CHARLOTTE - Cory Littleton admitted he might lean on Shaq Thompson too much since he made the cross-country move from Las Vegas in March, but a sense of familiarity with a good friend has helped ease his transition into a third NFL stop.
The connection between linebackers Littleton and Thompson runs deep - from 10 years ago and over 2,700 miles away from Charlotte - beginning when they played together for the Washington Huskies from 2012 to 2014. Now, they're teammates again, with Littleton arriving as part of an offseason emphasis on improving the depth at linebacker.
When Thompson first found out Littleton would be coming, he knew he wanted to help his college teammate grow comfortable in a new city.
"(It) felt like family," Thompson said. "That's what you want to do with new people, right? You want to make it feel like home and make them feel welcome. I have known Cory; we've got history together. That's always my brother."
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Thompson has been rooted with the Panthers since he declared for the NFL draft as a junior in college, and was selected with the 25th overall pick in 2015. He has posted three straight 100-tackle seasons and is Carolina's fifth all-time leading tackler, with 563 in his career.
Littleton's path to the Panthers came with more moves, as the 28-year-old played his senior season at Washington and went undrafted in 2016. He spent four years with the Los Angeles Rams, earning a Pro Bowl selection as a special teams starter in 2018 and finishing with a career-best 134 tackles in 2019.
That led to a big contract with the Raiders, but he was released this spring after a change in coaches and front office there.
Now, Littleton is reunited with a familiar presence on the field - and a good friend off of it.
"He's like my brother," Littleton said. "It's actually awesome being able to play with him again. How many people really get to do that?"
Littleton and Thompson share more than just college and football roots. They are both fathers, with children close in age. Thompson said their children became friends with each other when they all took a trip to a zoo in San Diego, where Littleton is from originally.
With Littleton's family remaining in Las Vegas for now, he often spends time at Thompson's house playing with his kids. The two enjoy discussing fatherhood, barbecuing everything from lamb chops to ribs and burgers, and looking back on their college years.
"You don't have to make a whole new relationship," Thompson said. "I know about his family; he knows about my family. I know where he comes from; he knows where I come from. That friendship, that brotherhood. I'm just happy to see my guy here playing with me."
Thompson wasn't the only Panther that Littleton had previously connected with either. He knew linebacker Frankie Luvu from training together in San Diego four years ago and punter Johnny Hekker and guard Austin Corbett from their overlapping time with the Rams.
Littleton and Thompson's friendship has already reached a decade, and for Thompson, it's a bond that will continue to withstand the test of time.
"Nothing's ever going to break it," Thompson said. "We've been through a lot. We're always going to have each other's back. . . .If he has something to say, I'm going to listen to it. If I've got something to say, he's going to listen to it - regardless of if we agree or disagree. We still have that adult conversation. That's my dog, and I'm happy he's here."