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The Mack linebacker, playing Cover 3, sets his sights on the wide receiver catching the ball over the middle. He closes in and hits the wide receiver’s torso with his helmet. The wide receiver bounces off the tackle attempt. The Buck linebacker is there to finish him off.
The Mack linebacker stays on the ground. Trainers rush out. As the medical staff tends to him, it becomes apparent he cannot move his legs. Paul Brown Stadium is hushed. The Buck linebacker takes a knee. They strap the Mack linebacker to a spinal board and carry him to a cart. As the cart drives into the tunnel, the Mack linebacker puts his hands over his eyes.
On the next play, the call comes to the Buck linebacker from the sideline, but he is too dazed to take it in and relay it to the rest of the defenders. He is overcome because there is an affection between him and the Mack linebacker—one that usually has no place on a football field.
This is the story of a friendship. It’s an unlikely friendship that has transcended football, has transcended tragic circumstance.
Evidence of it trickles down Vince Williams‘ left cheek as his friend Ryan Shazier’s life changes forever.
On the evening of May 8, 2014, most football fans are watching the NFL draft. Williams is sleeping. When he wakes, he has more than 20 texts and a couple of voice messages, including one from his agent. It turns out the Steelers used the 15th pick of the first round to take Shazier, an inside linebacker out of Ohio State. A player who could take Williams’ job.
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Williams is angry. He is miserable. At an OTA the next day, his coaches try to tell him everything will be OK. The words sound hollow, and he does not want to hear them.
Williams is a sixth-round pick, and in his mind he will always be a sixth-round pick. Now this hotshot, in his mind, is a threat to take his roster spot.
Shazier is an instant starter. Williams makes the team as a backup and specials teams player.
The following spring, Steelers linebacker James Harrison invites some of the defensive players to work out in Arizona. Williams says he’s in. Then he finds out Shazier is in, too.
To keep costs down, a group of players decide to rent a house. Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, Williams and Shazier become roommates. Jones and Spence fly back home on weekends, so that often leaves Williams and Shazier alone—uncomfortably alone.
Williams needs to outwork his competition. His mindset is it’s the only way he can win. He wasn’t even invited to the combine, and then he ran a 4.72 40-yard dash at his pro day. Some scouts timed Shazier at 4.36 at his pro day.
Williams is not like Shazier, and he knows it. But damn if Shazier isn’t working as hard as he is.
Neither will let up. And neither wants to allow the other to have an edge. They train twice a day, six days a week, sprinting, jumping, squatting, pushing, pulling, lunging, rowing. When the trainer tells Williams to do 10 reps, he does 13. And then Shazier does the same. When the workout is supposed to be over, Williams stays for extra sprints. With Shazier by his side.
First-round picks like Shazier, Williams always thought, were cake eaters. But he’s never seen a player with Shazier’s pedigree work like he does. He has to respect that. And he even has to change the way he thinks.
So they start encouraging one another. And they start hanging around.
Williams doesn’t want to like Shazier. But he can’t help himself. They talk about their goals, their relationships, what they want for their kids, what they want from football.
“I don’t need to be in the NFL top 100,” Williams tells Shazier. “I just want people to walk up to my children and say, ‘Your dad was a monster.’ That will be all the affirmation I ever need.”
Shazier is different. “I want to be a gold jacket guy, the next Derrick Brooks,” Williams remembers him telling him. “I’m going to be like Von Miller, a guy who gets the commercials.”
By the time they report to OTAs, they have a bond.
Going into the 2017 season, Shazier and Williams believe they are on the verge of accomplishing special things together. They decide they need a nickname. Shazier is the idea guy.
“How about Splash and Dash?” he asks Williams. “Crash and Bash? Thunder and Lightning?”
No, no and no.
This goes on for a while. Then one day Shazier