Ebeth Shabazz told her son, Shamarko Thomas, he was her "chosen one," writes Eric Duick of Sports Illustrated in a story dated Sept. 7, 2012.
Thomas had already seen the loss of his father, Abdul Shabazz, to a motorcycle accident just nine months prior to that conversation. Ebeth, a full time student and employee along with primary caretaker for five children, died in her sleep of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a nearly asymptomatic ailment that affects the heart's ability to pump blood properly.
This all happened to Thomas, one of the Steelers' two picks in the fourth round of this April's past draft, within the span of nine months, spanning over the course of his freshman year of college.
He was no longer simply a All Big East Freshman team defensive back, he was suddenly the adjunct father of five kids, ages eight to 17.
It wouldn't be the first major transition in his life. Thomas "kind of dabbled in gang activity" as a freshman at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, Va., said his high school's police officer, Adam Bernstein. Thomas was involved in a fight in the neighborhood, and was recognized by Bernstein. It woke Thomas up, steering him back toward the football field and the classroom. Already a gifted athlete he worked even harder. A struggling student, he made the honor roll his junior and senior year.
"It gives me goose bumps even just to talk about it and to think about how far he has come," said Leslie Allard, a 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."
Thomas received a scholarship to play football at Syracuse, and did so well enough to be named All Big East in a senior season that saw him notch two interceptions - the first two of his collegiate career - and force three fumbles.
His motivation seems simple, yet, dramatically profound.
"I told my mom I'm going to make it and take care of my whole family."
He had a tradition before games his senior season. Kneeling down at the corner of the field immediately following warm-ups, he looked at a picture of his mother and father while listening to "After While" by Deitrick Haddon.
"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."
Imagine what Thomas did Thursday when he became the first of the Steelers' nine draft picks to sign a contract. Perhaps the team saw the fact he is the provider for five younger siblings, and decided to help get the family some money. His signing bonus, in the neighborhood of $400,000, is likely to be money well-spent by Thomas and his family.
Judging by the journey Thomas has traveled to get to this point, it's more than well-spent by the Steelers.