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2015 Pittsburgh Steelers to go from 'Rags to Riches': Shamarko Thomas

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You won't see many players jumping to volunteer to replace a player like Troy Polamalu, but that is exactly what Shamarko Thomas is doing. Can he make the jump from 'Rags to Riches' in 2015?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The replacing of a superstar isn't always easy.

Jenilee Harrison and Priscilla Barnes couldn't quite fill Suzanne Somers' short-shorts after her controversial departure from the upstairs apartment on Three's Company.

1985's New Coke was met with such anger from consumers, it only lasted three months on the market until Old Coke had to come out of retirement and rebrand itself Classic Coke. Confusing.

Cliff Stoudt and Mark Malone combined instead of Terry Bradshaw is too painful to type about.

How about Kirstie Alley replacing Shelly Long on Cheers. That was a complete disas...Whoa! Hold on a second. Alley as Rebecca Howe matched Long as an Emmy-winner and stayed on the epic sitcom a year longer. This one worked out well, leading me to ask...

Why not Shamarko Thomas?

There's no denying the footprint left on the Heinz Field turf of Troy Polamalu. In the annals of Steeler history, No. 43 earned legendary status in his 12 campaigns. He is projected to be enshrined as one of the all-time greats ever to play the game in Canton and was the heart and soul of two Super Bowl champs in the late-2000's. But how deep will the void be? And is the right successor right under our collective Steeler Nation noses in the form of a third-year safety from Syracuse.

Polamalu's Tazmanian Devil style and his kamikaze approach was something special. But there's no denying that it led the defense to live-by-the sword and die-by-the-sword. It also led to a quicker decline in production because of the wear-and-tear on Troy's body. The Steelers thought that it was time. Theodora Polamalu, Troy's wife, hoped that it was time. Presumably, Troy reluctantly conceded that it was time. Shamarko Thomas sat and bided his time.

Many believe that the success of the Pittsburgh defense may be the critical factor in the Steelers raising the Lombardi trophy for a record seventh-time. Because of that, there could be a tight correlation between the emergence of Shamarko Thomas and obtaining the ultimate prize. In the next few paragraphs, I will identify the qualities possessed by Thomas that could, in 2015, elevate him from rags to riches.

1) The guy is a heat-seeking missile

Some guys are apprehensive to hit, Shamarko Thomas relishes the chance to torpedo himself into an opposing ball handler, much like his predecessor. A bone crushing wallop last year against Carolina led to a fumble and a key touchdown return.

Coming out of Syracuse, scouts identified Thomas as a tough safety with a linebacker's mentality. After his selection in the fourth round of the 2013 draft, defensive backs coach Carnell Lake relayed his theory that two more inches probably would have propelled Shamarko into the first round. But despite his height, he plays with a scrappy aggressiveness and is not afraid to mix it up.

His first two seasons, No. 29 has not only shown ability to run downhill and put a jarring hit on running backs, but has displayed the coverage speed to stay with slot receivers downfield. If he could get his hands on and keep his hands on more balls thrown in his zone, Thomas has blue collar, Pro Bowl potential.

So far, the Shark has made his name on special teams employing these talents and now gets a chance to showcase them every week as a starter and add on to his 34 career tackles.

2) There's a major sense of urgency

When you're 19 and you lose both of your parents within nine months of each other, it's devastating. When that same scenario becomes a reality and you find yourself the oldest of six children, you have to grow up immediately and take the reigns of the family. Shamarko did just that.

Before his sophomore season in 2010, his father, Abdul Shabazz, was killed when a driver swerved out of his lane and struck his motorcycle. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Nine months later, Ebeth Shabazz died in her sleep due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Devastated, he thought he would fall apart. But he called upon his faith and recalled a conversation weeks earlier that set him in motion.

According to SI.com, During an April 2011 phone call, Shabazz explained that her oldest son was her "chosen one" and if anything were to happen to her, he was to try his hardest and take care of his family. Shamarko, in turn, promised that he would make it and take care of his entire family. Weeks later, she was gone and Shamarko Thomas, a college sophomore football player, was responsible for four brothers and a sister, ages 8 to 17, back in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Thomas considered leaving early after a solid junior season for the NFL, but he wisely waited to ensure that he was completely prepared for the challenge.

A few months ago at an autograph signing event in Virginia, I personally witnessed Thomas with a few of his brothers. It was encouraging to see how paternally nurturing a 24 year-old could be. Recently married, Thomas is further fulfilling that promise to take care of his entire family.

Not only does Thomas and his family have a lot riding on his NFL success, his football family does too. Fearing that he would not last until they're pick in the fourth round, the Steelers surrendered a valuable 2014 third round pick for the opportunity to draft Thomas. Basically, the Shark cost two picks to bring to Heinz Field. But the team was able to hasten Polamalu's retirement due to their belief in the potential of the former Orangemen player.

3) Conditioning is key

The buzz on Shamarko Thomas is that he works out like a mad man. It's been reported that besides James Harrison, no one spends more time in the team gym than the third-year safety. His workout habits are exceptional and will need to continue to propel him to the next level. The worry about this guy is that he has a tendency to be on the shelf due to injury, missing seven games in two seasons.

However, he has a fantastic work ethic that was inspired by his mother. She would drill into Shamarko that to be great, he would have to outwork the competition. That advice has surely stuck with him.

4) He's learned from the best and is paying it forward

Troy Polamalu took the young Shamarko under his wing early and has been teaching him the ways of the force. In the offseason last year, Thomas trained with Polamalu in Southern California and learned a lot more than just football from Troy, much in the way a young padawan would learn from Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah. The Syracuse alum went to the veteran safety and told him that he wanted to be great. Polamalu explained that being great is not what kind of football player a person is, it's what kind of man a person can be.

The mentorship and the work ethic that was shared out west and in the locker room last year is not only designed to be apparent on the gridiron, but in the locker room too. It is very rare to have an unestablished third-year player helping to groom a rookie at his same position. But that is precisely what Thomas is doing with Gerrod Holliman, a rookie SS from Louisville. Holliman was an award winning defensive back in college and had a nation-leading 14 interceptions in '14. But the knock on Holliman is that he is reticent to hit. Thomas has been coaching him up and could be a big factor in his making the team.

Thomas' mentoring of the rookie could cost him his spot, but the unselfish team-first attitude is refreshing and the attribute of a true leader. That's what any championship team needs. I couldn't think of a better candidate to root for.

Ability, positive attitude and a dedication to his family and team. All of this is why in 2014, Shamarko Thomas will rise from....rags to riches.