Hard-Hitting NFL Safety Reveals Softer Side

NFL Safety Shamarko Thomas has built a reputation for himself as an aggressive, hard hitting player with a work ethic that many would argue is second to none. His “go out and get after it” attitude is one that he acquired growing up in Virginia Beach, VA with his mom and 5 siblings.  

Shawn: Describe what your mother was like. How do you remember your mother?

“She was the ultimate leader. She was my father and my mom. My mom was different. She wasn't the mom that ‘Oh, I love you’ type. She was that tough mom, ‘Oh, boy, you'd better get up.’  No crying-type stuff,” said Shamarko.

Shamarko’s mother Ebeth gave birth to him when she was 15. He didn’t really know his father. Growing up he saw things no child should have to witness.

“My mom had boyfriends that, I remember, we used to hide out from them, stuff like that, you know. I seen my mom get burned by an iron by an iron by a dude,” said Shamarko.

Shamarko didn’t trust men around his mother. so when she married Abdul “Rahim” Shabazz he didn’t like him. But overtime, they slowly began to bond.  

“I think football brung us together, you know, and just seeing the way he treated my mom, taking her out on dates and stuff like that.  I never seen that before with another man,” said Shamarko.

The family grew with the addition of his sister and 4 brothers for him, life couldn’t be better…until his step father violated his mother’s trust.  

“He broke her heart, you know. Cheated on my mom."

Shawn: Did they separate?

“My dad separated, yeah.  He moved with the lady,” said Shamarko.

The first man Shamarko ever trusted left his mother with six children to raise by herself and he was furious.  

“My mom working at McDonald's and stuff, you know, so I think that all the anger inside of me just built up and I just started hanging around with the wrong crowd and doing the wrong things. Honestly, I was telling my mom, ‘Oh, I'm going to sell drugs, I'm going to do stuff like that.’”

As he entered Ocean Lakes High School as a freshman football player. His mother was too busy with work to help keep him out of trouble. So he always seemed to find it.

“I was out there just trying to have fun, enjoy – and chill with my friends and fight.”

Shawn: And fight? You just wanted to fight?

“Fight, man. Used to fight all the time, every day.”

Shawn: Why?

“Just to get my anger out, you know,” said Shamarko.

His activities grabbed the attention of school faculty members Jim Prince and Chris Scott, Shamarko’s football coaches, as well as Leslie Riccio, his guidance counselor, and sergeant Adam Bernstein, the school’s resource officer. They all intervened to help him deal with his anger and the reasons behind it.

“Instantly I was drawn to him and I thought, ‘This kid is gonna be my project for this year.’ You know, I want to-to make him feel comfortable and-and kind of reward him for feeling comfortable with me without even knowing me,” said Riccio.

“He would never let you in. But when he knew that you cared, then that’s where things started to reveal themselves,” said Scott.

During that year, Shamarko’s had a few encounters with Sergeant Adam Bernstein. But one day after school, he caught Shamarko in a street brawl. The next day, he called him down to his office.

“I sat him down and I said, there’s a lot of colleges out there that will give you a free education if you use football and if you’re good enough,” said Bernstein.

“And he was like, ‘I care about you and I want to see you succeed.’ I felt like somebody really cared, especially an officer, you know? Where I'm coming from, you know, officers don't like us, you know,” said Shamarko.

Shawn: Now I read somewhere that both of you broke down and started crying. Is that true?

“Yeah (LAUGHS) I didn't want to say that (LAUGHS).”

Those words hit home for Shamarko. By his senior year, he was an honor roll student, was elected homecoming king and set school records for tackles, interceptions, and defensive touchdowns. He accepted a scholarship offer to play football for Syracuse University.

“Sitting there signing that paper and veering to the left and seeing my mom cry, you know, with joy.  You know, that's the first time I seen her cry of joy instead of pain. And that just changed my whole life,” said Shamarko.

“When Shamarko arrived at Syracuse, quickly built a reputation for his hard hitting style of play. But the Spring of 2010 ushered in a season that would crush him harder than any hit he ever delivered on the field. It began with a call he received from his mother.”

“She was like, ‘I just want to tell you, I love you and you my chosen one, you know. And if anything happened to me, you know, I know – I just want you to live out your dreams’. And I’m like, I’m just throwing it off like, okay, mom, you know, I got you, you know,” said Shamarko.

The next day Shamarko received a voicemail from his younger brother.

“He’s like, ‘Momma gone.’ And man, I (Sighs) I lost it.”

Shamarko’s mother died from a massive heart attack. He returned home as quick as he could to be strong for his five siblings. He managed to do so… until he went to view his mother’s body.

“It was only two seconds…I couldn’t stay in that room. I – man, I. That’s my best friend, like, like…”

Shawn: Why couldn’t you?

“Cause everything I did was for her. (Emotional) You know. And just to see her laying in that casket not breathing no more, it was like, what do I have left, you know? I couldn’t see he like that. I couldn’t. I couldn’t at all. I though my life was over. What’s the point of me living? My mom’s not here. I want my mom to have her house. A big house, a car, like, like this jewelry, all this stuff. This don’t mean nothing to me, it don’t mean nothing to me. I’d rather have my mom, here, you know,” said Shamarko.

After the funeral, Shamarko considered giving up school and football to take care of his siblings. But his grandmother agreed to take care of his siblings so he return to school. When he got there, he began looking for something to ease the pain in his heart. So he turned to some of his Christian teammates.

“One day I just started getting interested in it. I just started watching. I’m like, man, I’m gonna go sit in here and listen to them and talk about God and stuff. And then I started hearing the solutions and my answers, and people, as they was talking. That’s when I realized I really had to find out who God was, you know. Like, can I believe in you? Cause, ain’t going lie, I started doubting. When my mom passed, I’m like, man, God don’t love me at all. He can’t love me. He can’t love me. He put me through all of this,” said Shamarko.

Shamarko learned that the only way to truly heal the pain in his heart was through a relationship with god. So one night he began praying and committed his life to Jesus Christ.

“I’m like, ‘God, if it’s – whatever is your plan is and whatever you got planned for me,’ I’m like, ‘show me. Can I see?’ And I said, ‘Let your will, your will be upon me’ and that was really it,” said Shamarko.

Shamarko knew that he could lean on the Lord for strength as he continued to achieve his NFL dreams. He had a stellar senior year becoming one of the top safeties entering the 2013 NFL Draft where he was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Today, he’s with the New York Jets, he’s married with kids of his own, and his work ethic hasn’t changed. As he reflects back over all he had to endure, he knows that his mother would be proud of him, and that God’s love never fails.

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