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The Doctor Is In: With Ryan Shazier, The Picture Is A Little Clearer

It has been a month since Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sustained a devastating injury in the 1st Q of the Week 12 match against the Cincinnati Bengals and we are all still waiting to know more.  Initially, there were only a few bare details of his status:

  • The sparse official updates from the team revealed only that the star ILB sustained a back injury, didn’t need emergency surgery, got transported to UPMC, and underwent spine stabilization surgery.
  • The hospital took over PR at that point and gave a single announcement: that Shazier would begin rehab.
  • Ian Rapoport reported that Shazier had “some movement” in his legs the morning following the injury but did not reveal his source. And while Rapoport has reliable sources, he has been inaccurate over the years as well, so this wasn’t carved in stone.

Shazier himself has not spoken publicly about his injury or recovery.  He broke the ice the day after he was injured to thank fans for their support:

Since then, he has tweeted occasionally, mostly retweets of teammates or his father or about how his teammates are performing on game day:

Shazier has made a few appearances on social media, primarily thanks to his fiancée, who posted them on her Instagram account.  Fans were able to see Ryan facetiming from the hospital with his teammates in the locker room after the Steelers clinched the AFC North title following their win over the Ravens a week after he was injured.  She also posted family photos from Christmas.  In a few, she was seen sitting on his lap.  The best part, of course, was that they all looked happy and relaxed.

Shazier has been seen twice in a private suite at Heinz Field for the two home games since his surgery.  He told one reporter that it was part of his therapy to be back there.  Just a few weeks after his surgery, he arrived at the Steelers facility to attend a meeting for the defense to talk strategy:

According to Coach Tomlin and Coach Butler, Shazier has received a copy of the game plan for each week that he has missed and offered his input.  In an interview, his father Vernon Shazier explained that it is therapeutic for both Ryan and his teammates to keep him involved.

Ok, you say, we know all of that, we’ve been following along daily.  What’s new?

Yesterday, an interview with Vernon Shazier was shown on WPXI.  Channel 11 news anchor Lisa Sylvester traveled to Florida to meet with the pastor who has finally returned home to resume his work after being at his son’s side for a month.  You can watch the full interview here.

While Vernon Shazier declined to give an update on his son’s medical status, some of his comments were still revealing.  And while we still have no definite information on the LB’s physical status, the picture is coming into slightly clearer focus.  While I had been reluctant to speculate early on because we really didn’t know anything, I do think a few assumptions are fairly reasonable at this point.

SHAZIER SUSTAINED A (TEMPORARY) COMPLETE SPINAL CORD INJURY

Initially, there was some confusion as to whether or not Ryan had sensation in his legs when he was taken off the field.  It was clear that he had no movement below the waist.  His father clarified that, confirming that when he heard by phone soon after he was taken to the hospital, he heard the devastating words: “Pray for me daddy, I can’t feel my legs”.  And no, it’s not possible to watch him tell that story in the interview without feeling like you got punched in the gut.

What this means is that Shazier did have a complete spinal cord injury, with no sensory or motor function to his lower body.  Fortunately, it is now clear that it is not permanent, which is huge.  It is still impossible to guess if the injury was in the thoracic or lumbar area, as either one can result in loss of nerve input to the legs.

The way most people are interpreting the news report from yesterday is probably not quite right.  If you watch the full interview, the pastor states that Ryan had increased sensation in his legs even prior to the surgery that was performed 2 days after the injury.  This makes it seem more likely that Ian Rapoport did, in fact, get reliable information when he reported the day after the injury that Shazier had some movement.  In that case, he was already experiencing return of nerve function even before he had surgery.  And while the Steelers players have done an amazing job protecting their brother’s privacy (truly remarkable that there hasn’t been a single leak and a testament to their support of him), they all seemed to feel better after visiting Shazier in the hospital in Pittsburgh.  Many of the beat reporters commented that the mood in the locker room in the days following his surgery was somewhat upbeat.  This would again suggest that there was some good news.

SHAZIER PROBABLY ISN’T ABLE TO WALK INDEPENDENTLY YET

Of course I don’t know Ryan’s progress in rehab, but I think it’s safe to say that if he were able to walk, we would know it by now.  If he had made that dramatic of a recovery so soon, it’s hard to imagine that he wouldn’t have made it public.  In all of the photos and videos we have seen so far, he is always sitting, not standing.  I don’t put too much importance on his coming to the Steelers facility in a wheelchair, given that it’s too long a walk from the parking lot for someone recovering from spine surgery.  Having said that, the overwhelming likelihood is that if he were able to walk unassisted, he would have shared that by now.

WE DON’T KNOW THE END OF THE STORY YET AND HE MAY NOT EITHER

It is incredibly unusual for a professional athlete to be a full month past an injury and surgery and the fans are still in the dark as to how he’s doing.  And it’s clear that the fans are still extremely invested in Ryan’s recovery.  He is a beloved player and we all want to know that he is going to be ok, more for his personal life and his family than for anything else.

I’m guessing here, but the most likely reason for this silence is that his situation is still evolving.  It would be so hard on Shazier and his family to give continual updates as things change, even if they are changing for the better.  Knowing media cycle, it would also serve as a distraction for his team, as the players would be subjected to regular questions about his recovery.  And there is no doubt that Ryan has his team’s interests at heart, even in the midst of his own challenges.

In his interview, Vernon Shazier was clear that Ryan continues to make progress and that he is a long way from where he was that first night.  I’m assuming he doesn’t mean the distance from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh but rather that he has shown significant improvement.  The pastor held back on any specifics, saying that he would leave it to his son when to provide that information.  And that probably won’t be until Ryan and his family have a better idea of what he can expect with regards to his eventual recovery.  In the meantime, I have no doubt that he is attacking his rehab with a singular focus and superhuman effort.

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