Ryan Shazier’s ‘Walking Miracle’ Details Ex-Steelers LB’s Recovery

Ryan Shazier

Getty Former Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier at the 2018 NFL draft.

It’s been a little more than four years since former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal contusion while making a routine tackle during a 2017 Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The injury left the former first-round pick temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, but thanks to intensive rehabilitation, the finest medical care, and the emotional support of the people of Pittsburgh and the NFL community at large, he overcame paralysis and found a new direction in life.

Yet with a few notable exceptions—like walking to the podium at the 2018 NFL draft—much of Shazier’s journey has taken place out of the public eye.

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Shazier Opens up in New Memoir

Thanks to his new memoir Walking Miracle, Steelers fans, Ohio State Buckeye fans and other interested observers can gain a better understanding of all that Shazier has experienced, before and after December 4, 2017.

He recently spoke with Heavy about his emotionally and physically challenging journey, beginning with the play that abruptly ended his NFL career.

What was your first thought after you got hurt? Did you immediately recognize the severity of your injury?

Shazier: “I wasn’t even thinking about myself so much, I was thinking more about my wife and family. It was about two weeks later when I started thinking, ‘Oh, Ryan, you’re injured a lot worse than you thought you were. This is going to be a difficult ride.’ It was tough and I was scared, but I knew I had people around me and I really believed that I could get better. I pushed as hard as I could to get back to where I wanted to be.”

What do you remember about tackling Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone?
Shazier: “It was a routine play. I had seen that play a thousand times before so it didn’t seem like a hard play to make. I was actually trying to get my head out of the way on that tackle. The thing is: Josh was running a little bit faster than I thought he was and that’s how I ended up hitting him in the hip with my head.”

In the book, you discuss how you had a reputation for tackling with your head down and how you would review film of your tackles with Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Shazier: “I used to practice not tackling with my head down every day. I would tackle the tackling dummy 50 times after practice. It’s hard to break that habit but it’s something I used to practice.”

Were there times during your recovery when you asked yourself, ‘Why me?’
Shazier: “I didn’t really have many ‘Why me?’ moments. It was more of: this sucks and what’s the best way I can get through this? I understood that I was tremendously blessed and that I had a lot of adversity in my life that I had already overcome. The approach I took in dealing with the injury was: Let me see how I can use things from the past to help me overcome this adversity.”

Those challenges included developing the autoimmune disorder alopecia areata at age five, and then being diagnosed with scoliosis in middle school, which had the potential to derail your football career. Did your neurosurgeon, Dr. David Okonkwo, ever remark on whether scoliosis played a role in your injury?
Shazier: “My doctor said the scoliosis could have been a blessing or a curse. It could have possibly stopped me from having as bad an injury or it could have caused my injury. At the end of the day, we didn’t look much at the reason why I got hurt. It was more about ‘How can I progress?’

But some of my doctors thought the pace of my recovery was unique, and noted how often I smiled during my rehab. A lot of people going through adversity don’t smile as much as I did.”

I love your father’s concept of “stringing a few first downs together” when trying to achieve a goal that seems distant—where the obstacles seem almost insurmountable.
Shazier: “Readers can apply that to their own lives. A football field is a hundred yards long and to score a touchdown you typically have to get a series of first downs. I did everything I could to get as many first downs as possible during my recovery. I focused on all the little steps—all the little goals—knowing that they would turn into first downs and then into touchdowns.

After a while, the big moments started to come, like my wedding and walking at the draft. Those were touchdowns. But before that came all the little steps I was taking during rehab, like moving my toes and lifting my knee. I knew where I wanted to be, but that it was going to take a little bit to get there.”

Did you ever lose faith?
Shazier: “I don’t think there’s anybody that has faith in God that never has doubts. If they don’t, they are a liar. Obviously, I have a strong relationship with God but sometimes your relationship with God is tested. I was able to overcome, but it can be a struggle to overcome thoughts you might have and wonder: Lord, why did you choose me for this journey?

Having faith in God is just understanding that He has a purpose and He has a reason for why He does things. You have to trust in Him and believe in Him and live your best life through Him. That’s what I did. I definitely had some rough nights and I prayed a lot and asked God a lot of questions, but at the end of the day I continued to trust Him and thanked Him for the opportunity that allowed me to get where I am now. There are a lot of people that weren’t blessed with the same opportunities that I was blessed with and I thanked the Lord for having those opportunities.”

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Shazier’s Charitable & Entrepreneurial Endeavors

Tell me about the Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation, which you launched in November 2020.
Shazier: “A lot of times when people have a spinal cord injury, they feel like they are by themselves. (The Fund) is a peer support group but it’s also to help people get more rehab and resources. And every Thursday night I talk to a family that is going through a spinal cord injury and we talk about their progress and what worked for me and what might work for them. Everyone’s story is a little different and some have better mindsets than others. But it’s exciting to talk to all these different families about things that can help them overcome.

Then there’s 50 Phenoms, which I do with UPMC hospital network—the network that helped me with my injury. It involves talking with families that have gone through life-altering illnesses and injuries and how they overcame them to be productive and blessed humans through those difficulties.”

I understand you’re also involved in an entrepreneurial endeavor?
Shazier: “I always knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, even when I was still playing. So I started a trucking company, Shay Trucking, which moves cars across the country.”

In Walking Miracle, you talk about your admiration for current Steelers defenders like T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. Are there any non-Steelers players that you really enjoy watching?
Shazier: “[Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker] Darius Leonard. He understands how to play really effectively off the ball and makes a lot of plays that help his team get in position to win.”

Are you still making strides in terms of your rehabilitation and recovery?
Shazier: “I still see myself making strides. They aren’t as big as they once were but I’m pretty happy with where I’m at.”

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