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Steelers balance return to football normalcy as Damar Hamlin injury weighs on players' minds

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Cameron Heyward was at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati five years ago when Ryan Shazier’s NFL career ended with a spinal cord injury that temporarily crippled the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

Heyward and his teammates – a handful remain on the roster from this 2017 season – had to regroup and return to training a few days later. Four games remained in this season. It was a less than ideal situation for Steelers players to return to practice and play games knowing their close friend and “brother” was confined to a hospital bed after undergoing leg stabilization surgery. spine.

Heyward had no flashbacks to Shazier’s injury when McKees Rocks native and former Central and Pitt Catholic star Damar Hamlin collapsed during a Monday night game in Cincinnati and had to be resuscitated after a stoppage. cardiac.

“I was only concerned about Damar,” Heyward said before acknowledging, “Things happened on that ground.”

Although Hamlin does not play for the Steelers, he shared the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex with their players during his time at Pitt. And he counts quarterback Kenny Pickett and safety Levi Wallace as former teammates at Pitt and Buffalo, respectively.

The Steelers returned to practice Wednesday with Hamlin and his frightening injury still fresh in their minds. Just like it was five years ago with Shazier. Then, as it is now, the Steelers got back to football as they began training for Sunday’s season finale against the Cleveland Browns.

“It’s a freak accident,” Heyward said. “There is a risk, and you never think anything of this magnitude will happen.”

Five years ago, Shazier never passed out as he was taken by ambulance to UC Medical Center, the same trauma unit where Hamlin remains in critical condition. The fact that Hamlin had to receive CPR before being transported from the stadium was shocking for the players to understand.

“This game is scary at times,” center Mason Cole said. “It’s the nature of the game we play. Obviously, you never want anything bad to happen. Something like that, I don’t think any of us have seen anything like that before.

Pickett, who was co-captain with Hamlin at Pitt in 2020, said Hamlin’s injury was discussed at a team meeting on Wednesday before the team began training.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Pickett said. “When you sign up for this, you never expect it to be a possibility. Obviously this kind of stuff makes you dizzy, especially when it hits close to home with Damar. You have to focus when it comes time to “be at work. When you’re done, you check in and get updates. It’s a balancing act.”

One that affects veteran players as well as rookies. Wallace has spent the past four seasons with the Bills and was Hamlin’s teammate in the 2021 season when the sixth-round pick was selected before becoming a key secondary this season.

“It kinda bothers you,” Wallace said. “It’s different to see that. All you can do is hope the best for him and try to figure out why it happened and try to prevent it from happening again, if possible.

Pickett takes comfort knowing he has a locker room full of teammates to lean on for support. The NFL is an organization that employs more than 2,000 players each season, making it the largest “brotherhood” in professional athletics.

“Football connects like no other sport,” he said. “I played basketball. I played baseball. There’s something special about football. You go through so many ups and downs. It’s like family to me. The guys in the league check each other’s each other to make sure they’re okay too.

Wallace spent Tuesday – a day off for Steelers players – texting and talking to former Buffalo teammates to try to get updates on Hamlin’s condition without being too intrusive of their time. Wednesday was time to get back to work.

“We have one more game this week,” Wallace said, “and my teammates need my attention to be here as well.”

And so it’s Sunday that the Steelers will take to the field again — just as they’ve done 16 times this year in the regular season and countless other times in a player’s career. There will inevitably be injuries in the game but probably nothing as catastrophic as what happened Monday night in Cincinnati with Hamlin. Or five years earlier with Shazier.

“We understand the risks that come with it,” Cole said. “I think every day, every Sunday that we go there, everyone in their mind analyzes that risk. We love this game, love the life it gave so many of us, and it’s the job we chose.

“I don’t think anyone would choose another. I don’t think Damar would choose another. I think it was doing exactly what it was supposed to do.

Heyward, the Steelers’ longest-serving player, plans to take the same approach.

“At the moment, I can only continue to do my job,” he said. “I think other guys are going to do this, but everyone is thinking about this kid.”

Joe Rutter is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Joe by email at jrutter@triblive.com or via Twitter .


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