When the University of Washington landed top-ranked football recruit Shaq Thompson last week, Husky head coach Steve Sarkisian gleefully declared it is "just awesome" that the hard-hitting safety from Sacramento opted to attend UW over California, Oregon, and other top-tier schools. Even more awesome, though, is the fact that Thompson is one of several Shaqs who will play in the NCAA next year, exactly 18 years after Shaquille O'Neal left the college ranks to play in the NBA.
Thompson is widely regarded as one of the top five football prospects in the country. At 6-2, 210-pounds, he excelled at running back and wide receiver in high school, but will anchor UW's secondary in coming seasons. On the other side of the ball, Shaq Roland, a promising receiver, committed to South Carolina. And, in Las Vegas, running back Shaquille Powell will suit up at Duke after rushing for 40 touchdowns and nearly 2,500 yards in his senior season.
Shaq isn't exactly a common name, and the bumper crop of football recruits got us wondering why so many 18-year-old Shaqs arrived on the scene at the same time. Perhaps not coincidentally, the future NBA Hall-of-Famer O'Neal was drafted out of LSU by the Orlando Magic in November 1992 and was named NBA rookie of the year for the '92-'93 season, the same years Thompson and his classmates were born.
Image Source UW recruit Shaq Thompson has big shoes to fill as the next Shaq
A look at the Social Security Administration's handy database of baby names shows that, prior to 1990, Shaquille wasn't even one of the top 1000 most popular names in the United States. In 1991, when O'Neal earned NCAA player of the year honors, Shaquille became the nation's 720th most popular name. The name ranked 426th in 1992, and shot up to 181st in 1993 after O'Neal became the first rookie start in the NBA All-Star game. It was downhill from there for baby Shaqs, with the name falling into the 200's in 1994, the 400's in 1995, and out of the top 1000 entirely in 1996. (Perhaps too many prospective parents were forced to sit through a screening of Kazaam, which hit theaters that year.)
The name Shaquille, according to ThinkBabyNames.com, is an Anglicized version of the Arabic word Shakil, which means handsome. It is questionable whether the 7-1, 315-pound Diesel is handsome -- beauty is in the eye of the behemoth -- but it's easy to see why would-be mothers and fathers would name their kids after a big, strong, charismatic athlete. (O'Neal himself has four children, and, while there is no Shaquille Jr, one son is named Shaqir.)
What's interesting is that as Shaq's fame increased, his name became less popular. Shaquille hasn't cracked the top 1000 baby names since 1995, not even making the cut when O'Neal was named the NBA's MVP for the 2000 season. It's also curious that other famous basketball players haven't had the same correlation to name popularity. The name LeBron, for example, hasn't yet reached the top 1000 most popular names. And Shaq would likely be pleased to hear that, even though his rival Kobe Bryant just passed him on the NBA's career scoring list, Shaquille has still got Kobe beat for the highest baby name ranking, with Kobe's the best showing of 238 coming in 2000, Bryant's fourth year in the league.
While Thompson is already the most famous member of the new generation of Shaqs, O'Neal's athletically gifted namesakes aren't limited to the gridiron. The 15th-ranked basketball recruit for the class of 2102 is a 6-8, 240-pound power forward from Georgia named Shaq Goodwin, and he is joined in the top 25 by Shaquille Cleare, a 6-9 280-pound center from Houston. There are also three other Shaqs listed as blue chip basketball recruits by the site MaxPreps. Should any of them make it to the NBA, they will likely be stuck in that other Shaq's sizable shadow.
It's worth noting that the most popular baby names for 2010, the most recent year available, are Jacob and Isabella -- the main characters in the Twilight series. Perhaps in 2028, the University of Washington's recruiting class will include a Native American werewolf heartthrob from the Olympic Peninsula.
(h/t to UW recruiting sleuth, and McGilvra's barkeep Hunter Powell.)