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Ryan Shazier's star is rising, but he and Steelers expect even more

The lightning-quick third-year linebacker is growing into a leadership role on the Steelers' defense and pushing himself to one day join the ranks of the position's all-time greats.

Growing up in sunny Florida, Ryan Shazier didn’t care much for the cold. In fact, he loathed it. So why was the third-year linebacker the sole member of the Steelers to be shirtless amid 16º temperatures during pregame warm-ups at Heinz Field last weekend?

“I wanted to show people that the cold is just a state of mind,” said Shazier this week. “If I can give myself any kind of advantage, I’m going to do it.”

The aftermath inspired a variety of reactions. Shazier says he was happy his nipples didn’t get frostbite. His fiancée thought he was trying to show his body off to the world. His teammates and coaches, well, they thought he was crazy. But crazy in a Pittsburgh Steelers type of way: gritty, tough, defying conventional wisdom.

Shazier’s bare chest Sunday garnered all the attention on social media, but what he actually wore shined a light on his mindset. Illustrations of linebacker greats Jack Lambert, Kevin Greene, (current assistant coach) Joey Porter and (current teammate) James Harrison adorned his pregame cleats. In his third season, Shazier has become a student of the Steelers’ storied defensive history. He has embraced any connectivity to the greats, all while striving to be on someone else’s cleats in 20 years.

“I’m trying to be a legendary linebacker,” he says. “Having them on my cleats, on my mind, it makes you want to be great, it makes you want to make plays.”

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Shazier made a play to seal Pittsburgh’s wild-card win over Miami that had to cause all four greats—and all of Steelers Nation—to smile in unison. In the third quarter, as Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore dropped back to pass, Shazier looked as though he was picking up a block on Jay Ajayi before floating back into space, perfectly positioned for the interception. It was Shazier’s third straight game with a pick—a remarkable feat for any player, but especially for a linebacker.

As Shazier’s recent play suggests, he’s a player on the rise. But since his ultimate goal is to be a legend, Shazier considers his last three games “good” but “not great.” Shazier has already played well enough to justify his selection with the 15th pick in the 2014 draft, though he has yet to play all 16 games in a season due to a variety of nagging injuries, mostly to his knee—the 13 games he played in this season is his highest total yet. Earlier in the season, when he was sidelined due to an MCL sprain, some members of the Steelers media floated out the notion that Mike Tomlin move Shazier to safety to minimize injury risk. Tomlin dismissed the idea rather quickly. 

Coincidentally, when Shazier has been on the field, he has displayed such an array of awareness, versatility and fury that SB Nation’s Steelers blog Behind the Steel Curtain dubbed him “the new Troy Polamalu.” Other outlets have made the same suggestion.

“It means so much to me,” says Shazier. “Everyone gives [Polamalu] the ultimate respect when he walks into a room.”

The most striking difference between Shazier and Polamalu is not their positions or career arcs; it’s much simpler than that. Polamalu is synonymous with flowing locks of seemingly endless hair. Shazier is completely hairless, and not by design. In his earliest years, Shazier had the type of luscious hair that strangers would admire, but as he approached his fifth birthday his parents started noticing smooth spots on his head where clumps of hair used to reside. Shazier was diagnosed with alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss on some or all parts of the body. Through experience and education, Shazier has become a staunch advocate for alopecia awareness, emphasizing that it can strike at any stage in life.

Kids can be harsh, but Shazier was mostly shielded from cruelty, remaining confident through the guidance of his parents, who quickly helped him understand and accept his condition. (The disease has no effect aside from hair loss.) Perhaps his greatest outlet came from playing organized team sports. Shazier credits sports with appreciating camaraderie, making friends and developing early leadership skills.

Now as an adult, Shazier is trying to apply those skills to being not just a stat stuffer, but a bona fide leader of the team. Remember, Shazier isn’t looking to settle for good or great—he wants to be extraordinary, and he’s aware that his skills as a communicator are crucial and that he needs to make his teammates better. His mentor in this quest? Coach Tomlin.

“He helps me with film study, how to handle real life situations,” Shazier says. “Every day I ask him what I can do to help the team. I’m a natural-born leader, but when it comes to speaking I have to do a better job.”

One tip Tomlin has passed along: Try to gain the perspective of his teammates, be it a different position group or just an individual. Shazier is now known to infiltrate DB meetings, joining in their breakdowns. Tomlin is also working with Shazier on exhibiting leadership within his position group, which can be an awkward dynamic given the 14-year age difference between he and the 38-year-old Harrison.

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Though Harrison and Lawrence Timmons are on the other side of 30, the Steelers’ linebackers corps is the epitome of chemistry. Shazier, Timmons and Harrison all have children, one of life’s easiest paths to relatability. And the entire position group (along with the rest of the NFL) constantly marvels at Harrison, a medical miracle at this point.

“He lifts more weight than 24-year-olds,” Shazier says. “He can play to 50 if he wants.”

The unit has bonded further over an unusual storyline. When the Pro Bowl voting concluded last month, five Steelers were selected. All five play on offense. The success and star power of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, is undeniable. That trio has become the bedrock of the team and represents the most dangerous offense in football. Still, the Steelers’ defense ranked eighth in the league during the final stages of the Pro Bowl voting, and that unit is now clamoring to prove its value not only to Pittsburgh but among defenses at large.

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Shazier is the consummate team player, curious about his teammates, seeking instruction where he can get it and investing energy to develop into an organizational leader. Yet his swagger and quest for individual greatness is palpable. 

“I truly want to be in the Hall of Fame. I want to be the best linebacker to ever play the game,” he says. “I want to do something to cause the other team to stress out.”

For now Shazier will prepare for a divisional round matchup against the Chiefs, wearing a new cleat design to suit the occasion. His pregame cleats will depict a fierce lion attacking a gazelle, an homage to gory images he regularly posts on Instagram. “I’m ready to eat, I’m starting to get hungry. On game day, I’m ready to eat,” he says. Chiefs QB Alex Smith is likely not a fan of Shazier’s menu: “I plan on catching another one this week.”