The Pittsburgh Steelers have selected Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas with their fourth round pick of the 2013 NFL draft. The Steelers traded their No. 3 pick in \’14 for the 111st pick in this draft.
Carnell Lake press conference audio:
SHAMARKO LANELL THOMAS
Syracuse University Orange
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Ocean Lakes High School
With his squat frame and thick build, Thomas looks more like a London Fletcher-type of linebacker than your typical strong safety. That is, until you put a stopwatch on a player who is blessed with 4.42-second 40-yard dash quickness. He can rival Superman with his 40 ½-inch vertical jump and 11’1” broad jump. Step into the weight room with the Orange senior and he will bench press 225 pounds 28 times.
If you watch game film on Thomas, you might not understand why opposing offensive coordinators did not stay away from his territory often. Each year, he kept pilling on more and more tackles, from 41 as a freshman, 67 in each of his sophomore and junior years, to 88 in his final season.
Along the way, he took down twenty ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage, a sign that he can impact vs. a running game. He also has a “nose” for the ball, recovering three fumbles after colliding with those running backs. Even though he is not asked to blitz much, two of his four career sacks caused fumbles and all three of his QB pressures caused interceptions.
Mature beyond the numbers on his birth certificate, Thomas’ main goal in getting to the National Football League as an early round draft pick is to secure a bright future for his family. The last few years have shown the character and make-up of a player who has had to experience his own real-life version of the former Fox Network show, “Party of Five.”
As a member of the Syracuse Orange, he not only faced pressure to be a defensive leader, but did so while pursuing a life-changing promise. At age 21, he\’s already endured more suffering than anyone his age should.
At Ocean Lakes High School, where he was a teammate of current Syracuse defensive end Brandon Sharpe, Thomas was a two-sport standout, excelling in track and football. He led the team with 77 tackles and five interceptions as a junior, but there were issues at home with his parents that would soon begin to impact his own life.
As a senior, Thomas was named All-State, All-Region and All-Tidewater first-team, as the two-time All-District selection would go on to set school records in career tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns. In his final campaign, he recorded a team-high 102 tackles, six interceptions, eleven pass deflections and one blocked field goal as a team captain, leading the squad to a 12-1 record on the way to garnering squad defensive MVP honors.
Ocean Lakes head coach Chris Scott recalls a special moment he experienced with Thomas: “My first year as head football coach, I took him to a Nike National camp and they had the medicine ball throw where you get on your knees and throw it. They had it measured off where they thought people would throw it and he threw it outside the allotted area by 10 or 15 feet. And the guy who was running the event said, ‘That’s crazy,’ because the biggest lineman who was 6-foot-5 and 300 some odd pounds didn’t even get half the distance that he did.”
That just shows you at that point in time the freakiness of what Tomas is capable of doing. “You talk about freakish deals, he ran two sub-4.3 40s for NFL scouts recently. And one of them made him run it again and he ran 4.259,” Scott said of his former athlete who could be selected in the early rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft.
In track, Thomas earned All-State honors competing in the 100-meter dash and as the anchor of the 4 x 100 relay that placed seventh in Virginia. He concluded his gridiron prep career by playing for the United States team that won the 2009 IFAF Junior World Championship.
But, unknown to most during his high school days, his father had walked out on the family. Thomas watched his mother fight to keep the family afloat. In addition to raising six kids, she attended dental school and worked at McDonald\’s. Thomas called her his best friend and his source of inspiration.
“One day, she just told me, \’Shamarko, you wanna be great, you gotta work harder than everybody. You gotta be better than all the competition,\'” Thomas said. “Her favorite quote was \’work hard until your hands and your feet fall off.\'”
After his banner freshman season at Syracuse, Thomas had earned the starting strong safety position during 2010 spring camp. He was preparing to return to school for August drills, but then tragedy struck. Less than two months before the season, he heard the life-altering news: The man who pushed him to gridiron greatness was gone. Thomas\’ father, Abdul Shabazz, died in a motorcycle accident in North Carolina.
Shabazz had just picked up a new part for his motorcycle and was returning home when a 20-year-old driver lost control of the wheel, swerved out of his lane and crashed into him. Shabazz was wearing a helmet, but died on impact. He never made it to the hospital. He was pronounced dead on July 10, 2010.
Shabazz had always expected the most out of Thomas, and although he left the family shortly after Thomas\’ freshman year of high school, the two had begun to patch up their relationship. Thomas recalled an instance when he was age eleven, when his father pushed him to perfection. “I was playing football and I scored four touchdowns,” Thomas said. “My dad came up to me, and he was like, \’That\’s all you got? You can be better than that.\'”
Shabazz was gone, but things were about to get even worse. Thomas\’ mother, Ebeth Shabazz, passed away just nine months later. The player and his mother spoke frequently while he was performing at Syracuse during his sophomore season, but one phone conversation in April 2011 sticks out. At the time, Thomas thought it was just another talk. But what his mother said ultimately changed his life forever.
