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Football an afterthought following Ryan Shazier's spinal surgery

| Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, 6:48 p.m.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier makes an interception in front of the Ravens' Benjamin Watson in the fourth quarter.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier makes an interception in front of the Ravens' Benjamin Watson in the fourth quarter.
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sits on the bench as the Eagles beat the Steelers Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 at Lincoln Financial Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier sits on the bench as the Eagles beat the Steelers Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016 at Lincoln Financial Field.

Ryan Shazier's family, friends and teammates are more concerned with his medical victories than when or whether he'll contribute to victories on the football field again.

And it's not even close.

Speculation about whether Shazier will return to the field this season appeared to be put to rest with Thursday's announcement that the fourth-year linebacker underwent spinal stabilization surgery at an undisclosed UPMC facility.

“I'm not worried about him playing for us again,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “I'm more worried about him. … The thing that we're hopeful for and prayerful for is he comes back and is going to be OK. The football stuff is secondary. His life is a lot more important than being a football player.”

What's known is that UPMC neurosurgeons Dr. David Okonkwo and Dr. Joseph Maroon performed Shazier's surgery Wednesday night in an attempt to fuse a portion of his spine that had become destabilized.

What remains unknown is Shazier's level of neurological damage. And Shazier's prospects for recovery hinge on that, doctors told the Tribune-Review.

Spinal stabilization surgery generally involves inserting hardware, such as rods and screws, to stabilize the spine and promote neurological healing.

“The key here is not the bony injury of vertebrae, it's how much damage was done to the spinal cord itself or the nerves emerging from the spinal cord,” said Dr. Anthony Alessi, a neurologist and director of the University of Connecticut's NeuroSport program who sometimes consults for the NFL Players Association and the New York Yankees.

“This means a long-term recovery,” Alessi told the Trib. “In terms of how long, we won't know until we know how much neurological damage was done.”

Dr. David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon who writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune's ProFootballDoc.com , told the Trib that recovery from spinal stabilization surgery usually takes four to six months.

“Success from spinal stabilization and fusion surgery is high,” said Chao, who served as the team doctor for the former San Diego Chargers for 17 years.

Chao, who has been following news of the Shazier injury closely and writing about it online, added: “The key is, what is his neurological status? If he made a good early recovery, there's still a reasonable chance he could be 100 percent.”

The “100 percent” is all teammate and friend Arthur Moats, a linebacker, cares about.

“After seeing him on the field like that, I just want to see him walking,” Moats said after practice Thursday. “That was scary to see happen.”

Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, the team's defensive captain, said he has texted with Shazier this week.

“He's getting a million text messages, so I don't want to keep bothering him,” Heyward said, adding that the entire team is still rattled. “As a person, yeah, as a human being. You could hear a pin drop in the stadium. … Nobody wants to see that type of injury. Ryan is a dear friend of mine, but I don't wish that ill will on anybody.”

Shazier was injured early in the first quarter Monday night in the Steelers' game at Cincinnati when he tackled Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone.

Shazier spent Monday and Tuesday nights in a Cincinnati hospital, and returned to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

On Wednesday night, Shazier's fiancee, Michelle Rodriguez, used her Instagram account to ask for continued prayers.

“This is honestly more than football,” she wrote. “You guys honestly don't know how much this means to us and our families. The love and support that has been flooded our way is something that we are very grateful for. We THANK YOU!”

Heyward said the team knows Shazier will be on the field with them in spirit the rest of the season.

“I know it kills him that he's not out there,” he said. “But he wants us to win a ballgame. It's going to be a little harder on us, but we've just got to keep playing.”

In his latest piece , Chao wrote, “The best-case scenario of a spinal cord concussion and early recovery are gone. Let's hope for the next-best possibility of a great result from surgery and full neurologic recovery over the next 4 to 6 months.”

Ben Schmitt and Joe Rutter are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Schmitt at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt. Reach Rutter at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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