Neither Shamarko Thomas nor Nick Williams had the chance to meet professional athletes or attend an NFL camp when they were children. Williams didn't even begin playing football until he was a senior in high school, and Thomas couldn't afford the opportunity growing up with a single mother who had to work hard just to support her family.
So when the two players, both in their second year with the Steelers, had the opportunity to work with children at the team's annual Youth Football Camp at West Allegheny High School, they knew how important their presence would be.
"I feel like it's definitely important for us to give back and talk to the kids because I was one of these kids sitting here wishing and hoping I could talk to an NFL football player," Thomas said. "It helps the kids motivate themselves, and that's the big thing about being us, we're big mentors and motivators and I think we should give back. There should be no second-guessing yourself, make sure you come out here and talk to these kids and just have fun with them."
Thomas and Williams were just two members of a cast of Steelers personalities that led the youths through practice drills in the morning and afternoon Thursday. The camp also is being held today. In addition to the two current Steelers, former players Charlie Batch, Craig Wolfley, Rod Rutherford and Mike Tomczak spoke to the children between sessions.
While each speaker told his personal story, they all shared an overarching theme: perseverance. Rutherford had to prove doubters wrong when they told him he would never play quarterback. Tomczak proved doctors wrong when they told him he would never play football again after breaking his leg in college.
For their part, the children -- ranging from ages 6 to 14 -- showed off their knowledge. A few knew Tomczak's 1985 Bears were famous for their "Super Bowl Shuffle," and the majority of them were smart enough to shout "Baltimore!" when asked about Charlie Batch's last career game. That game -- a 23-20 victory Dec. 2, 2012 against the Ravens -- was used, again, to portray dedication and perseverance from Batch.
Thomas and Williams fit well into that mold. Williams, for example, missed his rookie season after injuring his knee in late August. His knee looked fine Thursday as he laughed and coached the children through several tackling and agility drills, but the road to recovery gave him a strong talking point and his presence, he hoped, could provide the children with a strong example of staying the course through adversity.
"I think the biggest thing that I have to offer is a physical example of me making it, me getting drafted and me playing for the Steelers," he said. "A lot of kids, you can tell them one thing and they'll forget it, but if they actually see it, see a Steelers player and hear a story form that player, it's life changing for them."
Williams maintained that it was his responsibility as a professional athlete to use the opportunity he has to reach others for a good purpose.
"It's a great opportunity," he said. "You can use it for good and you can use it for evil, for bad. The biggest thing is to use it for good because we can influence a lot of kids."
Thomas, meanwhile, used that opportunity to pass along several lessons he had been taught by his mother, his greatest inspiration growing up. Ebeth Shabazz passed away nearly two years ago, but her son continues to carry her message to this day.
On Thursday, her message reached children all over the country -- the camp welcomes children from several states, and last year even had one child from Alaska. When he spoke, Thomas recounted several lessons his mother taught him: Work hard "until your hands and feet fall off" and show what you want through your actions.
"I definitely want to spread my mom's word," he said afterward. "All she did was motivate me by her words and by her actions and that's what I want to give back to these kids, because that taught me how to be disciplined and how to stay focused and put everything in perspective. Life is hard, but it is what you make of it. Just make sure you're the person that you are."
Jourdon LaBarber: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @jourdonlabarber.