At a house in Connecticut there is a pair of cleats for Ryan Shazier. There’s a design of a lion painted on them – Shazier loves lions – and it’s attacking a raven. These are the cleats the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker was supposed to wear Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
The artist, Corey Pane, was just finishing up the design on the footwear when Shazier fell to the ground and grabbed his back after a hit on Cincinnati Bengals receiver Josh Malone on Dec. 4. The 25-year-old Shazier was carted off after the tackle and he was rushed to a Cincinnati hospital as the game went on. He needed spinal stabilization surgery. On Tuesday, the Steelers officially placed him on injured reserve, ending his season. He may not play football again.
“It was hard to watch,” says Pane, 28. “I didn’t care about the rest of the game. When you know the person, it’s hard to watch. Especially an injury like that.”
So the cleats are in Connecticut, with an artist who is hoping his friend can use them someday.
Pane has painted cleats and some murals for Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, and that originally got Shazier’s attention. The two have become friends. So after Shazier’s injury, Pane and Bud Dupree, a teammate, decided to do a tribute other Steelers could participate in. Three days after the injury, 15 pairs of cleats arrived at Pane’s house in West Hartford, and he stayed up until 4 a.m. the following day to finish them.
“That’s the reason I wanted to do something cool,” Pane says. “A great dude. A family man. A really good, positive dude.”
In San Francisco, an entire office of people refreshes news updates on Shazier every day.
“To have this happen has been so traumatic,” says a man named Gary Sherwood. “Literally every day we’re checking what his progress is. I’ve texted him. Everyone here is praying for the best possible outcome.”
Sherwood is the communications director for the National Alopecia Areata Foundation (NAAF), an organization committed to raising awareness of the autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on the scalp, face and sometimes other parts of the body. Shazier is one of the most beloved public figures with the condition. He was bullied as a child and yet he now inspires kids every time he plays. In fact, he inspires kids before he plays, warming up shirtless even in the most frigid conditions.
Before the Steelers’ victory against the Ravens, veteran James Harrison honored Shazier by going through pregame warmups shirtless.
“He’s proven his love for the community so many times,” Sherwood says. “He’s become a huge figure.”
Luke Fickell was on a recruiting visit in Chicago last Monday night when his phone started buzzing. First it was his son, then his wife, and then his son again. The Cincinnati head coach tried to stay focused on the family he was visiting, but the buzzing kept going.
Finally Urban Meyer texted him and Fickell excused himself. Shazier, the former Ohio State star, had been hurt in Cincinnati, and he was being moved to a trauma center. It was difficult for Fickell to continue with the visit.
“He has one of the largest hearts,” Fickell says of his former player. “A very caring person. He will take care of anyone around him – even putting them in front of himself.”
Shazier’s injury has obvious implications for football in Pittsburgh, but his absence from the field has a cascading effect from Connecticut to Cincinnati to San Francisco and places in between. Those who know Shazier describe a magnetic personality who leads in ways both loud and silent. He is only 25, but he’s respected as if he’s already a 10-year veteran.
Fickell was an assistant at Ohio State when he first saw Shazier as a prep star in Florida. “I was standing out at a [Buckeye] spring practice,” Fickell says. “I said to some other coaches, ‘This is my favorite kid anywhere.’ One of them said, ‘I just don’t know. We have a lot of guys like this – skinny guy who can run really fast.’ I said, ‘Well we don’t.’”
Fickell didn’t think he had a shot at Shazier because Meyer, who at the time was Florida’s head coach, had the lead on him. But then Meyer abruptly left the Gators and Fickell happened to be recruiting in the Sunshine State at the time. “We jumped right back in,” he says. Shazier ended up in Columbus in 2011 and Fickell became the Buckeyes head coach after Jim Tressel resigned under the shadow of an NCAA investigation. In Shazier’s first game against Michigan, Fickell remembers the defender sustaining an MCL tear and playing the rest of the game on the injured knee. “I thought, ‘Wow, this isn’t normal,’” Fickell says. “That’s when you knew there was something different.”
That, however, is not the first story Fickell tells about Shazier. Instead, he recalls how Shazier was late to a team meeting. Fickell was displeased and wanted an explanation. It turned out a freshman needed a ride and Shazier went out of his way to retrieve the younger player. “They have to learn for themselves,” the coach said. Shazier simply replied, “I wasn’t going to let him stay behind.” The coach didn’t quite know what to say. Shazier was right.
“You almost want him to be hard on people,” Fickell says. “His whole entire career has been like that. He’s got an infectious personality. People flock to him.”
Out in California, Sherwood sounds a similar chord. Shazier served as the keynote speaker for the NAAF at its annual convention in 2016, and he showed up again this year along with former NBA starter (and advocate) Charlie Villanueva.
During his speech, kids lined up to ask questions and one wanted to know why he chose football. Shazier smiled and said, “I like to hit people.” The children broke up in laughter. Many of them have been bullied and here was a giant who was both confident and unbothered – even though he himself had been mocked in the past.
“He’s such the nicest, sweetest guy,” Sherwood says. “So down-to-earth. Really there for his fans. Even though he has the same condition as they do, it did not hold him back at all. I can’t imagine anyone trying to bully him.”
Sherwood says Shazier is so unconcerned with publicity that sometimes he isn’t aware of the Steeler’s efforts until well after the fact. Shazier or his manager will get a request from a child’s family and then a few weeks later, Sherwood will see the photos of them on social media.
It’s now time for Shazier’s friends to return some of the love. Pane, the artist in Connecticut, was happy to lose a night of sleep putting the tribute together for Shazier. It takes hours for him to finish even one pair of cleats because he has to sand the finish off the shoe before he can start painting. He did different colors for different Steelers, variations of black and yellow with the “Shalieve” label on each one. Some had a portrait of Shazier’s head. Some had the trademark lion. “I had it in my mind,” he says. “I knew I wanted to do a portrait.” The Steelers wore them Sunday night. Now Pane is planning a trip to Pittsburgh to deliver the cleats he designed for that game.
For Fickell, it was especially difficult knowing Shazier was rehabilitating in Cincinnati before he was moved back home. He texts his former player whenever he can, offering any support he can give.
It’s easy to root for a full recovery for Shazier. But it’s also easy to envision him having a heavy influence if he can’t play again. After all, he’s had influence for Fickell as a leader, for Pane as an inspiration, and for Sherwood as a hero for kids. That won’t change.
“You can’t account for the kinds of ways he can impact people,” Fickell says. “He is so electric in what he does. Great leaders make others around them better.”
It wasn’t clear at that moment if Fickell was talking about Shazier as a teammate or as a member of the community. But it doesn’t matter. It’s both.
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