Syracuse strong safety Shamarko Thomas has NFL aspirations that go far beyond a childhood dream. Now a senior, he faces pressure to be a defensive leader while also pursuing a life-changing promise. At 21, he's already endured more suffering than anyone his age should.
It all happened so fast, in the span of less than a year. After appearing in 12 games, including seven starts, as a true freshman in 2009, Thomas entered his sophomore campaign with lofty expectations. He had racked up 41 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. He was ready to break out as a star.
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 11, 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. And things were about to get even worse. Thomas' mother, Ebeth Shabazz, passed away just nine months later.
In high school, after his father walked out, 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.'"
Thomas and his mother spoke frequently, 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 18, 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.'"
With the loss of his parents, Thomas 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."
There was a time when Thomas wouldn't have been able to handle the challenge. Growing up in Virginia Beach, Va., he often placed himself in risky situations. He valued social status over his athletic future, much to the dismay of his coaches and teammates.
"Football was there, but I wasn't thinking about college or nothing," Thomas said. "I wasn't thinking about goals. I was just playing it to have fun."
Toward the end of his freshman year at Ocean Lakes High, Thomas was involved in a brutal neighborhood fight when he should have been in weight training. Adam Bernstein, then the school police officer, recognized Thomas and stopped the altercation.
"He kind of dabbled in gang activity," Bernstein said. "He was walking that line of becoming one of those neighborhood knuckleheads that could end up a statistic."
The neighborhood fight wound up being a wake-up call. Thomas began to commit himself, arriving to practice early and staying late to take extra reps. Struggling as a student during his first two years at Ocean Lakes, Thomas went on to make honor roll as a junior and senior.
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. "It's just amazing because he has had every reason in the world to quit and he hasn't."
It's now been more than a year since Thomas lost his mother, and almost two years since he lost his father. But as he plays his final season of college football at Syracuse, a campaign that continues this Saturday against USC, his parents never stray far from his thoughts.
Thomas has 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:
Thomas has continued that emotional ritual this 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."
He's also emerged as a tireless worker. On weekdays, Thomas wakes up and goes to see Syracuse strength and conditioning coach William Hicks to complete a torture workout called "15 Minutes of Fury." When he finishes, he goes to the team's practice field and runs defensive back drills. On weekends, it doesn't stop. Thomas, fellow senior Brandon Sharpe and sophomore Jaston George 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."
In order to fulfill his NFL dream, Thomas must elevate his game. He wowed scouts with a 4.26-second laser-timed 40-yard dash at Syracuse's Junior Pro Day, but he's worried others after suffering hand and hamstring injuries throughout his career. Though he notched a sack and a forced fumble in the Orange's season-opening loss to Northwestern, the 5-foot-10, 210-pounder could dramatically boost his stock with a strong effort against USC.
"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.