PITTSBURGH -- Walking through Heinz Field during training camp, Jerry Olsavsky often finds himself surrounded by memories of Ryan Shazier.
The Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebackers coach sees pictures of the former first-rounder around the facility and catches his highlights from time to time.
"I think about him every day," Olsavsky said. "I go out there and I see a picture of something or a clip of something from years' past, and I'm really like, 'Damn, I miss him.'"
For the first time since he was drafted in 2014, Shazier isn't around for the Steelers' training camp. Even after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017 that initially left him unable to walk, Shazier made a point of staying involved with the team as much as possible.
But with the NFL's COVID-19 protocols keeping a tight cap on the number of personnel with access to the restricted areas in Heinz Field, Shazier can't be with his former teammates and coaches for training camp.
"A player like Ryan puts in different pieces to the puzzle a lot," Olsavsky said. "It's hard to quantify exactly what he did. When you have a guy there that says, 'This is what used to happen to me, and this is what I did to overcome it,' that really helps because you know how successful Ryan is. You're like, 'Oh, I'm glad somebody else went through this.'
"It's really hard to not have him around."
The feeling is mutual.
"It's kind of tough not being able to be around the team as much, just help the young guys or be around the guys that I worked around before," said Shazier, who turns 28 on Sunday. "It's really tough. I'm constantly putting one foot in front of the other, trying to learn different things, trying to figure out my next step, trying to take it one day at a time. Hopefully [COVID-19] ends faster than people think and I can get back around the team."
As he continues to focus on his daily rehab, Shazier isn't sure whether those next steps include returning to the football field as a player or a coach. But his future is still in Pittsburgh. He's selling his Fox Chapel home to relocate to another area and he's taking one final online class to complete his undergraduate degree in psychology from Ohio State. He's also enjoying the time with his 1- and 5-year-old boys, especially in the mornings when he has them all to himself while his wife works out.
"I'm waking up with the kids, (feed them) breakfast and stuff like that," he said. "I'm not really accustomed to that yet. I'm learning how to be a dad, an in-home dad lately. I'm just taking it little bit by little bit. I'm learning a little bit more about business. ... I'm just trying to make sure I don't waste the time."
Recently, Shazier met a father-son pair who are also coming to terms with the possibility they might not see the inside of Heinz Field anytime soon.
As a part of Pepsi's "Every Game is a Home Game" program, Shazier delivered a pair of Heinz Field seats to Tim and Pat Dougherty, season-ticket holders since the 1970s who won't be able to attend home games this year due to COVID-19 risks. And they weren't just any stadium seats -- they were the Doughertys' regular seats.
Earlier this year, Shazier also met a woman dealing with limb loss after complications from the flu.
"Just to be able to uplift somebody, just to be able to try to change the perspective or just give them some type of insight of what I'm going through," Shazier said, explaining why he's been doing more motivational work. "It might not even be the same situation but the insight I've gone through, I feel like that could help anybody because I know how much that helped me when I was hurt. I know a lot of people don't have the same support that I had."
Shazier did have a lot of support. The organization tolled his contract in 2018 and kept him on the payroll, allowing him to also receive his regular medical insurance -- until this year, when he was moved to the reserve/retired list. He maintained a locker in the team's UPMC practice facility and was a fixture on the sideline at practice and on game days.
He mentored younger players like fellow inside linebacker Devin Bush, providing the kind of support that can only come from someone who's been in their shoes. Coaching your replacement could be hard for some guys, especially ones who had the game so violently taken away, but Shazier relished the role.
"I feel like it's always tougher for somebody to help others when you didn't give everything you had," Shazier said. "You know, when you're always looking back like, ‘Hey, I could've given more to the game.' But I gave everything I had every single week. You know, it's still tough sometimes not to be out there physically with my guys, but I gave everything I had, so I didn't leave any doubts on the field.
"Even the guys, when I did play, would say, ‘Hey Ryan, when he was playing, he helped us out, even if it wasn't for his best benefit, he always did what was best for us.' Just being there, trying to help him out. That's not a big deal to me."
Even if Shazier can't be at Heinz Field for training camp, the wheels of his brain are churning with ideas to get in later this season.
"I know a lot of the coaches drink Pepsi, so I might sneak in as a Pepsi rep or something, so I can find a way into the stadium," he said. "As of right now, I'm just trying to impact people's lives. I was able to impact them on the football field, and if I can impact them off the football field, I think that's amazing also."