NFL: Steelers' Thomas goes back to school
LATROBE — Shamarko Thomas wants to learn from the best. The Steelers’ second-year safety appears to have the perfect mentor to do so.
Thomas traveled to San Diego where he worked out for a week during the offseason with Steelers strong safety and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu, an opportunity offered by one of the premier players in the game.
“I was the first person to ever work out with (Polamalu),” Thomas said. “It’s an amazing experience just to learn from that type of guy, not just working out, but his mentality, the way he goes about his days, how he takes care of his family and how he puts God first in his life.”
Thomas initiated the conversation, sending a text message to Polamalu after the team’s mandatory minicamp in June to tell the All-Pro safety that he wanted to be great.
“He was like, ‘You have to show me by your actions first,’” Thomas said.
“Then, one day we got into a conversation to come out there and train with him.”
For Thomas, it was a rare chance for an in-depth look at the life of a player considered by many to be one of the best safeties to play the game. Cornerback Ike Taylor, who, like Polamalu, was drafted in 2003, realizes the significance.
“That was a first, so that lets you know how Troy feels about him,” Taylor said. “People cry just to get Troy’s autograph ... let alone a young guy going into his second year, Troy taking him under his wing and bringing him out there to his home and showing him how to work. For me, that would be exciting and I played with Troy for 12 years, so I could only imagine (how) a second year guy (feels).”
Training with Polamalu was a life-changing experience for Thomas, the team’s 2013 fourth-round draft pick out of Syracuse. Thomas, who described a Polamalu workout ‘like a karate movie with some ninja stuff,’ said the week-long stay felt like a month.
“It was hard, but that’s what it takes to be a Hall of Famer,” Thomas said. “It works for him and I thought it worked for me, too.”
It wasn’t all grueling workouts and mental preparation for the upcoming season. There were deeper moments as Thomas said Polamalu taught him to put God first, followed by family and then his career.
It moved Thomas enough to propose to his fianc￩e and surprise her with a new car the day the Steelers reported to St. Vincent College.
“I definitely matured a lot this offseason and it comes from Troy,” Thomas said. “He always told me, ‘don’t talk about it, be about action.”
He wants to do the same on the field. Thomas said he feels at ease after an up-and-down rookie season in which he played in 14 games. He made two starts early in the season, but he struggled in the second half, suffering an ankle injury in November that kept him out two games.
“I’ve matured a lot,” Thomas said. “Last year was a fast game and a lot of things are going through your head. Everything has slowed down. I’m stable, I’m relaxed, I’m calm and I’m ready to play.”
Thomas appears primed to take the next step in his second year, rotating with the starters during the first week of training camp while veteran safety Mike Mitchell remains out with a groin injury.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “I think that trait is part of who he is. I think as he continues to grow and develop and understand more about how this game is played and what offenses are trying to do ... once that kicks in — and it’s starting to kick in — he’s going to be really good.”
Polamalu noticed and the eight-time Pro Bowler is doing his part to help Thomas become an impact player in the league.
“It just motivates me,” Thomas said. “For a guy like that, a guy that’s going to be a Hall of Famer to take me out there and show me the ropes, it’s just an amazing experience.”
NOTES: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey is dealing with a concussion. ... RB LeGarrette Blount returned after missing two practices. ... WR Justin Brown practiced Saturday despite suffering a broken nose on Thursday, which required surgery.