How Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ryan Shazier Learned to Walk Again

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RYAN SHAZIER WASN’T physically in the room when doctors told his parents he had a 20 percent chance of walking again. It was December 6, 2017, just after the spinal stabilization surgery that was meant to protect his spine.

Days earlier, Shazier, a rising star linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had seen his NFL career come to an end on Monday Night Football. In what had seemed like a routine play, Shazier dived headfirst at Cincinnati Bengals receiver Josh Malone, who was running across the field. He made contact with Malone’s side and crumpled to the ground, a sharp, burning sensation in his lower back.

His left hand grabbed for that painful spot, and he rolled onto his back, raising his hands high and squeezing his fists, legs completely limp. Paramedics strapped him to a backboard and shuttled him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. He’d later call for his father, Vernon, a pastor, to pray for him. He couldn’t feel his legs. He was paralyzed from the waist down. “Nobody expects to get hurt with this type of injury,” Shazier says, “especially when people tell you that you’re not going to be able to do some-thing simple like walk again.”

Not that Ryan Shazier was ever going to listen to them—and his recovery is proof of the power of mindset when recuperating from any injury. Now 30 years old, the player who was once the prototype NFL coverage linebacker is back on his feet. He officially retired from the NFL in September 2020. He’s since started the Don’t Call It a Comeback podcast and written a book about his recovery called Walking Miracle, with several other business ventures on the way.

ryan shazier on a stretcher

Shazier is taken off the field after his injury.


But his stunning bounce-back doesn’t obscure the dark side of the NFL, the way the gladiator sport can demolish the bodies that take the field. We saw that often last season. In January, there was theBuffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin enduring a cardiac arrest after a tackle. Last September, there was Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa getting rag-dolled to the turf and hitting his head so hard that his fingers involuntarily contorted. These are the things that can happen when Thanos-sized humans collide at maximum speed. “Football is a violent sport,” says Shazier. “You have to understand that you’re running into another person.”

Shazier, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2014, played with a fierce intensity. He faced his injury with the same ferocity. Just ten days after suffering the injury, he started the process of rehab. Three days later, a wheelchair-bound Shazier visited the Steelers-Patriots game. He focused on attacking his return from serious spinal surgery as if this were any other injury. He ignored the doctors’ warnings that he might never walk again, on the advice of his parents. “They said, ‘We’re not going to listen to anybody who doesn’t believe what Ryan believes. If Ryan believes he’s going to walk again, then he’s going to put the work into it,’ ” Shazier says, recalling that conversation.

We know what you’re thinking: Shazier’s positivity rant sounds like wishful thinking. But there’s science to this. According to California-based sports psychologist Rick Jensen, Ph.D., when you visualize a positive intent, your muscles are stimulated because of the motive behind that intent. Your motives drive your behavior. “Over an extended period of time, [this behavior] creates habit formation that develops skill, that develops change, that develops injury recovery that helps a guy walk,” says Jensen, who’s been a performance consultant for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the PGA, and the WTA. “Others may not have believed he could have walked again. But they wouldn’t have believed he would have put in the effort that he did, either.”

Shazier maintained his positivity by making several mental adjustments
that can help anyone battling back from injury. First he recalled the challenges of his youth, using his success in the face of those challenges as positive reinforcement that he could beat paralysis. Shazier was diagnosed at age five with alopecia areata, an autoimmune condition that caused his hair to fall out, and he spent his childhood being called names. “I had less than 20 percent chance of walking,” he says. He adds that just 2 percent of people develop alopecia areata. “And I have alopecia. Less than 1 percent of the guys in the NFL make All-Pro or go to the ProBowl, and I did that.”

ryan shazier in a wheelchair

Just weeks after his injury, Shazier attended a Steelers game in a wheelchair.

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He also worked to reframe the injury, comparing it to one he understood. This wasn’t like a hamstring injury, he says, referring to the leg muscle that often recovers in a week. He compared it to an ACL injury, a serious knee problem that plenty of players have beaten. “You know, ACL injuries, in nine months you’re gonna get better,” he says.

When he grew frustrated, he’d create smaller positive moments by redefining “progress.” There wasn’t much of an established timetable for Shazier’s return to walking. So instead of walking, he built (and chased) smaller milestones—pursuing first downs, not his touchdown. He spent two hours a day, five days a week rehabbing, chasing small movements, like moving a toe. “Then one day it goes like that,” Shazier says while barely flicking his index finger, indicating a toe movement. “That’s the first down. In football, you get enough first downs, you’re gonna score a touchdown.”

The first downs did gradually pile up, and Shazier can check them off. On January 8, 2018, just over a month after the tackle that wrecked him, he had feeling in his legs. Exactly two months after the injury, he was walking with assistance from a cane or walker. On April 26, 2018, he walked onto the NFL Draft stage under his own power. And on May 3, 2019, he found his new end zone, dancing with his wife, Michelle Rodriguez, at their wedding. “Dancing at my wedding, that’s a touchdown,” he says. “Being able to dance? Walk on my wedding day? Nobody thought I would be able to do that.”

Except Ryan Shazier. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.

This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Men’s Health.

Headshot of Milo F. Bryant, C.S.C.S.

Milo Bryant, CSCS, is a California-based trainer and an award-winning journalist.

This article was originally posted here.

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