PITTSBURGH -- Look at that guy with patches in his head.
Ryan Shazier's hair would fall out in patches, which kids in the stands at his football games would notice when he took off his helmet. The laughing and taunting was clearly audible to his parents.
“My wife was ready to fight in the stands,” Vernon Shazier, Ryan’s dad, said by telephone. “People are cruel.”
Shazier has heard all the nicknames. With loving parents and the confidence that came from excelling in football, Shazier has earned new nicknames -- playmaker, first-rounder, potential Steelers star.
Now an emboldened 23-year-old set to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers' lineup after a four-week absence due to a shoulder injury, Shazier is ready to help kids that are dealing with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes partial or full hair loss.
Recently posting an Instagram picture of NBA player Charlie Villanueva promoting alopecia awareness was a first step. Talking to Villanueva about how he can help was the next step. Now, he’s got his agency, Creative Artists Agency, involved.
“I know there are a lot of people struggling with it right now,” Shazier. “I just took it and embraced it, and I really feel like it made me the person I am now. I definitely want to help out.”
Shazier knows that a child with alopecia is likely the only one in his school with the condition (0.1 to 0.2 percent of the population is affected on average). He knows they might want to disappear. Shazier did at times when he was growing up in South Florida. The teasing he got from his football teammates was tough. Shazier is a supreme athlete, but he didn’t become dominant until high school.
The emotional pain turned physical when Shazier went to a Miami-area hospital about once a month to be given several injections in his scalp. The shots were designed to control the hair loss. They were unbearable. So he decided to cope with alopecia as a teenager.
Shazier remembers a turning point -- he wanted to wear hats and his parents encouraged him not to hide.
His confidence ballooned along with his football ability. The hair eventually fell out. The shiny bald head worked for him. He was a popular, happy high schooler, as Vernon remembers.
“Everybody goes through their own adversity, but it’s tough when you’re younger and everyone has hair,” Shazier said. “It toughened me up a little bit and made me realize no matter what the situation, it really doesn’t matter. I shouldn’t struggle with it.”
Shazier said he’s heard every insult imaginable. “Kids are tough, bro,” he said. But to his parents, he was always Ryan.
That perspective still helps him today.
“He’s experiencing another shift of evolution in his life,” Vernon said. “He sees he has a platform to help others.”