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Ryan Shazier was seriously injured in an NFL game. He has advice for Damar Hamlin

Retired NFL player Ryan Shazier, pictured in 2018, relearned how to walk after suffering a spinal cord injury during a 2017 game.
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Retired NFL player Ryan Shazier, pictured in 2018, relearned how to walk after suffering a spinal cord injury during a 2017 game.

Updated January 12, 2023 at 11:33 AM ET

Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was discharged from a New York hospital on Wednesday, more than a week after suffering cardiac arrest during a game, to continue his rehabilitation at home.

Hamlin's doctors said he's on what's considered a "very normal" or even "accelerated trajectory" in his recovery, and has been walking, eating and undergoing therapy. It's not exactly clear what the road ahead will look like — but former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has an idea.

Shazier was making a routine tackle in a 2017 game when he sustained a life-altering spinal cord injury that left him temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. He underwent spinal stabilization surgery, but even then, the prognosis was grim. Doctors gave him only a 20% chance of ever walking again.

While Shazier and Hamlin experienced vastly different injuries, their experiences have much in common: They both happened during a nationally televised Monday night football game, against the Cincinnati Bengals and even on the same field. And both players have fought to get back on their feet.

Shazier says he "pretty much had to relearn everything" one step at a time, from wiggling a toe to raising a knee, and those little victories kept him going.

"It was almost like receiving a scholarship to go to college. It was like going to Ohio State. It was like getting drafted in the first round," Shazier told Morning Edition. "These are things that people said I would never do and I was able to do them. And it was just an amazing feeling to be able to continue to progress."

Shazier's biggest moment of joy during his recovery came when he was able to do what he set out to from the start of his rehab: walk his wife down the aisle and dance at their wedding.

Shazier was on the path to possibly playing football again, but began to realize he couldn't move as fast or give as much as he would have wanted as a professional athlete. He announced his retirement from football in 2020, but still keeps up with the sport (he also launched a podcast series about sports comeback stories).

Shazier and his wife were watching the Jan. 2 game when Hamlin collapsed on the field, which Shazier called "a very tough moment for me."

"And just to see just the scare in everybody's eyes while they're on the field, to me it just kind of gave me flashbacks of what I went through," he said. "But then also it just scared me to see what Damar, his family and the Buffalo Bills were going to have to go through, dealing with his injury."

Shazier spoke with Morning Edition's A Martínez about his own injury and recovery, and what advice he would offer Hamlin now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On how his injury happened

I made this tackle a thousand times before, and on this tackle there was a receiver doing a drag race ... and unfortunately, he was running a little bit faster than I thought he was. And when I made a tackle, my head hit his hip, which caused me to fracture multiple vertebrae in my back and it caused me to have a spinal cord injury. ...

... I definitely knew something was wrong because I had a burning sensation in my back. ... You have misfortunes, but you just never expect that, hey, I'm going to get hurt to the extent where I would never be able to walk again. And when I got hurt, it was more of, "Oh, man, I'm hurt pretty bad, but I should be OK." And that wasn't the case.

On making incremental progress during a long recovery

My whole life I've been doubted, trying to make it into the NFL .... not even 1% of guys in the NFL make it to the Pro Bowl. So with me being blessed to overcome all those odds, I just thought about the same thing when it came to just dealing with my injury and how I had to deal with so many other injuries before, and it's just one step at a time. ... And that's what I call goals: just first downs, just short first downs. And then when you reach your ultimate goal, there's a touchdown. So every time I did something that was relatively good to me, not what everybody else thought, but what I felt was progress, I would call it a first down. And I just started looking more at the short-term goals and would try to build those, and they end up building into me being able to be where I'm at now.

On feeling like his retirement was letting people down

I remember I talked to my father and my mother and my wife and I was like "Man, I'm a failure. I'm sorry I let you guys down." And they looked at me and said, "Ryan, what are you talking about?" And I said, "I got hurt. I'm not able to play football at a high level." And my wife and my father and my mother all told me, "Ryan, playing football is a bonus. Being the man that you are is what we appreciate, what we love about you, not just because you can play football, you're not letting us down. The fact that you're overcoming this injury, the way you're overcoming it, we look up to you more than we ever did." ... One of my goals was to make it to the Hall of Fame. ... I thought that if I didn't reach the goal that I plan on reaching, I was a failure. But my family told me very quickly that that was not the case.

On the memories Hamlin's injuries brought back

It was just the pain I went through, the loss of the game that I went through, the emotions of just how I feel about football then, how I feel about football now, just about how his family is scared and they don't know how to react, they don't know what to do ... I was thinking about how my teammates looked when I was on the field. I was thinking about being at a hospital and I had so many doctors around me that I couldn't even see the wall. It was so many things that literally flashed by so fast that I can't even tell you just one thing.

On what he wants Hamlin to know

The biggest thing I will always tell anybody, first and foremost, is trust God and then also just have a positive mindset. ... And secondly, take it slow, because you just want to make sure that you're in the best condition for your health. You want to make sure that you're still able to be the guy that you want to be. So if it involves football, if it doesn't involve football, just take your time. Just make sure that you trust the doctors and ... You also have to trust yourself. You know what your body feels like. And push it as far as you can push it, but also understand when it's time to pull back as well.

Ziad Buchh produced this audio and contributed to the digital story. The audio was also produced by Adam Bearne and edited by Simone Popperl and Jojo Macaluso.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.