Over the last couple of years, the brain trust of the Pittsburgh Steelers have tried to be more proactive during Pro Days to meet with families of potential draft picks. A solid practice - it helps one to ascertain what a player's home life and upbringing may have been like, and what values may have been instilled. A solid practice indeed, though not always possible.
Strong safety Shamarko Thomas was a promising talent even early on in his football career. He attended Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he set school records for tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns. Thomas eventually became an All-State First-Team selection, and would also go on to win All-State track honors in the 100-meter dash and in anchoring the 4x100 relay team.
All seemed good. He had a bright future and a family who loved, encouraged and challenged him. He would go on to attend Syracuse University where he became a fixture right away, including seven starts as a true freshman in 2009. His sophomore year could only prove brighter. Or so he thought.
Thomas would go on to suffer a great loss on July 10, 2010 when he lost his father, "the man who pushed him to gridiron greatness," was killed in a motorcycle accident. Unfortunately, his pain would not end there.
Less than a year later, on April 18, 2011, his mother died of "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the myocardium becomes too thick, making it harder for the heart to pump blood. She had unknowingly battled the condition for years; it has few symptoms and often goes undiagnosed." (italics ours)
The woman who was a true inspiration in his life, who called him her "chosen one" and who instilled within him to "work hard until your hands and your feet fall off" was now gone.
"When Thomas heard the news, he sobbed so violently that his friend in the upstairs apartment rushed to console him." (To experience the rest of his amazing journey, read the Sports Illustrated article from which the quoted material comes: http://tinyurl.com/ca9k4cs)
In the span of a year, he lost both of his parents. He had to become a man overnight. He would go on to assume responsibility for six brothers and sisters, fulfilling a promise to his mother. He told her "he would become successful in order to provide for his siblings."
Assuming responsibility for his Syracuse teammates also, becoming a leader of defense, he was able to live up to his word in full by becoming the 111th player taken in the 2013 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though Thomas wasn't as highly touted as other safeties in the draft, he was a physical presence nonetheless. He was known for his, as Steel City Insider's Jim Wexell put it, "bullet-style of playing strong safety," who has a "thirst for contact."
Thomas is a player and Orangemen team captain. As If It Ain't Steel wrote about him before the draft, at the NFL Combine he ran the fastest 40-yard dash of all the safeties at 4.42 seconds (despite falling over at the finish line - http://youtu.be/9lzuKEj6ETA), and 4.38 (4.37 on some watches) at his Pro Day. He had the most reps at the bench press, tied for the highest vertical jump and was one inch off the longest broad jump.
He's a versatile player also, as he played both cornerback and linebacker at times at Syracuse. So versatile, in fact, that he covered USC speedy wide receiver Robert Woods all over the field when they played Syracuse in 2012. Something that caught the attention of Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.
"If you look at the USC game, when Syracuse played USC, I noticed that when I was watching film on Shamarko that he was in the nickel position covering Robert Woods, who was drafted in the second round. I said, “Well you play the nickel also.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well how come you were out wide playing Woods at the corner position. Did you play corner?” He said. “No, it was still the nickel, but our coaching staff just wanted me to match up wherever he went.” And I thought that was really impressive. Why would you have your strong safety covering one of the better receivers in the draft man-to-man throughout the whole game?...Sealed the deal in my opinion." - http://tinyurl.com/cbn4kur
Before the draft, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert matter-of-factly said, "I don't envision anybody coming in and having an impact year one."
As Lee Corso would say, not so fast, my friend. Shamarko Thomas has the drive, the determination and the inspiration to go along with speed, power and enough football prowess to make an impact. Then, the Steelers are providing him with quite possibly the best mentor in Troy Polamalu.
Maybe most importantly is that he has a promise to keep - to work hard until your hands and your feet fall off.
Addendum: Steeler Nation, follow Shamarko Thomas on Twitter at @Shamarko21ya and let him know mama and papa would be proud of him.
TIDBITS: Bob Labriola reported earlier that the "Steelers signed veteran punter Brian Moorman as competition for 2nd-year pro Drew Butler. WR Bert Reed waived to open a roster spot."
And since we gave you the Steelers' rookies' Twitter accounts, here is the entire rookie class and a link to the rest of the players' accounts:
@JohnnyBrovo11 (Vince Williams) ;