How do we do it?
When a 25-year-old star linebacker like Ryan Shazier gets carted off the field in the first quarter of Monday night’s Steelers-Bengals game, potentially unable to feel anything below his waist, how do we resume regularly scheduled programming? How do we scroll through fantasy football scores? How can we care about anything except the young man who, after making a tackle, grabbed the center of his back and just flopped over? Shazier used the infrequent movement of his hands to call for a trainer then grip his helmet—an expression of pure fear. He was carted off the field with his hands over his eyes and immediately rushed to the hospital. How does it not kill us with each passing moment void of updates?
More incredibly, how do the NFL players do it? Mike Tomlin and Marvin Lewis had to explain at halftime—without any concrete information on Shazier’s health – why almost 100 players should walk back out on the field and do the same thing Ryan did. How do they calm the collective fears undoubtedly weighing down the room? How do they exit the locker room not feeling a tiny bit complicit?
“Each game, these men make a choice to take the field and (most) pray for a safe game,” DeMarcus Ware posted on Twitter shortly after the injury. “Laying on the field without feeling in your limbs is never in the cards. I know the feeling all too well @RyanShazier. Praying for you bro.”
Reading Ware’s message, and the posts of every NFL player relaxing and watching on Monday was a transcendent experience. They all understand that it could happen at any minute. They’re all part of the same dysfunctional brotherhood. And yet, three quarters later, Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster blindsided Vontaze Burfict and straddled the mercurial linebacker, taunting him while he lay on the grass. Burfict would also need a cart to exit the field on Monday night. He gave a thumbs up while riding off, flat on his back. ESPN would later report that Burfict was trying to pry himself out of the immobilization straps to get back on the field.
With the NFL, it’s easy to get distracted. In fact, it’s part of the plan. The show must go on despite the horror lurking around every corner. We’ll talk coaching hot seat at halftime. Would Jon Gruden really go to the Giants!? Pittsburgh is just one score away from tying this up! Shazier seemed to turn off like a battery-operated action figure the second he made contact with his intended target. How do you do anything but put your head down and pray he’ll be alright?
If nothing else on Monday, hopefully we all recognize what an unbelievable bargain these players make every time they step on the field. We rationalize it by mentioning compensation, the high life they live and the unmatched adrenaline they feel. We talk about how it used to be when there weren’t so many rules protecting these modern athletes despite knowing damn well that every year the competition gets faster and the hits get harder. It allows us to keep an arm’s length between the joy we derive from America’s most popular sport and the damage we know they incur on every hit.
Shazier should have scared the hell out of every person watching on Monday. He should have made us wince with every boneheaded helmet-to-helmet hit that followed—and there were plenty. He should have forced us to ask an important question: How do we stop this from feeling normal?