Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier can’t go to Heinz Field to work with the team this season, as there’s no getting around the limitations created by the coronavirus pandemic. So it’s fitting he is helping to tell the story of a pair of longtime Steelers fans who can’t go to Heinz Field either, as challenging life circumstances—not to mention COVID-19—have made it impossible for them to attend Steelers games.
The story in question—related in a new documentary short produced by Pepsi and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish, Megan Leavey)—is that of Tim & Patrick Dougherty, a father and son duo whose family has had Steelers season tickets since 1973, with the son attending games with his dad for the past 16-plus years.
When Tim was diagnosed with cancer in 2018, his chemotherapy and radiation treatments left him unable to attend any of last season’s games. And with the pandemic keeping father and son away from Heinz Field until at least October, Pepsi and the Steelers arranged for Shazier to visit Tim’s home and present the pair with their own stadium seats, transplanted from Heinz Field.
“Tim and Pat have been through a lot of adversity and to be able to bring the game to them was great,” Shazier told Heavy.com. “They have leaned on the Steelers their whole lives and to miss the season this year is going to be really tough for them.”
Ryan Shazier’s In-Person Visit
As you might imagine, the Dougherty’s were really excited when Shazier showed up on Tim’s doorstep, and doubly-moved when he brought their stadium seats into the living room.
“To have the seats there and to be able to talk to them about how much the Steelers mean to them was an awesome experience,” said Shazier, adding that the Dougherty’s “were talking about how they might sit outside in the cold and watch [this year’s games] through the window,” part of their effort to mimic past game-day experiences.
It almost goes without saying that Shazier is well-suited to relate to Tim and Pat—or anyone undergoing adversity in their life. A former first-round draft choice of the Steelers in 2014, Shazier suffered a spinal contusion during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals in December 2017, which left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. But thanks to intensive rehabilitation efforts and the best-available medical care, Shazier is now able to walk without assistance.
And these days he often goes out of his way to help others navigate their own life-altering challenges, including a recent visit with an Ohio woman who became a quadruple amputee as a result of an illness.
As for what he tells people who are going through adversity, he told Heavy.com:
“I advise them to try to find whatever positivity they can in their situation,” and to not be afraid to call on any available support system.
In that regard, Shazier considers himself lucky, noting that after he was paralyzed, “I had my whole family who came up from Florida and my wife’s family came up from Texas, and I also had the whole city of Pittsburgh, the NFL, and so many others supporting me with prayers.”
Shazier is aware that hard times are more common than ever right now, as almost everyone is being impacted by challenges caused by the pandemic.
“I tell people to keep pushing forward and trust God and know that it isn’t the end for you. If you continue to believe that you can be somewhere better it’s a possibility you can get there,” he said.
Shazier’s Future Plans
That’s a mantra that Shazier continues to try to live by, because for all the progress he’s made in terms of resuming a “normal life,” he’s still a long way from being able to play professional football again.
Asked if it’s still his aim to return to playing linebacker, Shazier says he tries to avoid thinking about the end goal. Instead he concentrates on the things he can do to maximize the chance of making that dream a reality.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” he said. “I just try to keep one foot in front of the other and try to stay focused on rehab and I will let that decide what my next step will be.”
In that regard Shazier’s philosophy is remarkably similar to that of Steelers starting running back James Conner, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma while in college at the University of Pittsburgh, yet went on to beat cancer and get drafted into the NFL. In a nutshell, Conner’s approach is to “lead from where you are”—that is, to focus on the process and work towards what you want to achieve instead of obsessing about the outcome.
“I always have a vision of where I want to be, but I want to make sure I focus on where I’m at now because the best part of making it to the top of the mountain is the journey, not actually being there,” said Shazier. “I just want to focus on the process right now and then eventually it will lead me to where I need to be,” which he hopes includes working with the Steelers in some capacity.
“They only allow the truly essential people there [at the stadium] right now, but eventually when I’m able to get back into Heinz Field I’ll try to be more involved with the guys,” he said.
That will likely include resuming his role of tutoring the team’s most recent first-round draft pick, inside linebacker Devin Bush.
Never mind that Shazier went to college at Ohio State and Bush is a former Michigan Wolverine. Shazier says that’s never an issue, except insofar as Bush refuses to wager on the outcome of Ohio State-Michigan games.
“He and I talk football a lot, and we watched a lot of film last year,” said Shazier. “He and I talk a lot in general about the person he is. I’m not trying to grow him into a person, but just talk with him about the things I’ve done and things that helped me and how possibly it can help him.”
You can watch Shazier in the ‘Every Game is a Home Game’ documentary below:
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