Until then, at his mother's funeral, Shamarko Thomas hadn't been able to cry. Thomas, one of the hardest-hitting safeties in college football, had been able to hold back the tears, his confusion and anger blocking the path to grief.
The tears could have come while he was sitting at home in Virginia Beach a day after getting that phone call, scrolling through his mother's cell phone to try to catch a glimpse into the last moments of Ebeth Shabazz's life. They could have come the next day, when Thomas, then 20, went to the courthouse with his grandmother to claim dual custody of his five younger siblings, ages 5 to 17, despite the fact that he had two more years left at Syracuse as one of the best defensive players in the Big East Conference.
Or, they could have come at any point while contemplating his future, unsure whether he should go back to Syracuse or stay in Virginia to try to get a job and take care of his family.
Thomas was adamant about staying strong in front of his younger siblings. Nobody could know how much he was hurting, but his mom was his best friend. No matter what was going on in their lives, they always had each other. He almost couldn't comprehend the idea of her being gone.
When Thomas was growing up, Shabazz worked long shifts at McDonald's, trying to support six children by herself. He often wouldn't see her until she came home late at night and woke him with her tears and sobs. Thomas would go into her bedroom and hold her while they both cried and prayed. The tears would stop only when Shabazz would look up at her oldest son and tell him, "Shamarko, you're my 'Chosen One.' You are going to make this life different for us."
Standing up in front of the congregation at her funeral, Thomas realized he could speak only by looking at six specific people. They were his coaches at Syracuse: head coach Doug Marrone, defensive coordinator Scott Shafer and graduate assistant Joe Fields, and his support system in high school: guidance counselor Leslie Allard, school police officer Sgt. Adam Bernstein and head football coach Chris Scott.
He explained to them why he works so hard, why he wakes up at 3 a.m. to start a day that includes four to five workouts, or why he got to Ocean Lakes High School more than two hours early to do his best to keep his grades college-eligible, or why he skipped meals, partly to test his endurance but also so his younger siblings could have more to eat for dinner.
He got through his stories, still standing on the podium next to her casket. For the first time since his mom passed away, he broke down and cried.
More than anything, Thomas is Shabazz's Chosen One, and even though she has been gone for more than two years, there's nothing more important to him than that.
Trying to be different
When Thomas was in elementary school, a teacher asked the class to write an essay about whom they looked up to the most. Young Thomas wrote about his biological dad, even though they hadn't ever met, saying, "I look up to him because I never want to be like him."
Thomas has met his biological dad once since then, but doesn't know him and doesn't want to know him. Shabazz had her oldest son at just 15, so in a way, the two grew up together, mother and son scraping by.
Before Ocean Lakes High School and before he met his support system there, Thomas was just another talented kid struggling to pick his way out of a rough neighborhood. He was on his way to becoming his dad.
Right before the end of his freshman year, Thomas found himself involved in a neighborhood brawl. He wasn't arrested, but his name was listed in the police report. It was a warning sign, not just for Thomas, but for the people in the system -- Scott and Bernstein -- who knew his potential.
Scott and Bernstein sat down with Thomas and told him that if he didn't start hanging out with a different crowd, he would wind up in jail or dead. Honesty broke through.
"That's the day they changed my life," Thomas said. "They woke me up to reality. My real dad never claimed me and my stepdad had just started to get back in my life, so I had never had someone tell me what to do. When Officer Bernstein and Coach Scott showed me that somebody cared about me, that's when I knew I had to change my life."
That summer transformed him, to the point where Scott began calling him "The New Shamarko." He started to dedicate himself to football and to school, and distance himself from the kids in the neighborhood. He began to work on becoming the Chosen One.
"His senior year, we had four kids from different high school football teams in the Hampton Roads area get killed," said Bernstein, who works in the Virginia Beach police department. "I still run into kids who had the same amount of talent he did, but were lazy or had a completely different mindset. I see those kids now getting arrested, because that's the easy way out. Shamarko has done everything he can do to avoid that."
Allard was the other key cog in Thomas' Ocean Lakes career. She helped with college scholarships, recruiting and keeping his grades up, filling a role that Shabazz couldn't.
She doesn't have any kids, but Shabazz still texted her on Mother's Day. Thomas has one necklace he doesn't take off, one that reads, "Believe in yourself because we believe in you." It was a gift from Allard, who Thomas still calls "Mrs. Leslie." Without that, he never would have made it out of Virginia Beach.
"People go through a lot of things in life, but that support, it changes everything," Thomas said recently at a Steelers organized team activity (OTA) session. "I would definitely not be here without those people, because I wouldn't have had anybody. I wouldn't have had any mentors to tell me what to do, and I still would have been running these streets."
Two losses in nine months
In the airport on his way to Syracuse for his freshman year, Thomas broke down and cried, scared of being away from his mother for the first time. They still talked every day, and he went back to Virginia every chance he could.
But just as he was getting settled, Thomas' stepdad, Adbul Shabazz, was killed in a motorcycle accident at the beginning of Thomas' sophomore year.
