Ryan Shazier was the first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2014 NFL Draft and was emerging as one of the league’s most dynamic and impactful players. By 2017, Shazier and the Steelers seemed to be on course for a Super Bowl run, but as we all know today, fate intervened. Shazier would not just see his career end, but face the loss of his legs.
Shazier developed a reputation for tackling with his head down and leading with his helmet. Shazier was not a dirty player, but it was more of a byproduct of how he was taught to tackle. It was not a matter of just tackling the player, but tackling through the player and behind him. Given just how incredibly fast he was, combined with his focus on acceleration when making a tackle, many times when he tried to make the effort to lift his head up, it was too late. Shazier had already instinctively reacted and made the tackle.
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler warned Shazier about the dangers of players who tackled with their heads down and the injuries they suffered, and they worked very hard to correct it. After each game, Butler and Shazier would watch the film of the plays where he tackled with his head down. Each practice began with hitting a tackling dummy with constant repetitions of hitting it with his head up.
On December 4, 2017, the Steelers were on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals for Monday Night Football. The Steelers were trying to keep pace with the New England Patriots in the race for the #1 seed and Shazier was questionable due to a high angle sprain. The doctors left the decision to play up to Shazier and he was even cautioned by his wife that it might be best to not play the game. But there was no way Shazier was going to not be there for his teammates. By 2017, Shazier had not just become the Steelers’ best defensive player, but also the leader of the defensive unit. If he was walking, he was playing.
Ryan Shazier, per Walking Miracle:
So there I was, bearing down on wide receiver Josh Malone, who’d just caught a checkdown pass from quarterback Andy Dalton. It was such a routine play that I had all kinds of time to read what was in front of me.
So much time that, for the first time in my career, during a game I actually said to myself: Keep your head up.
Just as I made contact with Malone, he turned, and that upturned head of mine made contact with his left hip. The next thing I knew, I was down. I instantly felt a sharp burning sensation in my lower back. I rolled over, clutching at my back. But while I could move my arms, I couldn’t move my legs. I couldn’t wiggle my toes. There was no feeling below the waist.
The Steelers and Bengals had a fierce, and often times dirty rivalry at the time, but Paul Brown Stadium fell silent when Shazier laid still on the field after what looked like an innocuous hit. Shazier’s first thoughts were that it was just a stinger, and he maintained those thoughts as a positive thinker.
Trainers were coming out and moving Shazier’s legs while asking if he could feel it, only for Shazier to respond, “feel what?” Right about this time, reality began to set in for himself, teammates, and even the fans in Cincinnati as the stadium became very quiet.
When Shazier was truly examined, the extent and nature of the injury became real. Right up into the moment, Shazier believed he would be back playing again. Then doctors told Shazier they had very bad news and that he would have only a 20% chance of walking again.
A man of faith, raised by a preacher while growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has his faith and belief truly put to the test.
Ryan Shazier, per Walking Miracle:
That’s when it started, the rush of “why me” thoughts. I’d always done the right thing: worked hard, treated people with respect and kindness. I’d been raised to believe that if you follow the rules, good things will happen. You get back what you put out there. And now…this? Fourteen days ago, I’d been a world-class athlete; now here I was, vomit-covered, feverish, unable to take a step or raise a leg or feel anything below the waist.
Some moments, I’d feel depressed. You’re never getting better, I’d think. Other times, I’d feel anger…at Him. My dad served You his whole life; he tended to Your flock faithfully. How could You do this to him?
But Ryan Shazier was made of something different, as we would all see. Between the love of his wife Michelle and his best friend and trainer Jerome, they began about a story to make others believe in their worst of times. About how to push through when all you want to do is quit. About maybe this is all God’s Plan and being meant for more than just interceptions and tackles on the field. They decided to “Believe in Shazier” and that became “Shalieve!”
After reading about Magic Johnson when he was first diagnosed with the virus that caused AIDS (thought at the time to be a death sentence) and doctors told Johnson that his attitude would be a major factor in his recovery. Magic responded with, “If you’re telling me that I can beat this thing with a positive attitude then it’s over. I’ve got it beaten.”
That had a huge impact on Shazier. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but he would not be eaten up by bitterness. Instead, he would be guided by the words of his father: “If you want something in life, you need to sacrifice for it, son,” he said. “Everyone wants to be successful—but the elephant in the room is sacrifice and its first cousin, discipline.”
Six months later, Shazier would defy all the odds and shock fans of across the NFL as he garnered universal applause as he walked across the stage to announce the Steelers 2018 first-round draft pick. Shalieve was indeed a true Walking Miracle, and he was just ready to begin talking about his journey.