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Former Steelers Player Shares How He Overcame Injury to Walk Again

THE ACCIDENT     

On December 4, 2017, Ryan, a Linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, was injured during a routine tackle playing the Cincinnati Bengals. It left him with a burning sensation in his lower back and no feeling in his legs. He called his fiancé Michelle and promised her they would get through this injury together. Then he called his dad, “Daddy, pray for me. I can’t feel my legs.” His faith had always been his secret weapon. Ryan’s dad, Vernon Shazier, was a preacher and his mom was a God-fearing woman that always taught him that God has a plan. 

He had a spinal cord injury that would require surgery. Vernon prayed over the surgeons that would be operating on him. After the surgery Ryan was told the surgery was a success and that he had maybe a 20 percent chance of ever walking again. One doctor said, “We think you’re done playing football, Ryan.”

His parents and fiancé spent many nights crying (never in front of Ryan) at the verdict that had been given, but not Ryan. “I don’t know if it was my positivity or just plain old denial, but I didn’t share their despair,” shares Ryan. “I thought my odds weren’t that bad.”

He was ready to go to battle. Ryan shares, “The only chance I had to walk and play football again was to work as hard as anyone who has ever been paralyzed.” Vernon would send Ryan a text every day after his accident, “God is with you. God is helping you. God is healing you.” Then Vernon would send a text to the other family members and Michelle coaching them through the stress and trauma of Ryan’s situation. His family stayed positive and supportive of him which helped him stay positive throughout his journey back from paralysis.

THE PAST

Ryan had overcome challenges in his past. When he was five years old, Ryan’s hair started falling out, including his eyelashes. He was diagnosed with alopecia areta which affects nearly 6.8 million people in the U.S. each year. Kids in his classroom at school would tease him. They called him names like, “Cue ball and Chia Pet.” After, countless treatments his hair did not grow back (sometimes in patches) so he learned to live with alopecia and realized having hair did not define him. His mom always told him, “In every situation, there’s always a way to focus on the good situation, there’s always a way to focus on the good in it and not the bad – it’s just a matter of attitude.”

Another obstacle Ryan faced as a sophomore in high school was being told he might never play football again after being diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine). His plans for a college and pro football career seemed uncertain, but he knew that God put him here on this earth to play football. After several doctors’ opinions Ryan committed to wearing a brace to counter the effects of the scoliosis. By the time he got to college, he did not have to wear the brace any longer. 
    
THE COMEBACK 

Although he had the support of his family, his teammates and fans there were still days he faced doubt. He had gone from being a healthy and independent man to now relying on others for the basics in life. He needed assistance going to the bathroom or getting a bath. He had to be shown how to stretch his legs, roll over and get in and out of a chair.

During his rehabilitation, Ryan spiked a fever after the surgery from a urinary tract infection. The antibiotics made him sick to his stomach. He threw up in front of his cousin. At that point, his faith began to crack and his positive attitude melted away. He wondered, “Why me, God? What did I do to deserve this?” Vernon sensed something was wrong. He said, “Son, you just need to string a few first downs together.”

He was encouraging Ryan to set reachable goals for himself. One day after getting some assistance Ryan stood up. It was very difficult, but Ryan’s dad encouraged him saying, "that’s a first down son, you’re getting better. Thank you, Lord, for this first down.”

A big turning point for Ryan was ten days after surgery. The doctor wanted to see how he was progressing. An assistant lifted his leg (which usually would flop right back on the bed lifeless) and released it. For maybe twenty seconds, his leg did not plop back down, but hovered an inch off the bed. His family cried and thanked God. 

The next day he went to Heinz Field, watched the game from the luxury box, and even got on camera smiling and waving his Steeler’s flag. Six months later, Ryan was gingerly walking with a cane. As the 2018 season got underway, Ryan was at every practice modeling resilience. He was a vocal part of the team even though he was on the sidelines. He was walking without a cane, but still had places below his naval where he didn’t have feeling. By the end of the season, he could dead lift 150 pounds. Seventeen months after his accident, Ryan married Michelle and danced at his wedding.

By 2019, he was running, rowing, lunging, and catching the football. Yet, Ryan began to search his reasons for returning to the game. Was he doing all this out of obligation? He had a dream one night that he was playing football again, but then he was on the ground in pain. When Ryan woke up, he was sweating and crying. Even though he hadn’t played football in nearly three years, he says, “we hadn’t emotionally broken up.”

He told he wife, “I think my time is up." He instantly felt lighter. Although it was a tough decision Ryan felt confident that God had another plan for him. He admits he would like to be playing football, but he is also enjoying his retirement and the time he gets to spend with his loved ones each day. “When you’ve been told that you only have a 20 percent chance of ever walking again, you literally feel God’s presence in every step you take,” shares Ryan.

AFTER FOOTBALL

At twenty-eight, Ryan retired from football in 2020. He now hosts a weekly football show on The Ringer podcast network and appears regularly on Bill Simmon’s podcast. He is also busy with his establishment, The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation, which was founded in 2020. The organization’s mission is to ensure all spinal cord injury (SCI) patients have the same support and fighting chance as he did to live independent and meaningful lives, no matter their socioeconomic status.

Spinal cord rehabilitation is expensive, painful and exhausting for patients and their caregivers. During his recovery process, Ryan had the opportunity to meet SCI patients, caregivers and families, many of whom opened up to him about their mental, physical and emotional struggles. Through countless stories, Ryan soon realized a reoccurring theme: there’s a tremendous need when it comes to funding, resources and support for the SCI community. Ryan says, “I want to be there for people who are going through similar struggles. No matter who you are or what you’re going through, we’re all in life together. We need to take care of each other.”

    

 

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