Ebeth and Abdul Shabazz had married when Thomas was in elementary school and had Thomas' five younger siblings together. Abdul and Thomas were close, especially during football season, but Ebeth and Abdul divorced in Thomas' senior year of high school. Stepdad and stepson remained close, or at least tried to.
After Adbul Shabazz died, it was once again just the boy and his mom. He was starting to love Syracuse and the college football environment, but there were nights where all he wanted was to be with his mother in Virginia.
Nine months later, in April 2011, Thomas woke up to a phone call from his cousin, who said he needed to get in contact with his family as soon as possible. As he hung up the phone, Thomas got a voicemail from a younger brother. It was short, saying only "Momma's gone."
Ebeth Shabazz died from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the heart's ability to pump blood properly. Thomas was blind-sided.
Coping with the grief of losing his parents in nine months, Thomas had about two weeks to figure out long term vs. short term, to stay or go. He could stay in Virginia and get a job, or go back to Syracuse and cram for finals. When Ebeth died, there was nobody left to take care of Thomas' siblings -- four brothers and one sister who were all under the age of 17 at the time. Short term, the kids he still calls "his babies" needed to eat, and he wasn't making any money playing college football. Long term, graduating and making the NFL wasn't just Thomas' dream -- it was Ebeth's, too.
Ultimately, Thomas' grandmother moved to Virginia from Chicago, and the two shared custody of the five children so that he could become the first person in his family -- not just close family, but extended family -- to graduate from college.
"This is a kid that had every reason in the world to give up but didn't," Allard said. "I don't know a lot of people that would have gone back to school after all of that."
With his heart and mind back in Virginia, the first thing Thomas did after getting back to school is put in a four-hour workout.
"I went through this tragedy, but a lot of people have been through worse," he said. "Just because I lost my parents, somebody else probably lost their parents, their brothers, their house, everything. Some people don't have this chance. I have four little brothers and one sister to take care of, and I have to show them the world. When I got back, it was just, put my head down and go after it. It never settles for me."
Falling to Steelers
There was a day in high school where Ebeth wanted to hang out with Thomas during some rare time off work, and her young son chose to hang out with friends and girls instead.
Those are the things he thinks about during workouts, workouts that are still talked about at Syracuse. Fields, who played a year for the Carolina Panthers, met Thomas and was blown away.
"His work ethic is one of legend," he said. "It sounds so cliché to say that in sports, but that's Shamarko. It's almost mythical stuff, the way that he worked and his passion and his desire to be great."
It wasn't just working out four or five times a day. It was putting a car in neutral at the bottom of a hill, having a friend sit inside to steer, and pushing that car all the way up the hill and around off-campus apartments, or finishing a day with crossfit training after a bike ride, runs on the beach, lifting, and workouts with a trainer in which he would throw up multiple times a session.
"I've been coaching for 23 years ... I've had some really good players ... He's the toughest, hardest worker I've ever coached," said Shafer, who is now the head coach at Syracuse.
The biggest reason Thomas fell to the fourth round was because of his 5-foot-9 size. If Thomas were 2-3 inches taller, he might have gone two or three rounds higher. He ran a 4.42 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he had the fastest 40 time, the most reps on the bench press, the highest vertical jump and the longest broad jump among the safeties.
At Syracuse, pundits called him "a human missile." He was one of the most feared hitters in the Big East, where he routinely would knock opponents out of the game en route to an All-Big East selection his senior year, when he led the Orange in tackles. Still, 10 safeties were drafted before him, because of his height.
Even before Ebeth died, Thomas was doing wind sprints on the beach and working out with heavy chains on his shoulders. The work continued at high school, to the point where he made honor roll and was the Homecoming King his senior year of high school.
Thomas always has been Ebeth's Chosen One. Even when she was alive, that's who was on his mind when he was doing crossfit or pushing cars or getting to school two hours early. It was never about him -- it was always about Ebeth.
"I saw what she went through her whole life, and she never complained. Just worked," Thomas said. "Her job and raising six kids was hard, but she just did it. She just wanted me to get my education and be successful, and I respected her for that. If she could work hard, I could work hard, too."
In April, two years after his mom's passing, the Steelers drafted Thomas in the fourth round. After earning his degree in child and family studies, he became the first Steelers rookie to sign his contract, a four-year deal with a signing bonus of a little more than $400,000.
Ebeth was supposed to be around for this, for her oldest son making the NFL and fulfilling their dream. He was supposed to be able to hug her when the Steelers called, to cry with her when he signed his first contract, and to look up and see her at his first game. Still, just because Ebeth is gone doesn't mean her spirit is.
If one of his siblings needs money, they have to work for it, whether it's 100 pushups or getting an 'A' on a test. It would be easy to just hand the kids money, but then again, there are no easy giveaways with Thomas.
"My mom used to tell me, 'Work hard until your hands and feet fall off.' She's gone, but my hands and feet are still here, so I still have to work."