Anyone who was alive to watch Troy Polamalu play will never forget the style, grace and downright tenacity with which he played football. He forever changed the safety position, not only for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but for the entire NFL. Polamalu had a Hall of Fame career which spanned 12 years in Pittsburgh. Defensive player of the year, Super Bowl rings, Pro Bowls, All-Pro selections and commercial endorsements to boot.
Tough act to follow, right?
Enter Shamarko Thomas. The third-year safety has the unfortunate task of replacing a legend, and some are already criticizing him in regards to replacing Polamalu. Thomas undoubtedly has heard the criticism and even the comparisons between himself and the great No. 43, but he would be wise to heed my advice:
Just be yourself.
Thomas isn't Troy, and quite frankly, no one in my lifetime will ever be like Troy. He played the game in such a unique fashion it would be impossible to emulate. Thomas has gained a lot from Polamalu since being drafted in 2013. Polamalu has given him guidance on and off the field, a mentor he still turns to in times of need and an understanding of what it means to be a true professional. However, what Thomas should have learned from watching Polamalu up-close-and-personal is to just be yourself.
Steelers fans might seem like a fickle bunch, but in all actuality they want players who work hard, show up when it matters and do their jobs. Pretty simple stuff for a professional. Thomas has waited for this opportunity for three years now. Waiting patiently as the coaching staff chose Will Allen to play in the 4 games Polamalu missed in 2014, rather than him. For once, it is an open competition for the safety position Polamalu vacated through retirement.
Some might question Thomas' size or his injury history (I suppose the comparison to Bob Sanders isn't such a great one), but the fact of the matter is Thomas has yet to actually prove his worth within the defense. We've seen him plenty on special teams, where he has made splash plays, but not within the standard defense. 2015 will be Thomas' year to showcase his talents in a way he couldn't while in Polamalu's gigantic shadow.
Thomas was often talked about throughout the 2014 training camp for how fast, fierce and physical he played the game, but outside of preseason games never was given the chance to put an exclamation point on his work, as Mike Tomlin would say. 2015 is a new chapter in Steelers' history, and it is the beginning of Thomas' story as a safety in the NFL. How this chapter ends is solely up to Shamarko, and by just being himself and not trying to be Troy will be a healthy step in the right direction.