Former Steeler Ryan Shazier uses lessons learned from football to tackle paralysis
In the weeks and months following the on-field spinal cord injury in 2017 that left him paralyzed from the waist down, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier initially had two goals in mind — walking again and returning to the game he loved. But, as he struggled during rehabilitation, he came to realize his focus was all wrong.
Shazier said his father inspired him to approach his recovery in terms of first downs rather than touchdowns.
“A first down is basically a small gain,” Shazier said. “Just small gains, small rehabs, small progress. And, as I continued to get better, if something big happened, I would consider it a touchdown."
In “Walking Miracle,” coauthored with Larry Platt, Shazier delves into how football, his family and childhood adversities helped him to recover and walk again. As he struggled to regain the use of his legs, Shazier used lessons he learned from coping with alopecia, which resulted in the loss of his hair, and the spinal disorder scoliosis
“Life isn’t always perfect, and sometimes you get things thrown at you that you never expect,” Shazier said. "Alopecia and scoliosis showed me that even though this wasn’t part of the plan for my life, something great can still come from it,” he added.
Early in the book, Shazier writes about the tremendous support he received from the Steelers organization. His teammates remained loyal after he was hurt, gathering for weekly dinners with him in a hospital conference room.
Shazier also notes that he was glad to be part of an organization that was at the forefront of civil rights advocacy. In the book, he applauds the Rooney family, longtime owners of the Steelers, for their work, including hiring the league's first female trainer, Ariko Iso, and Black coaches, such as Lowell Perry and Tony Dungy.
According to Shazier, the team's commitment to diversity aided in his recovery by making him feel valued, like a member of a family, not just a player on a sports team. Shazier said in the months following the injury, the Steelers continued to include him in team meetings, practices and workouts.
In his memoir, Shazier touches on milestones in his recovery including walking onto the stage to announce the Steelers first-round pick in the 2018 draft and dancing at his own wedding in May of 2019.
By the fall of 2019, Shazier took to the field before a preseason game at Heinz Field and was caught on video doing warmups and catching footballs one-handed. Speculation swirled on the internet that he might return to play the game, but spells of self-doubt began to overwhelm him.
“I loved playing football. It was my whole life,” Shazier said. “But that’s just part of the journey. Football reaches so many people, and I realized that I was able to connect with more people and change more lives than I was able to do playing football."
Shazier officially retired in the fall of 2020. Using the platform he had as a star player, he created the nonprofit Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation to help people who are paralyzed and their caregivers get the resources they need to recover.
Shazier said he hopes people who read the book will discover how resiliency can help anyone facing adversity. “I think this is a beautiful way of allowing people to see that the fight, the will and the lionheart is in everybody. You just have to search for it,” Shazier said.
“Walking Miracle” arrives in bookstores Nov. 30. Shazier has a book signing Friday, Dec. 3 from 5-7 p.m. at the Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley. Tickets are available with the proceeds benefitting the Ryan Shazier Fund.