“She was like, \’If anything ever happens to me, I just want you to know you\’re my chosen one. I want you to promise me that you are going to try your hardest and your best to make it,\'” Thomas said. “I told my mom I\’m going to make it and take care of my whole family.”
One day later, on April 18th, Thomas received a voicemail from his younger brother. His mother was dead. She went to bed early to prepare for a trip to Chicago to visit her ailing grandmother, but she never woke up. She died from 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.
When Thomas heard the news, he sobbed so violently that his friend in the upstairs apartment rushed to console him. Football, once his singular focus, took a distant back seat. Thomas was forced to grow up, to transform from a carefree teenager into a man.
He could have easily crumbled. Instead, he sought out his grandmother and his faith.
“When my momma passed, I\’m like, \’God is punishing me again,\’ but I remember my grandma always said, \’Don\’t ever say God is punishing you. He\’s rewarding you,\'” Thomas said. “He\’s making you sacrifice. God don\’t put you through what you can\’t handle.\'”
Thomas would now become a parental figure for his five younger siblings. With the loss of his parents, he was forced to shoulder one of life\’s greatest responsibilities. With five younger siblings (four brothers, one sister) ages 8 to 17, he had to become a de facto parent overnight.
Thomas headed to Virginia just hours after learning of his mother\’s death. He stayed with his family for nearly three weeks before returning to Syracuse for the final week of classes. His advisor helped him cram before finals. But Thomas\’ main concern was still his family in Virginia. “How am I going to take care of my family when I\’m only 20?” Thomas asked. “I gotta be the support. All that pressure is put on me.”
He matured. Following his parents\’ deaths, he was able to step up as the anchor of his family. Thomas speaks with his siblings every evening, taking the time out even after a tough practice or a frustrating loss. He knows he must continue to persevere; he\’s all his family has. That resilience extends to the football field — another area where he uses his family as motivation.
“It gives me goose bumps even just to talk about it and to think about how far he has come,” said Leslie Allard, his former guidance counselor at Ocean Lakes High School. “It\’s just amazing because he has had every reason in the world to quit and he hasn\’t.”
Thomas returned to school and started ten games in 2011. He had suffered a concussion in preseason practice and then missed the Rutgers and Toledo contests due to a lower body injury, finishing third on the team with 67 tackles, three stops for loss and a trio of quarterback pressures. Throughout the year, his parents never strayed far from his thoughts.
Thomas had a promise to fulfill. He told his mother he would become successful in order to provide for his siblings. Now he is determined to make that a reality. “I do this for my family,” he said. “I don\’t only want to be in the NFL because of all the money. I want to be in the NFL because it\’s my goal to make my parents smile down on me. I really take that to heart.”
Even on game day, Thomas finds time for his parents. Following warmups last season, he would go to the corner of the field and take a knee by himself. He looked at a picture of his mother and father and listened to “After While” by Deitrick Haddon. The chorus contains the following lyrics: I still hear your voice/I still feel your touch/And when I close my eyes/I can see your smile.
Thomas continued that emotional ritual throughout his senior season. “I think about how [my parents] would like me to be great and take care of my family,” he said. “I take all that in and just cry, and then I\’ll be ready to play.” In 2012, he continued to emerge as a tireless worker.
On weekdays, Thomas would wake up and go to see Syracuse strength and conditioning coach William Hicks to complete a torture workout called “15 Minutes of Fury.” When he finished, he would go to the team\’s practice field and run defensive back drills. On weekends, it didn\’t stop. Thomas, fellow senior Brandon Sharpe and sophomore Jaston George would run hills while pushing tires and sleds. They even push cars to improve their explosiveness.
“Sometimes it got to the point where I was about to tell him, \’Shamarko, you have to rest your body because if you don\’t rest your body you could get hurt,\'” said Phillip Thomas (no relation), a former three-year teammate in the secondary. “It doesn\’t get to him because he got a job. He knows he has to support his family, so he works hard.”
All that hard work seems to have paid off. The All-Big East Conference first-team and All-American third-team choice led the team with 88 tackles as a senior, making 3.5 of his hits behind the line of scrimmage. He also had a pair of interceptions. He also received an invitation to play in the 2013 Senior Bowl, another opportunity to better support his family with a solid performance.
Thomas followed that with a stellar performance at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. Still, he feels he has a lot of work to do before entering the pro ranks. “I need to make big plays at the right times,” said Thomas, “and I feel like I haven\’t done that yet because of the injuries and all my other setbacks.”
No matter what happens this much is clear: The worst is over. And with all that Thomas has been through, graduating and making an NFL roster spot are just the next steps in his already remarkable journey.
Thomas started 39-of-48 games at strong safety for Syracuse, posting 263 tackles (177 solos) with four sacks for minus 35 yards and 16.5 stops for losses of 55 yards…Gained 27 yards on two interception returns and deflected four other tosses…Caused four fumbles and recovered three others.
