep me going."
Now heading into his second season as a starter, a different challenge awaits Thompson. Not only is he now considered physically the most gifted cornerback on the Bears' roster, but Thompson is looked upon to be one of the leaders of the defensive unit as well.
There's no doubt about it, "Syd the Kid" ain't no kid anymore.
"Haha, I actually told him that the other day," Littlejohn says. "He played a play in practice and I looked at him and said 'you realize you are the veteran of the group now right'? The thing I love about Syd is that he goes about his work, goes about his business, that's never ending. Syd is a guy who doesn't say much but just goes out there and plays. Guys will see that, guys will see what he went through last season and guys will learn from his experiences in the end."
With the rematch with Tennessee right around the corner, Thompson will be continuously reminded of what occurred in the battle last season.
Gone is Meacham, gone is the 100,000 plus Neyland Stadium crowd, and gone is the freshman who stepped onto the Vols' turf almost a year ago to the tee.
But when the Volunteers run onto the Memorial Stadium field come September 1, Thompson has a second chance to create a new story and new questions for reporters to ask him this season.
"Honestly, I feel like I'm a beast out there on that football field," Thompson admits. "Will Tennessee try to test me again this time around? Yeah, I think so. Whether it's in their game plan or not, I know they'll come after me before the night is over."
"Trust me on this though, I'll be ready."
Chris Nguon is the lead football writer for BearTerritory. He's well known for his recruiting and game coverage in the star-studded Oakland Athletic League, plus his numerous contributions with The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley's only independent, student-run newspaper. Nguon is also a correspondent with the Oakland Tribune, and will cover Cal football and basketball in 2008.