The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals have played some of the most physical, violent, and gratuitously nasty football games in the NFL over the course of the past several teams, at the height of the modern rivalry between these two AFC North teams.
But on Sunday they face each other for the first time since one of the worst sights on an NFL football field in years, when Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier suffered a severe spinal injury that has put his career at a standstill, perhaps unlikely to ever resume as a player.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about how it would be for himself and for the team to return to the site of that injury for the first time since it occurred. He did not have an answer. Nobody had a clear answer, but many admitted that it is something they have thought about.
“I know it’s crossed my mind”, defensive end Stephon Tuitt admitted to Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I think I’ll kind of relive it when I walk back into the stadium. Just seeing him and watching him do well but, during this week, of course it will be in my head a lot more”.
He also told the reporter, “that will probably be in my head” every time he faces the Bengals. “I know that everything is going to be better. It’s not as bad as it was from when we found out the information that we did. But from a teammate standpoint and a brotherhood standpoint, you’re always going to think about that”.
The good news is that their brother, Shazier, is still every bit the presence he has always been. He is right there down on the sideline with his teammates, on the bench, even standing, sharing advice or a laugh. He might not be jumping around, but he is there with them, very much a part of the continued brotherhood.
Tuitt, who was the second-round draft pick in 2014 the same year that the Steelers took Shazier in the first, said that his teammate’s injury provided perspective about what the game of football really means to him. “The game already was important, anyway”, he said. “But it became something more. When you see something like that as a football player, of course it’s going to be in your head”.
While nobody on the field or on the sidelines at the time knew anything about the extent or exact nature of Shazier’s injury, Tuitt said that the coaches did a good job of keeping everything normal and on task.
“All of us rallied together and tried to win a game for somebody that loves football”, he went on. “I think it just clicked for everybody. It wasn’t a rah-rah session. It was like a click session”.
The defense perhaps for the first time since Shazier’s injury played a game something like what it should look this past Sunday when he was on the field. The unit nearly fell apart without him, and has continued to struggle into this season. But perhaps they have begun to hit a turning point.