The pastor takes a phone call on his porch, where he is reading about the life of Moses, the Biblical character who endured the Ten Plagues, led the Exodus of the Israelites, received the Ten Commandments and wandered the desert for 40 years. Kind of seems applicable to 2020, the pastor says with a laugh.
This is Vernon Shazier, head of River of Life Fellowship in South Florida, a man who spent all spring and summer counseling parishioners, friends, relatives, even NFL players from his long-ago days as the Dolphins team chaplain. He advised so many, for so long, their issues so vexing and deep, that he took September off. Had to. “I needed a break from solving problems,” he says, knowing that he still spent two full weeks in the month away dealing with his own.
I first met Vernon last fall, on that very porch. I came to ask him about his son, Ryan, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Steelers who, in Dec. 2017, suffered a spinal cord injury on a football field in Cincinnati. I asked Vernon about his faith, about the months that Ryan had been paralyzed, about his miraculous recovery and how the pastor reconciled the worst day of his life with what he described as his life’s calling.
One thing Vernon said from the evening resonated with me ever since. He couldn’t bring himself to watch football, or even sports. But he wanted, more than anything, for Ryan to play again. He knew the odds, and how he sounded, and how many would think him delusional at best. But he believed, all the way until this September, when Ryan planned a visit home to tell the rest of the world what Vernon already knew.
Vernon picked up Ryan, daughter-in-law Michelle and their young son, Lyon, at the airport on Sunday, Sept. 6. Not even three years removed from one of the scariest injuries ever suffered in a pro football game, Ryan could now walk with only a minor limp. He didn’t need assistance. He could live a “normal” life. Ryan had left Pittsburgh, Vernon says, because he didn’t want to be a distraction to his former teammates and he wanted to be home, with his family, for unconditional support. “I worked my butt off,” he told Vernon. “But I have not been able to get back to 100 percent.”
For Vernon, the unplugging had already started. No email. No phone calls. He’d read books, smoke cigars, sit out on the porch and contemplate his son’s future. Normally when Ryan visited, old friends stopped by constantly. But not now, during the global pandemic. Ryan’s grandparents marked the only guests. “It was like we were in a cave, man,” Vernon says.
They needed the isolation, because they knew how hard the announcement would be to make. Ryan wasn’t the only family member who had struggled with depression; they all had. Ryan wasn’t the only family member who wanted him to reclaim his starting spot in the Steelers starting lineup; they all wanted him to.
For months, as Ryan lay in a hospital bed, wondering if he’d ever walk again, Vernon prayed. First, he prayed for his son to walk. Eventually, he believes that prayer was answered. Then, “I prayed so many times and asked God to let [him] play football again,” the pastor says. “I rehearsed it. I visualized it in my mind, [him] running back on that field.” That prayer would not be answered.
On Ryan’s first day home, a Monday, Labor Day, Vernon held his emotions together. On Tuesday, he lost control. He estimates he cried between 20 and 25 times, taking drives through his neighborhood, or heading out back to the porch, trying to avoid Ryan seeing him break down.
Vernon wasn’t sad about the football career ending, though. He was concerned about Ryan, still only 28. “Was he healthy?” Vernon asks. “Psychologically? Emotionally? Would he be stuck in nostalgia thinking his best years were already behind him?”
He can’t share too much, Vernon says, wanting Ryan to tell his own story, in his own time, same as always. But he does allude to “some thoughts” being “too crazy” and says, “depression can take your mind to some deep, dark places.”
The pastor has always done his best thinking on that porch, the exact kind of critical analysis he needed then, and he kept going back outside that Tuesday. Finally, he decided he should hear from the source. Just after Tuesday turned into Wednesday, around 1:30 a.m., he tapped on the sliding glass window from outside, summoning Ryan to his home office, the one sitting on that manmade lake in Coral Springs. He was crying again. They both sat down.
“I need to know where you are with your decision,” Vernon said. “And your life.”
Ryan stared back, and in that moment, he looked to the pastor like his son, not the football player who had conquered the NFL and rehabilitation from spinal surgery.
