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Labriola on Shazier as a man, AB vs. BA

Ready or not, here it comes:

• A couple of days ago, following OTA No. 9, Ryan Shazier stood behind the podium in the Media Room on the second floor of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. It was his first time addressing such a gathering since that night last December in Paul Brown Stadium when he sustained an injury to his spine.

• Since it was the first time Shazier presented himself to the media, attendance was better than it is for most of Coach Mike Tomlin’s sessions in that same room throughout an NFL season. And over the next 24 hours, there was one item that rose to the top of mostly every report done in chronicling what Shazier had to say.

• The question was inevitable, and it was posed to Shazier early. Do you plan on returning to play football again?

• “My dream is to come back and play football again,” said Shazier. “I have been working my tail off every single day. I have that in the back of my mind every single time I go to rehab. I just try to stay positive every single day. I am just trying to do everything I can to get back.”

• Then, the natural follow-up: Why do you still want to play?

• “I played this game since I was 4 years old,” said Shazier. “I have loved this game since I was 4 years old. Just because I got hurt doesn’t mean I am going to stop loving the game of football. I feel when you give your best in anything that you do, it makes it easier when something happens to you because you never have to look back and regret that you didn’t go hard enough. I gave it everything I have. I got hurt. And I am still going to give it everything I have to come back.”

• None of that should come as a surprise – neither the questions, nor Shazier’s answers – and none of it deserves any criticism whatsoever. Not the media for asking those questions. Not Shazier for wanting back into a sport that almost paralyzed him. And not to any of the outlets for making that the focus of their coverage of the event.

• But sitting in that room, listening to all of the questions and then Shazier’s answers to each and every one of them, something else struck me. It had to do with seeing, really seeing for the first time, Ryan Shazier as a person instead of as a player.

• It began when Shazier opened this session by thanking people, and he didn’t leave anyone out. The first responders in Cincinnati, his family, his fiancée, the UPMC personnel who took over his care once he returned to Pittsburgh, the Steelers, the fans, the athletes across the sports world who reached out to offer encouragement and support, his agency. But then he added this:

• “I also want to thank the local media here for being so respectful with all of my requests. I know it’s been a while, I haven’t talked to the media and this is my first time. I just want to say thanks for being respectful of my time and giving me the time to take it in and now talk about everything.”

• Ryan Shazier was a generational player, a dynamic inside linebacker and a critical component of any success the Steelers would be able to have during his time as a starting linebacker. Behind that podium, though, he came across as determined yet vulnerable, as a teammate, as a father. As real.

• “If I was at home (in Florida),” said Shazier in answering a question about why he chose to stay in Pittsburgh doing his rehab work, “a lot of my teammates wouldn’t be able to come visit me as much. I don’t feel like I would be able to see the people I see on a regular basis as much. I feel like to get better at what you need to get better at, you can’t always be comfortable.”

• Then there was this: “I would be a liar if I said there haven’t been any bad days. I feel everybody has some rough days. I promise you if it’s 100 days, probably 95 of them are good days and five of them, I am not even going to say five, three of them are neutral days and two of them are bad. I try to stay as positive as possible. At the end of the day you always have some negativity that tries to seep in. I always felt if you have a positive mindset, no matter what you are doing, as long as you are trying to do the best that you can, most likely the best outcome is going to come, especially if you are working your tail off. That is the way I feel about this situation.”

• And finally: “You definitely appreciate everything a lot more now. The moments – from taking your first steps, to walking out on stage at the draft, to being here to stand up and talk to you guys about the injury. You have an appreciation for everything. I tell my family that all of the time … Before you’re living your life and you don’t feel like you aren’t appreciating it, you are just living it. I just appreciate every moment I am in. When I was in rehab, the first few steps I took, me and my family were crying. Sometimes I look back at my videos, and I still cry but it’s all tears of joy. People always think the worst case scenario. Just to see where you came from, to what people thought you would be, to where you are now, and where I plan on being, it makes me appreciate every moment, every single step I take every time I am here. Every time someone comes to talk to me I have that positive mindset. You have to appreciate every moment you are in. We take things for granted that you might not think you take for granted.”

• I used to take Ryan Shazier for granted. Not anymore.

AB VS. BA

• Those in the media who diligently monitor Antonio Brown’s social media accounts have reported that there has been some recent action on Instagram where he is critical of Bruce Arians, the former Steelers offensive coordinator and newest member of CBS’ NFL broadcasters. Arians will join the team of Greg Gumbel and Trent Green on Sundays this fall.

• Maybe what spurred this is how Arians has been heard on the local airwaves recently to help talk shows fill the air during a time of the year when there is no local NBA franchise, when the hockey team is out of the playoffs, and when the baseball team is slumping. Since the national networks always are eager to promote their broadcast crews, and few love the sound of their own voice as much as Arians, it was a natural to dial him up and get him on the air.

• Full disclosure: I have no idea what Arians said or might have said in these appearances, because I have no interest in listening to what always devolves into self-promotion or self-congratulation.

• Anyway, Brown came off as miffed by something having to do with Arians, and maybe it had to do with the summer of 2010.

• During that summer, Brown was a rookie sixth-round draft pick from Central Michigan trying to make the Steelers roster, the same summer that the team had a rookie third-round pick named Emmanuel Sanders trying to make the roster as well.

• It didn’t take long even for the civilians watching practice on a daily basis at Saint Vincent College to notice Brown. He didn’t have beep-beep speed like young veteran Mike Wallace, and he wasn’t savvy and crafty like old veteran Hines Ward, but there was something about him when he had the ball in his hands. He looked like a player, and he looked like he wanted it badly.

• During the preseason, Brown tied Sanders for the team lead in receptions with nine, and he led all receivers with two touchdown catches. His 68-yard touchdown tied Wallace that summer for the team’s longest scoring play of the preseason. He also led the team with 80 punt return yards and an 11.4-yard average, and his 24.7-yard average on kickoff returns also was the team’s best that summer.

• But when it came time to cut the roster, Arians’ opinion was that Brown was nothing more than a practice squad player. That was what Arians advocated, which would have meant waiving Brown first before he could be signed to the practice squad. And during his 24 hours on waivers, Brown could have been claimed by any other team in the NFL.

• Cut the guy who would become the most productive receiver in franchise history, a guy who today is the best receiver in the NFL and has been the best receiver in the NFL going on a few years now. To put him on the practice squad. That was the idea BA brought to the table late in the summer of 2010.

• The receivers the Steelers kept coming out of training camp that year were Ward, Wallace, Antwaan Randle-El, Sanders, and Arnaz Battle. There’s no room for Antonio Brown on that depth chart? Really?

• Wiser evaluators prevailed, and by the time the 2010 season ended, Brown had returned a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown to help the team post a 19-11 win in Tennessee in a game that fell in the middle of Ben Roethlisberger’s four-week suspension, he made a circus catch for 58 yards on a third-and-19 to set up Rashard Mendenhall’s game-winning touchdown in a 31-24 victory over the Ravens in the AFC Divisional Round, and then his 14-yard catch on a third-and-6 late in the AFC Championship Game against the Jets put the Steelers into victory formation.

• So this fall, if you happen to be listening to Arians on a talk show or as an analyst during a CBS telecast, just keep in mind that the same guy who’s talking to you in that moment is the same one who wanted to cut Antonio Brown.

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