Kevin Gorman: Steelers can't explain Ryan Shazier's loss, win over Cincy
Mike Tomlin started with two words: Fifty’s down. The Pittsburgh Steelers saw Ryan Shazier reach for his lower back and signal for help, saw him lying motionless on the field and leave on a stretcher.
We know he’s down, Tomlin told his team, but we’ve got to keep playing.
That the Steelers didn’t just keep playing but rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, last December before a “Monday Night Football” audience amazes me to this day.
So I asked Tomlin how he and his team kept their emotions in check to finish that game. Tomlin gave perhaps the most honest answer ever at one of his weekly news conferences.
“I don’t know,” Tomlin said.
Somehow, the Steelers focused on football, despite the possibility their star inside linebacker could have been paralyzed while attempting a routine tackle on Bengals wide receiver Josh Malone.
“That wasn’t about football,” Tomlin said. “That was somebody we care deeply about that got injured very severely. It wasn’t about utilizing it as some motivational tactic or anything of that nature. It was a very difficult thing to get through. We had a job to do, in terms of winning the game, but obviously our hearts and minds were with him.”
Shazier’s career could be over, and the silence in that stadium made everyone uncomfortable to watch a game that was vicious with violence.
“The fact that Ryan got injured was a low point for everybody in the National Football League,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “He’s one of the finest young players and just a tremendous person. I think we all lost a little bit when Ryan got hurt.”
The Steelers have been reluctant to talk about how they dealt with Shazier’s injury — knowing it could have been any one of them — and got through the game.
“I hate even going back and thinking about it,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “but I think the biggest thing for that game, the end of it at least, it was just the unknown. We didn’t know what was going on. We knew that a guy went to the hospital, but you really didn’t know the severity of it at the time.”
Every Steelers player has his own memory of that moment, and each of them has a different expectation of the emotions he will experience when he walks into Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
“I think I’ll kind of relive it when I walk back into the stadium,” Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “During this week, of course it will be in my head a lot more. Every time I play the Cincinnati Bengals, that will probably be in my head. ... From a teammate standpoint and a brotherhood standpoint, you’re always going to think about that.”
Tuitt and Shazier were roommates on road trips, thanks to a friendship developed before they even became teammates. They trained together at IMG Academy to prepare for the 2014 NFL Draft.
That set the scene for a story Tuitt likes to tell about how he needed a suit. They went to a Men’s Wearhouse, which had a two-for-one special. Because Shazier was the first-round pick, Tuitt convinced Shazier that he should buy the suit so that Tuitt could get the freebie.
“It’s things like that that go through your head and make you realize how blessed you are to play this game, when you see somebody like that with tremendous talent go down on the field,” Tuitt said. “The game already was important, anyway. But it became something more.
“I think the coaches did a good job of trying to keep everybody focused on the task at hand. All of us rallied together and tried to win a game for somebody that loves football. I think it just clicked for everybody. It wasn’t a rah-rah-rah session. It was like a click session.
“Sometimes, things happen that you can’t explain.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.