Thomas was named All-American third-team by The NFL Draft Report and the team co-captain was a consensus All-Big East Conference first-team selection, in addition to earning Eastern College Athletic Conference Division I All-Star recognition…Started all thirteen games, as he led the team with a career-high 88 tackles (62 solos), adding a 6-yard sack and 3.5 stops for losses of 9 yards…Ranked third in the league with three forced fumbles and had one fumble recovery…Gained 27 yards on the first two interceptions for his career…In the Northwestern clash, he tallied two tackles, including a sack for a loss of six yards, and forced a fumble…Recorded seven tackles, including six solo and one tackle for a loss of one yard, and recorded his first career interception vs. Southern California… Notched six tackles, including two solo vs. Stony Brook…At Minnesota, he registered a season-high nine tackles, including six solo tackles and then tied his season-high nine tackles which included seven solo tackles and one for a loss of one yard vs. Pittsburgh… At Rutgers, he tallied six tackles, including two solo and then earned a spot on the Big East Weekly Honor Roll for his effort vs. Connecticut, which included four solo tackles, one forced fumble, and one interception, which he returned 27 yards…At South Florida, he notched a team-high nine tackles, including six solo, and recovered a fumble that set up a touchdown…At Cincinnati, he again earned spot on the Big East Weekly Honor Roll for his career-high 14 tackles, including 10 solo, and forced a fumble…Had six solo tackles vs. Louisville and at Missouri, the safety recorded six tackles, including four solo, followed by a Temple contest where he posted six tackles, including five solo…At the New Era Pin-stripe Bowl vs. West Virginia, he notched four tackles, including two solo and 0.5 for a loss of one yard.
Thomas was named All-Big East second-team by The NFL Draft Report, as he ranked third on the squad with 67 tackles (47 solos) in ten starting assignments, adding three stops for losses of five yards, three pressures and a pass deflection, but missed the Rutgers and Toledo contests due to a knee sprain and lower leg injury suffered in the third quarter of the Southern California clash that kept him out of the rest of that contest…In the Wake Forest tilt, he had 10 tackles, including five solo…Collected six tackles, including five solo and one for a loss of one yard vs. Rhode Island… At USC, he made seven tackles with four solo stops before exiting in the third quarter with a leg injury…At Tulane, he recorded four tackles and had one pass break up…Added five tackles, including four vs. West Virginia and totaled eight tackles, including six solo vs. Syracuse…At Connecticut, he made seven tackles, including four solo, posting posted six tackles, including four solo in the South Florida contest and made six tackles, including five solo and one for a two-yard loss vs. Cincinnati…At Pittsburgh, he was in on eight tackles, including seven solo.
Thomas started nine of the thirteen games he appeared in at strong safety…Ranked fourth on the team with 67 tackles (38 solos) that included two sacks for minus 19 yards and 3.5 stops for losses of 21 yards…Deflected three passes and advanced a fumble recovery three yards.
A member of ESPN.com’s All-Big East Conference freshman team, Thomas played in twelve games, starting seven contests – vs. Louisville, Rytgers and Connecticut as a strong safety; vs. Maine at right cornerback; and vs. West Virginia, Akron and Cincinnati at left outside linebacker…Registered 41 tackles (30 solos), a 10-yard dasck and 6.5 stops for losses of 20 yards…Also caused and recovered a fumble.
2011 Season…Durability 3 Missed time in 2011 preseason camp after suffering a concussion in practice…Sat out the Rutgers and Toledo games after he left the Southern California contest in the third quarter with a knee/lower leg contusion.
2012 Season…Thomas was knocked unconscious after a vicious collision with a Pittsburgh (10/05) ball carrier and missed the rest of the game.
4.42 in the 40-yard dash…1.52 10-yard dash…2.49 20-yard dash…4.26 20-yard shuttle…
6.84 three-cone drill…40 ½-inch vertical jump…11’1” broad jump…Bench pressed 225 pounds 28 times…31 ¾-inch arm length…9 1/8-inch hands…74 ½-inch wingspan.
Thomas attended Ocean Lakes (Virginia Beach, Va.) High School, playing football for head coach Chris Scott…Was a teammate of current Syracuse defensive end Brandon Sharpe… Was a two-sport standout, excelling in track and football…Led the team with 77 tackles and five interceptions as a junior…As a senior, Thomas was named All-State, All-Region and All-Tidewater first-team, as the two-time All-District selection would go on to set school records in career tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns…In his final campaign, he recorded a team-high 102 tackles, six interceptions, eleven pass deflections and one blocked field goal as a team captain, leading the squad to a 12-1 record on the way to garnering squad defensive MVP honors…Concluded his gridiron prep career by playing for the United States team that won the 2009 IFAF Junior World Championship…
In track, Thomas earned All-State honors competing in the 100-meter dash and as the anchor of the 4 x 100 relay that placed seventh in Virginia.
Child and Family Studies major, enrolled in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics…Son of the late Ebeth and Abdul Shabazz…Has four brothers and one sister he now cares for since his parents’ deaths…Born Shamarko Lanell Thomas in February, 1991…Resides in Virginia Beach, Virginia.