On Wednesday afternoon, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier posted a picture of himself on the internet, along with a written message thanking his family, friends and fans of the Steelers for their support during the difficult time he has faced since being seriously injured making a tackle in a game against the Bengals five weeks ago.
Shazier has more than a half-million followers on Instagram, but the audience for this photograph was multiplied many times through sharing on Twitter and Facebook and through various sports media websites, including Sporting News. It’s likely that tens of millions of people got a glimpse of this picture, and it was the sort of shot that would seize the attention of most anyone who encountered it.
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Shazier is wearing a Steelers tossle cap and an enormous smile as he faces the camera, with the image of his Steelers teammates behind him on the practice field, preparing for their playoff game. And he’s sitting in a wheelchair.
It’s not the image of someone hiding from his circumstance.
I want to thank the Lord for the first downs that he has been allowing me to achieve. The touchdown is going to come in his timing, but today was a first down. I was finally able to make it to practice with my teammates. It’s great to be back for practices and meetings. Just to be able to feel a part of it means the world. So I’m working harder than I ever have to get back. Ive been making strides over the past month and continue to make progress. Taking it day-by-day, but I’m far from done. The Lord has not finished his work yet. I want to say thank you to the fans and Steelers Nation for the prayers. If it wasn’t for my family, friends and your prayers I wouldn’t be were I am now. They have lifted me and my family through this journey and I ask for you to continue praying for me, as I continue to work daily on improving my health. #Shalieve#Steelers#prayfor50
This fact apparently was lost on Drew Magary, who wrote a piece for GQ published Thursday that charged the Steelers and the NFL with “deftly sidestepping the obvious horrors of Shazier’s injury and turning it into a bizarre rah-rah story.” He wrote that the “P word” is being avoided and that the morsels of news that have been revealed regarding his health in the weeks since his spine stabilization surgery are being presented as “fantastic news.”
Magary did allow that Shazier is entitled to his privacy as he works to recover from the injury.
You know what else Shazier is entitled to own, which the writer did not mention? His story.
The NFL has not controlled the narrative regarding Ryan Shazier’s injury. The Steelers made their last formal statement on the matter when they placed him on injured reserve.
Shazier is the one who has been in charge of his story since the moment he was carted off the field in Cincinnati. That night, he did not give the thumbs-up signal so many football players have after punishing hits left them prone on the field, with spectators in the stadium and watching on television wondering whether this might be the one, wishing or praying to spot some lower-body movement. Shazier was obviously frightened, and placing his hands up near his head as he approached the tunnel at Paul Brown Stadium invited everyone to be frightened with him.
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Since that moment, though, Shazier has been determined to frame his circumstance in the most positive light. He FaceTimed with the Steelers from his hospital bed a week later, after they clinched the AFC North championship with a victory over Baltimore. He made a surprise appearance for the team’s big showdown with New England, surrounded — and no doubt protected — by family and the glass separating the luxury box from the regular fans at Heinz Field, the whole of his situation still a mystery to those who follow the team and the league.
His father, Vernon, since has provided encouraging but limited updates.
“We have seen some improvement that is encouraging,” he told ESPN before Christmas.
Shazier now can feel his legs, Vernon told WPXI-TV of Pittsburgh.
Shazier and his teammates and their opponents play a violent game. It’s no secret the sport takes a physical toll on the men who play it. Even having paid an enormous price to make a first-quarter tackle against the Bengals, however, Shazier remains in an embrace of the sport. He has engaged with his teammates whenever and however possible.
His teammates will tell you Shazier is not another number in the Steelers’ locker room. Sports Illustrated described him this week as “the most beloved player on the team.” He was that before he was injured, not because he was injured. The Steelers who have been in contact with Shazier have known of his circumstance; out of respect, none leaked any medical update to anyone in the media.
And then, this week, Shazier felt it was time to tell more.
His inspirational message included such thoughts as “today was a first down” because he was able to join his teammates at practice and “I’m far from done.” It was punctuated firmly by his position in that wheelchair. We all presumed that was probably the case. Now we know. We know because Shazier chose to share it with us. It’s his story to tell.