By Tom Robinson
© April 25, 2013
The most impressive things about the 40-yard dash Shamarko Thomas ran at the NFL scouting combine were how fast he flew and how hard he fell.
Both said something about Thomas, as an NFL prospect and as a man.
His gold shoes a blur, Thomas raced 40 yards in 4.42 seconds, best of the 15 safeties invited to audition for scouts in February at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
But at the finish, Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 213-pound missile from Virginia Beach, stumbled and crashed head-long to the artificial turf, his left shoulder absorbing the brunt of the blow. It was a violent accident, from which Thomas simply bounced up as if nothing unusual had happened.
"Sometimes you fall," Thomas said. "You gotta get back up."
Thomas, 22, understands that more intimately than most people his age.
He was well down the road to delinquency and wasted talent at Ocean Lakes High until he allowed mentors to help him change course.
His stepfather and mother died within a year of each other while he was at Syracuse University. Thomas grieved, then accepted legal responsibility for five younger siblings.
As his goal of an NFL career drew near, he set about his relentless "grind," one of his favorite words, to gain attention and improve his draft status and financial potential.
People who know Thomas say that what he does best, among all that he does well, is get up.
"Anyone who's ever met Shamarko knows that he is an amazing human being," said Leslie Allard, a guidance counselor at Ocean Lakes whom Thomas considers a major influence for her belief in him.
"He's had every reason to give up, but he's just refused to do so. The fact that (the NFL) is right here in his face now, it's too hard to put into words how it makes all of us feel."
Thomas plays with ferocity modeled after some of the NFL's biggest-hitting defensive backs, past and present - Ronnie Lott, Bob Sanders, the late Sean Taylor. It carried him to first-team all-Big East honors last season.
"I'm the type of person, I like putting fear in people," said Thomas, who as a senior led the Orange with 84 tackles and three forced fumbles. "I don't like them trying to put fear into me."
Thomas didn't shrink from the NFL's pre-draft scrutiny, either. He was already on draft boards, but he flashed dynamic athleticism in postseason workouts that dramatically raised his profile among draftniks.
Thomas is more than just the owner of the 40-yard dash gone viral. His brute strength at the combine - he bench-pressed 225 pounds 28 times - was the greatest of any safety or cornerback.
And he also tied for the best vertical leap (40-1/2 inches) among defensive backs.
"I feel like I could've done better," Thomas said. "I wanted to finish No. 1 in every category, but I didn't.
"I knew what I was capable of, but people didn't know I was capable of it. So I went and attacked it and showed the world and scouts that I'm capable of playing strong safety in the league."
The league believes, or at least those media members who keenly evaluate prospects.
The NFL Network's Mike Mayock ranks Thomas second among strong safeties entering the three-day draft, which begins tonight. And ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. predicted Thomas, whom he calls "a stellar athlete," could be drafted as high as the second round.
"I haven't really been looking at that type of stuff," said Thomas, who added that he interviewed with the Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Rams and also worked out for the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I just work hard, day by day, and wait for my name to be called."
Two years ago last week, Thomas was called to extraordinary responsibility.
His mother, Ebeth, died suddenly at 36 of an undiagnosed heart condition nine months after his stepfather had died in a motorcycle crash. Thomas was just 20, a college sophomore, with four brothers and a sister left parentless in Virginia.
"I felt like God was punishing me," Thomas said. "But my grandma says God does everything for a reason. He wants to see how you react and how strong you are."
Now ages 8 to 18, the siblings Thomas calls "my babies" live with their grandmother in Chesapeake, but Thomas said he has legal guardianship. At times, he's their brother, at times their parent. But he said providing for them through football, and finishing college to honor his mother, are always on his mind.
They are missions that Allard is certain will not be denied.
"We always knew he was going to get to the NFL even before tragedy struck in his family," she said. "Once his parents passed away, it changed over from just being a dream to being more of a necessity for him.
"It's why he gets up at 4 o'clock in the morning and goes and works out, and works out with the team, and then works out again, to the point where they're kicking him out of the weight room."
That is an image of Thomas that's far removed from when he was, in his words, "young and following the crowd." So far, in fact, that Allard said she gets chills whenever she shares his story.
"Everyone knows Shamarko; if they don't know him personally, they know of him at Ocean Lakes," Allard said. "He's really become a role model, not just to the athletes, but to any student who has been through any kind of a struggle.
"They can look at him and listen to his story and see that there's a possibility that 'I can make it, too.' "
Reaching the NFL will be satisfying on its own, but Thomas said his fuel is the thought of reaching a larger audience in a much larger way.
"I feel like I have to set an example for kids, try to show them that the street life's not the life they want to live," he said. "I want to inspire little kids to push themselves in everything they do. To believe in yourself, not in what people say you can't do."
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