PITTSBURGH — Ryan Shazier‘s locker is waiting for him.
His practice pants are hung up next to his clothes. His shoes are neatly in order underneath. It is almost as if he simply stepped out for the day.
But when teammate Bud Dupree sits down at his locker, which is adjacent to Shazier’s, it feels different. The voice on his right that would constantly mess with him or crack a joke isn’t around these days.
“It’s weird,” Dupree said, gazing at the locker, recalling how the two often spent their time trading barbs. These days, when Dupree thinks of a good joke to shoot Shazier’s way, he turns around only to remember he’s not there.
Shazier is the linebacker with the big smile and is the “quarterback of the defense.” He was the teammate who hosted get-togethers at his home so the different defensive position groups could get to know each other.
He very much has been missed in the locker room since suffering a severe spinal injury while making a tackle in Cincinnati on Dec. 4.
“Shay loves the game,” Dupree said. “He’s always trying to get back, trying to do as much as he can to be around us. He misses us. Any time he comes around, it just puts a smile on your face. To see him smile is just a positive thing.”
He added: “It’s always good to know we can help brighten his day.”
So when Shazier rolled into the indoor practice facility in his wheelchair on Wednesday, grinning from ear to ear, it was almost as if time had rolled back. There were jokes and smiles and high-fives. Shazier was in the middle of the huddle leading the team breakdown.
“It meant everything in the world, just seeing Shay around. It feels good, knowing he’s in good spirits, smiling, he’s still coming in checking on us,” said running back Le’Veon Bell. “Guys were kind of joking with him saying he was slowing down practice a little bit, but it doesn’t matter. He can come and show his face at any time. Guys are always going to show that love and it’s always good to see him.”
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 10, 2018
Although Shazier has been at the facility occasionally, Wednesday marked his first appearance at practice since the injury.
Watching from the sidelines on Wednesday, Shazier told his teammates that he considers every step forward a “first down.”
“He’s going to keep getting first downs until he gets in the end zone,” Dupree said. “We’re going to be with him the whole way. Even during the offseason, we’ll still be with him.”
Those first downs have come with the help of his teammates, who have stood by him every step of the way. Seeing Shazier may have given the rest of the team a boost, but his teammates made it clear they knew it lifted his spirits as well.
Cornerback Joe Haden, who sat in front of Shazier on the team plane this season, said he honestly couldn’t determine whether the appearance did more for Shazier or for the rest of the team.
“I think it’s a tie,” Haden said. “We can’t wait. We’re so excited when he comes in here. Same way (for him), he’s like ‘Man, if I can just get out of the hospital and come see you guys, man, it’s an amazing feeling…’
“It’s literally 50-50. We’re so happy to keep him as much a part of it as we can, and him on the same side, I think it just keeps him up, keeps him happy to be around us.”
Shazier’s teammates know he needs them as much as they need him. Haden goes to visit him in the hospital on his own, knowing that time to “be one of the guys” gives Shazier something to look forward to each week.
“I know it means so much to him, because he loves the game so much,” Haden said. “He just wants to be in the loop. He wants to be a part (of it), he wants to see the guys, he wants to be in the situation and I love him for that. We just want him to continue to get better and it’s so good to see him getting better. As much as he can be around us, we want him to be around us, because we want to see him as much as he wants to see us.”
There’s a standing appointment with Dupree and a group of Steelers, who have taken it upon themselves to be Shazier’s personal food delivery service. They bring him food from Chipotle, or Cheesecake Factory, or whatever he wants that week
“I don’t know if it’s allowed or not, but we’ll sneak it in,” Dupree said. “We be going through back doors trying to bring it in. I don’t know if it’s right or not, but we’ll make sure he’s happy.”
Anything to make him smile.
“Shay is still the same type of guy,” Dupree said. “Shay is still the person we know him as. He’s still one of the best people in the world.”