The Pittsburgh Steelers have had their share of superior athletes come through their organization since it was created in 1933, but when you are talking about the modern era of Steelers football, few would compare to linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Shazier, the Ohio State standout, brought a speed and athleticism to the inside linebacker position few had ever seen before. He epitomized the ‘sideline-to-sideline’ athleticism which has now become synonymous with the position. Gone are the days of big, lumbering inside linebackers like Levon Kirkland prowling the middle of the field. Enter players like Shazier who were able to run with running backs and tight ends, and attack the line of scrimmage like few others.
This isn’t to suggest Shazier’s professional career was all glitz and glamour, with no real setbacks. In the early stages of Shazier’s career in Pittsburgh he saw more fans suggest he be moved to safety, not a future Pro Bowl player. But Shazier continued to work on his game, and it paid off when he had his best season in 2017.
The Steelers were a red-hot team behind the ‘Killer B’s’ offense of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, and Shazier was the rock on the inside of the defense. That was, until a Monday night game in Cincinnati changed more than his career. It changed his life.
As Shazier made what looked to be a routine play in the middle of the field, the linebacker stayed on the Paul Brown Stadium turf motionless. This wasn’t the first time players have seen a player carted off, but you quickly noticed the faces of the men around Shazier change to one of worry and concern.
In that moment, Shazier was paralyzed from the chest down, and his professional football career was over.
Shazier was told he would likely never walk again.
For a professional athlete, to make it to the pinnacle of his craft, being told you can’t do something is not acceptable. Shazier hit his rehabilitation the way he would have stood up a ball carrier in the flat. It wasn’t long before you saw social media posts of Shazier standing up with Ben Roethlisberger’s assistance. Eventually, taking steps with assistance. But it was at the 2018 NFL Draft when Shazier walked on stage to announce the Steelers’ first round pick which made it known to everyone watching he wouldn’t be limited to what someone was telling him he could, or couldn’t, do.
Following that amazing event (which you can re-live HERE), Shazier continued to keep hope of returning to the playing field alive. The same work ethic which made him a standout football player now became the same work ethic which would lead him back to walking.
Throughout this process Shazier likely heard the sentiments from pundits and fans suggesting he give up his dreams of returning to the NFL. Instead, everyone just wanted a “normal” life for Shazier. During Shazier’s recovery, he was a staple with the Steelers and remained a big part of the organization. He would make trips to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, and would even attend meetings with the defense and scouting departments.
But Shazier wanted to make a different kind of impact. An impact which would resonate outside the world of football. On Sept. 9, 2020, Shazier took to his verified Twitter page to announce his retirement from the game of football.
Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the NFL, knew this was the likely outcome for Shazier, but the news left many wondering what was next for the standout linebacker.
Some thought he would go into coaching, while others speculated it might be more family time for the former Ohio State Buckeye. Instead, Shazier bucked the trend of being known only for football, and started a foundation.
The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation was developed to help others who were in the same position as Shazier in 2017. Paralyzed, and needing assistance. Unfortunately, not every person who suffers a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) is able to fully regain the ability to walk like Shazier did in the years following his injury on Monday Night Football. Nonetheless, the stories of Shazier helping others goes far beyond the world of sports.
Take the story of Zac Wolfe as an example. Zac was a 19-year-old, outdoors-loving teen who was enjoying every aspect of life until a car accident caused a truck he was riding in to flip.
“And then all of the sudden, we had a car accident. The truck rolled,” Zac told Shazier’s foundation. “I was sitting in the middle of the seat—my friends were fine, but all I remember is one of them leaning over me as I was face down in the road saying, “Stay with me, Zac!”
After surgery to stabilize his cervical spinal cord injury, Zac transferred to a rehab facility close to home.
“I didn’t know what a spinal cord injury was, or what I could or couldn’t do, so I thought I’d bounce right back,” Zac joked, some 10 years post-injury.
The transition to physical therapy was difficult, especially for people used to doing everything for themselves.
“I can’t even put into words what it was like, but I can say that your life changes in an instant,” Zac said. “I will say you do learn a lot about yourself in a very short period of time.”
Zac continues to rehabilitate his injury, and has made tremendous strides both in his recovery and in his life. He decided to start his own company called Adaptive Outdoorz, a lifestyle company dedicated to providing products and support to the active disabled community.
Zac’s story is just one of many shared on the Ryan Shazier Foundation website, and just one example of how Shazier’s work off the field is making an impact. Shazier’s Foundation has done more than just be a source of strength for people battling their way back from SCIs, but also to provide equipment and the necessary tools for them to continue their journey back to some sense of normalcy.
The mission of The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation is to give those with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers the support, resources and funding they need to live independent and meaningful lives.
But it is more than what that mission statement suggests. It is a mindset which was used by Shazier prior to his injury in 2017. It’s about people having the ability to “Shalieve”.
The website tells what that means...
It means believing in yourself, even when others harbor doubt.
It means setting, and then crushing your goals.
It means keeping your inner circle close, because they believe—Shalieve—in you.
And it means spreading the spirit of Shalieve to the people you meet. The Spirit of Shalieve is infectious.
On that fateful night in Cincinnati on Monday Night Football, things looked bleak. In fact, they looked downright scary. But Ryan Shazier has proven you can’t keep a good man down, and he has taken that and decided to help others. A noble cause, indeed.
Sometimes all you have to do is SHALIEVE.