PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ryan Shazier’s routine hasn’t changed much, even after a life-altering spinal injury put his football career in jeopardy.
The Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker still arrives at the team facility around 7 a.m. He still watches copious amounts of film. He still works out regularly, often with his teammates alongside. And he still believes one day he will run out of the Heinz Field tunnel in full uniform despite the many obstacles he understands are in his path.
“My dream is to come back and play football again,” Shazier said on Wednesday in his first wide-ranging public remarks since undergoing spine stabilization surgery last December. “I’m working my tail off every single day; have (playing again) in the back of my mind every single time I go to rehab.”
Shazier walked into the media room with help of a cane and spent 20 minutes outlining his journey since he lowered his head to hit Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone in the first quarter on Dec. 4. He called the moment after impact when he grabbed the small of his back while his legs lay motionless “a little scary,” but was quick to thank emergency responders in Cincinnati for their delicate work on the field in the immediate aftermath.
He underwent spine stabilization surgery on Dec. 6 and has spent the intervening months remaining adamant he would play again while being a fixture at the team’s practice facility, where he has become a de facto coach. It’s a role he’s embracing, but one he’s not quite ready to accept on a full-time basis.
“Just because I got hurt doesn’t mean I’m going to stop loving the game of football,” said Shazier, who added that despite the injury he’s going to give it “everything I have” in an effort to return to play.
Details of the exact nature of Shazier’s injury and his long-term prognosis remain sparse. He declined to get into specifics about whether playing again is even medically feasible, saying his medical team has told him to focus on making incremental improvements.
“Honestly right now, I’m not a doctor,” Shazier said. “Every day I take it one day at a time. The further we get along in rehab, the better they can give me answers.”
Shazier has made remarkable progress in the last six months. He spent several weeks in the hospital following surgery, though he took time out to attend several Steelers home games near the end of the 2017 season. He regularly posts updates through his social media accounts and provided an indelible moment during the NFL draft in April when he walked on stage in Dallas to announce Pittsburgh’s first-round selection.
Though he’s from Florida, Shazier has chosen to stay in Pittsburgh in part because it helps him feel like “I’m still myself.”
He’s received a massive outpouring of support from all over, including an avalanche of “Get Well” letters from over 500 students at an elementary school.
T-shirts emblazoned with his familiar No. 50 and the phrase #Shalieve — the hashtag Shazier made famous in the early stages of his recovery — have become fashionable across Pittsburgh with fans and fellow athletes. Several members of the Pittsburgh Pirates have donned the T-shirts after games as tribute.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting people, a lot of people I never thought I’d meet,” Shazier said.
The Steelers placed him on injured reserve last month, ending any chance of a comeback in 2018. The team also modified his contract so that he would receive the majority of the $8.7 million he is due this year up front.
The 25-year-old two-time Pro Bowler believes walking without assistance is the next milestone, one he refuses to put a timetable on. He is trying instead to focus on his health, how to best help the Steelers even if he can’t join them in the huddle, while making sure to appreciate it that he’s made it even this far. He understands some do not.
There is no guarantee Shazier will be able to run again without assistance, let alone throw on a pair of shoulder pads. It’s something he’ll live with if he has to. Yet he owes it to himself to try.
“I’m fine with whatever outcome comes with it,” he said. “I try to stay as positive as possible.”