Soon after suffering a spinal injury that ended his National Football League (NFL) career, Ryan Shazier talked to his father about inspiration.
“I was like, ‘Dad, what is the definition of inspiration?'” says Shazier, a former star linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “Because I was like, ‘I don’t understand.’ People were like, ‘Ryan, you’re such an inspiration.'”
Before his injury in December 2017, Shazier defined himself as a football player first. He wanted to become one of the best linebackers in NFL history and make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The injury changed some things. People began to look up to Shazier not for what he did on the football field but for what he was doing off of it. Every phase of his recovery became a source of hope and inspiration for others going through adversity.
At first, doctors didn’t know if he would walk again. But now, Shazier is a walking, talking example of overcoming adversity. And through his experiences over the last five years, he’s learned what inspiration means to him.
“The older you get, you start to see how much what you’ve done helps push people every single day,” he says. “If somebody has seen that you’ve overcome something that would seem impossible, now it gives them hope that that they can do the impossible.
“To me, it really means a lot. I didn’t know how much it really meant before I got injured because I just did everything off of athletic ability and just worked my tail off and studied my tail off. But I think it’s truly a blessing when you have somebody that can show you the way. And I think that’s what inspiration and hope are.”
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‘People Are Constantly Phenomenal’
In 2019, UPMC approached Shazier with a potential partnership. Shazier would meet former UPMC patients who battled a serious illness or injury and overcame that challenge.
The idea became “Ryan Shazier’s 50 Phenoms.” The number represented Shazier’s jersey number with the Steelers. The “phenoms” represented what the patients were.
“It’s so many people that’s overcome so many challenges, so many struggles,” Shazier says. “Not just in the physical space, not just in the mental space, but just in being successful, just being awesome people. I think it’s just something that we just need to continue to carry on, to show how people are constantly phenomenal every single day.”
Shazier was already thinking about how he could use his story to share other stories of triumph over adversity.
“50 Phenoms” provided the opportunity.
“I thought it would be very impactful for people to see that,” he says. “Because I know when I was going through my injury, I didn’t have many people that I knew that went through the same type of injury and that actually had a happy and meaningful life after it.”
‘I Learned So Much from Everybody’
Although Shazier looked forward to the opportunity to share people’s stories, the thought of interviewing others worried him a little.
That showed up in the first episode when Shazier met Paula Franetti, who overcame serious injuries from a car accident. Shazier remembers that instead of him interviewing Paula, it was pretty much the other way around.
“To be the interviewer, I had to get more practice in it and more reps in it,” he says. “So that’s the only hesitation I had, just being nervous and not understanding how to ask the questions at first.”
As time went on, Shazier became more and more comfortable talking to the patients. He compares it to his previous career as a football player, going from a rookie to a veteran.
The patients were excited to meet Shazier, but he was just as excited to meet them and learn their stories.
“Everybody that we interviewed had a different story,” he says. “And even if some people’s stories are similar, their way of life, their upbringing, everything everybody goes through is completely different on a day-to-day basis.
“So to be able to talk to them, see how they overcame it, see how when they got presented with another struggle, how they overcame it, I thought it was very important to talk to them and it was very exciting. I constantly learn from just meeting and gathering information from each individual that I talk to, and I felt like I learned so much from everybody that we’ve interviewed.”
From each episode, Shazier learned about what many patients had in common. The mental and physical strength to overcome even the hardest challenges. The friends and family members who made up their support systems. And the world-class care doctors, nurses, and other UPMC employees provided them.
“Whenever you’re in any type of situation, you know that you’re going to be protected,” Shazier says. “A lot of people don’t have that type of hospital network around them. And just to know that we have one of those here in Pittsburgh that we can go to at a drop of a hat, I think, is pretty awesome.”
‘There’s a Light at the End of the Tunnel’
Over the course of three seasons of “50 Phenoms,” certain patients stood out to Shazier.
As a father of two young boys, he enjoyed meeting Chase Karenbauer, a young wrestler who was born with cleft lip and palate. He bonded with Jay Morrison, a former high school football star whose playing career also ended after an on-field injury. And Ryan Kolonich’s story hit home with Shazier for two reasons: their shared first name, and the fact that they overcame the same spinal injury.
Some stories had the potential to do more than inspire. The story of Clay Moorefield donating a kidney to his friend Omar Foster could motivate other people to become organ donors.
All of the people Shazier met inspired him in various ways. No matter what challenges they faced, they rose to the occasion.
“Even when the odds aren’t in their favor, even if the odds are at 20%, 30% or even less than that, all these people have overcome and just showed everybody, ‘Hey, I can still enjoy my life, still live an independent life and still just be blessed and bless those around me,'” Shazier says. “Even though my hands were dealt with this, even though I got dealt a bad hand, I can still find a way to show everybody there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think that’s very important. And that’s why we have the ’50 Phenoms.”
‘Helped Me Define My Purpose’
Shazier continues to inspire in many different ways.
He created the Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation to provide financial support to people in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia with spinal cord injuries.
“I’m just truly thankful that we’re able to constantly help others,” he says. “To me, it just really means a lot just to know that somebody can move around their home a little bit more freely, be able to walk again, to be able to understand where their next meal is coming from. I think that’s very blessing and very rewarding.”
Shazier frequently shares his own comeback story as a public speaker. And in 2021, he released a book about his journey — Walking Miracle: How Faith, Positive Thinking, and Passion for Football Brought Me Back from Paralysis…and Helped Me Find Purpose.
“The odds of making it to the NFL are less than 1%,” Shazier says. “So, just to be able to do that, then overcoming the odds of not walking again, I think is just truly a blessing. So I just want to be able to share my story and allow people to understand, no matter what type of adversity you come through — it doesn’t have to be from football or have to be a spinal cord injury, just anybody that’s dealing with any type of adversity — I think it will be a great book for them.”
Shazier feels like he’s grown substantially as a person since his injury. He knows what he wants to do. And he knows his purpose is bigger than football.
“I really feel that 50 Phenoms came in and helped me define my purpose after football,” he says. “After the NFL, God told me my purpose is to be there for other individuals that are going through very difficult times, just let them know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And I feel like 50 Phenoms allowed me to do that, and I’m really thankful for it.”
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