There comes a breaking point in almost everyone’s life, a place where the road divides, leaving two uncertain paths. While standing at the crossroads, one has to fathom the outcomes of each road, the pros and cons, weigh them out significantly and then put their best foot forward with the choice they made.
For Shamarko Thomas, the Pittsburgh Steelers search-and-destroy missile of a strong safety, the choice came in the form of a phone call during his playing days at Syracuse. It was his cousin, notifying him to get in touch with all members of his family as quickly as possible. But as fate would have it, during that phone call he received a voicemail from another family member, alerting him that his mother, and best friend, Ebeth Shabazz, had died due to a heart malfunction.
Blindsided by the devastating news, Thomas had two choices: either a-go back to Syracuse, get his degree and jump to the NFL or b-move back to Virginia, get a job and raise his five younger siblings, all under the age of 17. Not only that, but nine months prior to that, his step father, Abdul Shabazz, was killed in a motorcycle wreck. His biological father had never been in his life, but Thomas looked up to him with a purpose and intent. Once in elementary school, Thomas wrote an essay regarding his real father.
“I look up to him because I never want to be like him,” he said, according to Everett Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
For Shamarko, the choice was a simple one. His mother had always called him her “chosen one” who was going to turn the families’ lives around. His grandmother helped him out by moving to Virginia, so back to Syracuse he went.
“I saw what she went through her whole life, and she never complained. Just worked,” Thomas said, according to Cook. “Her job and raising six kids was hard, but she just did it. She just wanted me to get my education and be successful, and I respected her for that. If she could work hard, I could work hard, too.”
Working long hours at McDonald’s to make ends meet, there were many days where he didn’t even see his mother, but he knew how hard she worked to put food on the table for the family. It’s a work ethic that is deeply ingrained in him, almost a maniacal one. Coming from a rough neighborhood in the Virginia Beach area, he saw football as a way to get out of the crime-riddled location, so he put everything he had into it.
Waking up at 3 or 4 am to workout was common for him, as was pushing a car in neutral up a hill, or going for long runs on the beach, going to the point of throwing up.
“I’ve been coaching for 23 years,” said Scott Shafer, who was his defensive coordinator and is now the head coach at Syracuse. “I’ve had some really good players. He’s the toughest, hardest worker I’ve ever coached.”
He certainly has Steeler Nation holding their collective breath, as he hasn’t shown much except for flashes during his first two seasons, yet is expected to make a significant jump this year as the incumbent starter at the vacated strong safety position, manned for the previous 12 seasons by the iconic Troy Polamalu.
The shoes Thomas has to fill are large ones, and he’s grateful he had Polamalu around as long as he did, guiding him and mentoring him. However, Thomas vows to prove his doubters wrong and show them he’s worthy of the starting job, not just the “next man up” on the depth chart.
“Everybody has questions about me, my health, my ability,” Thomas said, according to Mike Prisuta of Steelers.com. “But at the end of the day their opinion doesn’t matter. It’s what I do on the field that matters.”
It’s often been said the 5-foot-9, 217-pound Thomas would’ve been a first or second round choice had he been an inch or two taller coming out of Syracuse. However, the Steelers thought they had a steal when they traded back into the fourth round in 2013 to nab him. At the combine, he ran the fastest 40, at 4.42, the most bench reps with 28, the highest vertical jump at 40.5 inches and the longest broad jump, at 11-feet-1-inches, of all the safeties in attendance. A starter in two games his rookie season, and playing in multiple sub-packages, his future looked bright until a rash of injuries hit, including ones to his hamstring and Achilles.
This season, he looks to put all those worries to bed, and turn the secondary, what was once viewed as an Achilles’ heel of the defense, into a strength.
“I know what I’m capable of,” he said, according to Prisuta. “I know what I’ve put toward this position. There’s no anxiety, no anxiousness; it’s just straight focus, focus on my path and just working hard every day. When you have sacrifice, will, and focus and ambitions for this game and ambitions for your family and God, nothing can stop you.”
No one deserves this chance more than him, and it’s why he works so hard to attain greatness. He wants to fulfill his legacy to his mother, and show her he truly is her “chosen one.”