PITTSBURGH — Sixteen days ago, a football tragedy hit this town and this team. Ryan Shazier, the Steelers’ 25-year-old star linebacker, closed in on a tackle against the Bengals on Monday Night Football, but his head was dipped too low. The immediate aftermath was frightening, Shazier flopping, unable to move his legs, carted to a nearby hospital in a state of panic. He had spinal stabilization surgery, though there is still no definitive news on whether he’ll be able to walk again.
It’s the kind of moment that isn’t part of the plan. There’s no blueprint for stunned announcers or terrified fans. There, on the turf, was a son, a fiancé and a father whose life may never be the same again.
But was it jarring enough to change the way we think about football? To actually force us to reconsider the game that has become our national sport? It’s complicated.
Heidi Rhodes drove more than four hours from Virginia to be here with friends and family, in a Heinz Field tailgate lot less than two hours before the Steelers and Patriots meet in the most anticipated regular-season game of 2017. She is a teacher who may or may not have made a bet with her students about the outcome of the game (a Pittsburgh loss could force her into Patriots gear on Monday). She guessed she could have sold these tickets and paid for all the Christmas presents she bought this year, but did not think twice.
Her son played Division I lacrosse, another high impact sport that carries the risk of head and neck injuries. There were games, she says, when her son did not remember coming off the field. She was watching on TV when Shazier went down and immediately thought of his family and child.
“I was talking to my husband the other day; I don’t know why parents would—if they’ve got a talented athlete—[not push them into] baseball and basketball,” she says. “Especially with the contracts these players are getting now. In terms of the injuries on a daily basis, it doesn’t feel as risky as a football injury.”
Weaving through various tailgate parties feels like stepping into starkly different areas of the country. One group, Bob Schubenski and Frank Brownlee, wishes Shazier well but agrees that players kneeling for the national anthem is a far bigger issue for football than injuries.
Another pair of fans, Rachel Teater and her father, Andy, are hopeful that the game is already making the necessary changes. Rachel attends Ohio State, Shazier’s alma mater, and is wearing his black No. 50 jersey. Andy has been a football official in Ohio for 30 years and has seen how tackling form has improved. Even when Shazier was playing in high school, Andy admits, the linebacker’s form was frowned upon.
“It’s better. Coaches have done a great job the last 10 years of teaching kids not to use their heads,” he says. “Back when I played we were taught facemask right in the chest. They’re doing a good job. And I can tell the difference from being out there on Friday nights. The kids aren’t hitting like they used to. It’s changed the game a lot.”
That’s where so many seem divided on the issue. When played correctly, football can be a violent but beautiful and less dangerous, all at once. However, the speed of the game has been maxed out, which sometimes prevents players like Shazier from adjusting their position and properly squaring themselves in time to make a hit.
“It scared the crap out of me,” Olu Osinuga says. “The first place he held was his back. It scared me. I thought it was done.”
As Osingua and his friends, Adolphus Calle and Kam Stubbs, pick at tailgate fare on a paper plate covered by aluminum foil in the trunk of their car, they circle the debate around football’s battle on the player safety front.
“I mean, everyone is more conscious of what happens to the body and I think people are trying to be more aware of the damage that can be done to the head. But it’s football, man, you know what you’re into,” Stubbs says. “You want to [put it all out there] because you come to win. Unfortunately, they’re not out there just playing to play. They’re playing to win and that passion sometimes, that raw emotion gets mixed and it becomes that gladiator sport.”
Calle: “My argument is rugby. Rugby is almost a similar game with no pads and no helmets. They know how to tackle, basically just like Juju [Smith-Schuster on the Vontaze Burfict hit]. But these guys, when they get their helmets on, they just go straight for the kill.”
Osinuga: “Yeah, but, I don’t think he meant to lead with his head.”
Stubbs: “I think he did . . . I played sports and in the moment . . . when my team is down, I’m trying to make that play. Brother, I don’t give a f--- what the rules are. I’m trying to get my team to rally around me. I’m gonna smash the s---- out of you. I’m going to try and hurt you.”
The conversation veers back toward tackling form and also James Harrison, who is 14 years older than Shazier and has managed to hold up through 15 NFL seasons worth of violent collisions. Whether today’s players need to condition themselves as obsessively as Harrison to insulate the body. Whether the game can truly be made safe when, on the field, the adrenaline and intensity create the charged atmosphere we’ve all fallen in love with.
“Forget all that,” Osinuga says, breaking up the various threads of conversation. "Is he going to be all right? That’s it. Answer that. Forget football, forget everything else, is he going to be all right?”
When asked, if they were Steelers players, would they be able to keep going after seeing what happened to Shazier, all three enthusiastically say yes. When asked if the moment deterred anyone they knew from watching football, all three say no.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.