“It’s painful,” Ryan said. “But I’m all right, dad. I’m all right.”
“When he said that,” Vernon says now, “I was good.”
On Wednesday, the pastor felt better. He still worried about his son, he explains, delving deeper into what he had alluded to earlier. Either Vernon or his wife, Shawn, had spent every night with Ryan in the hospital for six months after the injury. They had seen the visits, the tears, the fear that he might not walk again. One night, Vernon had an out-of-body experience, and he swears he could see himself, as if floating above, looking down at Ryan and trying to switch bodies with him. “I’ve talked to him when he didn’t want to live,” Vernon says. This was different, Ryan reassured him.
“I’m good,” he said again.
A film crew arrived in the morning and set up outside, in the only place that fit the news that would be delivered that afternoon. Ryan sat on the porch, the lake glimmering behind him, and recorded the announcement he hoped he wouldn’t have to make until years later, after a comeback: His playing career had officially ended. He had known that, on some level, ever since the injury. But that didn’t ease the pain of sending the message out into the world.
From a first-round pick in 2014 to a cornerstone of another fierce Steelers defense to the Pro Bowl to the end—the football part, anyway. Shazier played four seasons. Made 299 tackles. In his message, he said he loved everything about football.
On Wednesday evening, the Shaziers began to relax. Ryan stayed with his family for two weeks. They locked themselves inside and laughed and cried and reminisced. They played games like Jenga and Heads Up. They rented a boat and went for a cruise. Most nights bled into mornings, with Vernon and his boys, Ryan and other son Vernon, staying up; sometimes, they watched the sun rise together before heading off to bed. “Honestly,” Vernon says, “those were two of the best weeks of my life.”
The following Monday, Vernon still did not watch the Steelers open their season, against the Giants, on the same Monday Night Football stage where Ryan’s career ended. Vernon hasn’t watched football since the injury; why, he’s not exactly sure. Ryan does watch, preparing for his podcast. But his father stopped tuning in to sports almost entirely back in ’17, to the point where he says he only found out the Miami Heat, who play just down the road, were good when a relative mentioned their NBA Finals run. “Look, it’s not as important to me as it once was,” the pastor says. “I don’t know if I avoid it to keep from allowing it to trigger. That could be part of it, so that it doesn’t trigger any negative feelings or emotional thoughts.”
Instead, Vernon prefers to focus on the future, on the congregation he must guide and the foundation that his son wants to build into a philanthropic force. As Ryan went through his own recovery, he reached so many milestones, from the feeling in his legs returning to walking to getting back in the gym. He got married, to Michelle Rodriguez, at a wedding his father officiated. He had another son, Lyon Carter. (His first, R.J., is from a previous relationship.) The same doctors who said he would never walk again now described Ryan as a miracle—truly, his progress extended beyond any reasonable expectation.
He enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh to finish off the psychology degree he had started at Ohio State. With one more class, he will complete that part of his education. But as Vernon watched Ryan put distance and perspective between himself and his football career, he believes that Ryan also found a higher purpose.
It started during the worst months, in the hospital. There was Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, beside Ryan as he rehabbed, imploring him to scratch out another rep or five. There were his fellow linebackers, moving their position meetings to the hospital, lingering afterward to deepen their connection. There was Coach Mike Tomlin, still coaching, a master motivator who never needed to be on a football field to reach a player. And yet, in the very same hospital where Ryan reclaimed the life he had lost, he saw other patients with no team, no family, no pastor father or famous friends.
“The support was overwhelming, yet at the same time, it was like, you’re sitting at the table, and you have ham, you’ve got turkey, you’ve got all of your favorite dishes, you have all the desserts you want, you have more than enough,” Vernon says. “And you look across the room and somebody is sitting there with an empty plate, and they have crumbs on it.”
Eventually, Ryan decided he wanted to not only grow his foundation but grow it so large that he could help exactly those kinds of people. The ones who needed him. Who needed counseling and bills paid and expensive therapy that most cannot afford and insurance often won’t cover in full. “We want to get in their fight,” Vernon says, “because so many got in ours.”