Ryan Shazier is a 230-pound NFL linebacker. He hits people for a living and, at 24, is one of the best young players at his position.
Believe it or not, though, he was bullied as a child. Why? Because at the age of 5, he was diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles. Shazier moved around as a kid, but no matter where he was, he couldn’t avoid the insults.
Some kids called him “Cueball” and “Chia pet,” while others asked if he had cancer or was dying.
Shazier’s parents never got involved. That was by design.
“One of the things my parents always told me was that I’m no different than anybody,” Shazier said on CBS Sports Radio’s Reiter Than You, “and that I’m always going to be myself and at the end of the day I’m not going to change and people are going to have to learn how to live it. So (they) wanted me to be able to learn how to live with (the disease). They just told me ways of learning how to laugh at some of the things bullies will say and just try to learn to live with it and let people understand that, ‘Hey, whatever you’re trying to say to me is really not that big of an issue. It’s not bothering me, so it shouldn’t bother you.'”
A few years after his diagnosis, Shazier, who starred at Ohio State, accepted his disease for what it was: no big deal.
“When I was 8 or 10, I really started getting comfortable with it,” he said. “And just knowing hey man, this isn’t going to change, so I might as well just accept it and just live with all the things that come with it. So about 10 years old, I started accepting (it). I just told people around me, ‘Hey, you’re either going to like me or you’re not.’ Then it got tough for me again because we ended up moving when I was in third grade. But that’s around the time I started to adjust.”
Interestingly, Shazier, who had been bald for most of his live, began growing hair toward the end of last season.
“I let it grow out and I let it grow as much as it can,” Shazier said. “Right now it’s not really growing everywhere because I still have alopecia. So right now, I’m just letting it grow out. Probably when the season starts back up, I’m going to cut it back down so it’s bald. But right now, I just want to grow it out and just continue to let people know what alopecia is. I want to let people know that, hey, I’m different. I really don’t care that I’m different. I’m happy for who I am.”
Shazier, a first-round pick in 2014, had 87 tackles, 3.5 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery last season, as the Steelers went 11-5 and advanced to the AFC Championship.
Ben Roethlisberger mulled retirement after the season, but Shazier never thought Big Ben would actually walk away.
“No,” Shazier said, “(but) I had to respect his opinion and how he felt because Ben’s played a lot more years than I (have). When you’re playing and (you’re) 10+ years in, it stars to weigh a toll on you. He’s a for-sure Hall-of-Fame quarterback, but honestly, I’m happy that he didn’t (retire) and I didn’t think he was going to. But I just still had to respect the fact that he thought about it.”