Steelers' rookie defensive back Thomas doesn't lack motivation
After getting his life headed in the right direction near the end of his high school playing career after “following the wrong crowd,” coupled with a productive freshman year at Syracuse, Shamarko Thomas' dream of playing in the NFL not only seemed attainable, but was all but a sure thing.
That dream quickly changed.
In a nine-month span during his sophomore season at Syracuse, it was no longer a dream but an absolute necessity.
Thomas' mother, Ebeth Shabazz, died suddenly at age 36 of an undiagnosed heart condition nine months after his stepfather, Abdul Shabazz, was killed in a motorcycle crash.
Thomas was just 20 years old at the time. He was thrust into becoming a de facto parent of four younger brothers and a sister — ranging in age from 6 to 16 — in his hometown of Virginia Beach, Va.
“Those are my babies,” Thomas said. “I use my brothers and sister as motivation. I have to take care of them. It's a big motivation.”
It was motivation that got Thomas up early in the morning to work out during college. It was motivation for him to stay late every night to the point where he would get kicked out of the weight room. It was motivation that helped Thomas post NFL-scouting-combine-bests at his position in the 40-yard dash (4.42 seconds), bench press (28 reps), broad jump (133 inches) and vertical leap (40½ inches) — figures that allowed teams to overlook his height (5-foot-9) and draft him.
The Steelers were first in line and did something they rarely do — trade a future pick to secure another fourth-round selection, in order to select Thomas.
“I think if he had two more inches he would have been in the first round in my opinion. That's how highly I think of this young man,” Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “He has size, he has speed and he has strength.”
Thomas hasn't signed his rookie contract, but where he was slotted in the fourth round — 109th overall — it likely will net him a four-year, $2.7 million deal. About $500,000 will be guaranteed — plenty of money to provide for his family.
“My motivation was always about providing for them,” Thomas said. “I just took grasp of it and embraced it. Sure, it was tough to deal with, especially being young and in college, but Syracuse had a great support system. Coach (Doug) Marrone stayed on me and my teammates. They are my best friends. They kept me motivated and focused.”
Thomas' brothers and sister are living with his grandmother in Chesapeake, Va.
Thomas' style of play has been compared to some of the best: Ronnie Lott, Bob Sanders and the late Sean Taylor, all of whom were physical and fast.
“He's not the biggest kid, but he certainly doesn't play that way,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “He leaves it on the field.”
Even though he is a little undersized, Lake liked Thomas because of his ability to play deep safety, defend a receiver in the slot, play cornerback in a pinch and, of course, his tackling awareness.
“This is the kind of safety I like,” Lake said. “This is the kind of safety that the Steelers are looking for. Not only will he cover well, but he will hit you and hit you hard.”
Thomas had a solid junior season at Syracuse and contemplated turning pro before deciding to come back for his senior year. He started all 13 games for the Orange and led the team with 88 tackles and three forced fumbles. Thomas was a consensus All-Big East first-team selection.
“There are some people who think I am too short,” Thomas said. “My ‘too short' got me here, so I am happy to be a part of Steelers Nation.”
The Steelers were in need of depth at safety. Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are the only two at the position on the roster who have started in the NFL. Polamalu and Clark have 235 career starts between them. The rest of the safeties on the roster — Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith, Ross Ventrone, Robert Golden — have zero.
“My job is to get him ready,” Lake said. “I think since I've been here, going on my third year, it hasn't really been that much of an issue.”