ARLINGTON, Texas – Only the NFL can forge a wonderful moment out of a horrible memory.
One of the most special scenes of the entire sports year came when injured Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier walked onto the stage here at AT&T Stadium to announce Pittsburgh’s first-round NFL draft pick.
There was an emotional gasp when it happened, followed by a sustained ovation from the orchestra pit on the floor to the rafters near the roof. It was unforgettable and surely left viewers around the country in tears.
There was real fear that Shazier would never stand again after a headlong tackle last December left him motionless on the turf in a brutal Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was one of the NFL’s worst fears come true: a star player and community leader losing his career and maybe his mobility in a split-second on the field. It led to real debate over the violence of the game and whether an incident like this would turn fans away for good. It even led to a rule tweak, as the Shazier hit came up in discussions about enforcing a regulation that the crown of the helmet not be used in hitting opposing players. Shazier’s hit was that influential, and that scary.
And yet there he was, in an immaculate suit, holding the hand of his fiancee, flashing a smile that has become iconic in Pittsburgh and beyond. The moment he arrived at the podium was a testament to the man’s faith and will. He has worked for months to be able to take a single step. But Thursday’s moment was also a stark contrast to the sheer ugliness the game can bring.
It’s people like Shazier who keep football going. It’s the spirit he showed that inspires fans of all ages. But it’s also a nation’s eagerness to forget the fear that happens with every big hit to the head. Instead of a reminder of all that can go wrong in the sport, Shazier served as a reminder of what’s right.
The NFL has made a real effort to make the game safer. It deserves credit for that. Yet the game is not safe. It will never be wholly safe. There will be nasty affairs like we saw that Monday night in December. There will be more hits that leave a stadium in silence and players on one knee in prayer – nights when we ask ourselves if we should keep watching and enabling all of this.
But next year at this time there will be another group of players with their lifetime dreams coming true. There will be another rookie Pittsburgh Steeler announced, another member of a family that proudly includes Shazier. Hopes and dreams will once again eclipse realities.
The player who Shazier announced, Terrell Edmunds, remembers the play when Shazier got hurt. He saw it on TV. “It was a tragic moment,” Edmunds said Thursday night. He added that the sight of Shazier on that stage came as a relief: “Seeing him healthy, that was a blessing all the way.”
Then it was time to look ahead. Edmunds proclaimed his plans to help Pittsburgh win another Super Bowl.
“We’re going for seven now,” he said.
More NFL draft coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Dan Wetzel: Browns bet on monster gamble in Mayfield
• Giants take Barkley with No. 2 pick instead of Darnold
• Did Cardinals get NFL draft’s best QB with 10th pick?
• NFL draft grades 2018: The emoji edition