By Christina Rivers

Name: Shamarko Thomas – S – #29
Height: 5’9”
213 lbs.
Virginia Beach, Virginia

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NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 30: Travis Tannahill #80 of the Kansas State Wildcats is tackled by Thomas Shamarko #21 of the Syracuse Orange during the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on December 30, 2010 in New York, New York. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

(Credit, Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Every once in a while a rare star emerges from a difficult past only to shine so bright that it hurts the eyes.

Shamarko Thomas, a rookie safety drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, has a past which produced not only an effective football story, but also one of maturity, clarity and discipline.

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Thomas began playing football on the Ocean Lakes Dolphins High School team. The eldest son of six children, he worked hard to make sure that his life didn’t echo the lifestyle of a biological father he never knew and a step-father that he rarely saw. 

With the support of a school police officer, Adam Bernstein, and his high school football coach, Chris Scott, Thomas broke free of the streets and its influence to become an extraordinary athlete. 

He worked hard to stay out of trouble and off the streets of Virginia Beach. 

Thomas set high school records in career tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns.  During the 2008 season, he also recorded a team-high 102 tackles, six interceptions, 11 pass breakups and one blocked field goal as the Dolphin’s captain. Earning him 2008 first-team all-state honors.

Following an organized training session with the Steelers in June, Thomas said, “People go through a lot of things in life, but that support [from Scott and Bernstein, as well as high school guidance counselor Leslie Allard], it changes everything…I wouldn’t have had any mentors to tell me what to do, and I still would have been running these streets.”

Thomas found more help while attending Syracuse University. 

During his career with the Orange, he recorded 263 tackles, two interceptions and four quarterback sacks between 2009-12.  

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The hits he made on opponents were impressively hard and fundamentally correct and made him one of the most-feared defensive players in the conference. 

It was while he was at Syracuse that he dealt with the death of his biggest mentor in life, his mother, and big decisions about whether or not to stay in college or find a job to take care of his four brothers and one sister, all of whom were under the age of 17. Thomas’ grandmother moved from Chicago and she shared custody of the children with Shamarko.

Football was everything, school was important, but family was what kept him motivated to do more – to be the first college graduate in his family.

The Pittsburgh Steelers saw great potential in him.

Still, Thomas fell to the fourth round.  Many NFL analysts would say it came down to his size.

The Steelers, whose defense is about consistency and deep defensive talent, didn’t let that stop them from drafting him as the 111th pick overall in the 2012 NFL Draft.  In fact, he was such a high priority for the Steelers that they traded a third-round pick in the 2014 draft to division rival the Cleveland Browns.  

Since that time, Thomas has been a student from three of the top defensive backs in the Steelers camp – Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor. 

Taylor told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Thomas is “a monster.”  “A lot of people are going to be catching headaches,” said Taylor, “or he’s going to be catching headaches, it going to be one or the other.”  

Legendary Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Thomas, “I really like our young safety…He’s come in here…worked hard.” 

With the Steelers wanting to get more turnovers in 2013, they are putting the rookie through the paces and expecting Thomas to be able to step in for Polamalu or Clark right away as needed.  With defensive backs suffering injuries during training camp, Thomas has solidified his position by hitting hard and making important plays, including the occasional interception. 

He has kept up with the receivers and hasn’t backed down.  It could be Thomas’ chance to show that his maturity, clarity, and motivation have pushed him to a spot on the starting depth chart this upcoming season.

For more NFL player features, visit 32 Players, 32 Days.

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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on