Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell was standing next to the table where Ryan Shazier was seated Thursday night when the call came from the NFL team who wanted to make this former Buckeyes linebacker its No. 1 draft choice.
After asking Shazier’s mom, Shawn, who was on the phone, Fickell texted his wife the name of the team that was going to select Shazier in the first round.
“Dallas,” the message said.
The Cowboys had the 16th overall selection and were all set to draft Shazier, a 6-foot-1, 237-pound linebacker with eye-opening speed. They were even on the phone with Shazier’s agent, Jimmy Sexton, when the Steelers ruined their plans.
“It was just amazing to see the 412 area code on my cell phone,” Shazier said. “Words can’t even describe it.”
The Cowboys were speechless, too. The player they intended to draft with their No. 1 pick was snatched away one pick earlier by the Steelers.
“I’m in the middle of writing a text that Dallas is going to take him and the phone rings and it’s the Steelers,” said Vernon Shazier, Ryan’s father who grew up a Steelers fan living in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area. “Good thing I didn’t send out that text.”
Then Vernon Shazier said, “I think he ended up in the right place.”
The Steelers certainly would agree. Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert were beyond delighted after they drafted Shazier (SHAY-zeer), citing his speed (4.38 in the 40-yard dash) and ability to makes plays as much-needed additions to the defense.
In just three seasons at Ohio State, Shazier recorded 315 tackles, 44.5 for a loss and registered 14 sacks playing inside and outside linebacker in the Buckeyes defense. In 2013, as a junior, he was the only player in NCAA Division I to have at least 100 tackles and 20-plus tackles for a loss. And he’s only 21.
“He’s a kid who really is just scratching the surface,” said Fickell, a former Buckeyes player who has been an assistant coach for the past 10 seasons. “I’ve been fortunate to have a few really, really good ones who were drafted high. There’s no doubt that, of all the guys I’ve been around, the guy who can make the most plays, who can really change the game, it’s him. He’s by far the best playmaker.”
Father pushes principles
Shazier grew up the son of a Baptist minister who also doubles as a motivational speaker. Vernon Shazier has been the team chaplain for the Miami Dolphins the past five years and is executive pastor at Mount Bethel Ministries, a nonprofit human services church in Fort Lauderdale.
On at least six occasions, he delivered a pregame motivational speech to the Buckeyes.
“I’ve got two boys and, on this earth, I’ve been teaching three principles — faith, integrity and discipline,” Vernon Shazier said Friday over the phone. “That’s pretty much what we talked about childhood to now — just live by those principles.
“Everything goes back to the values he’s been taught, I just challenged him, whatever he does, to do it to his best ability and maximize every opportunity he’s given. Everybody has gifts. Everybody has opportunities. But not everyone maximizes what God has given them.”
What kind of person is Ryan Shazier?
In a 2012 game against Penn State, he wore a No. 48 jersey to honor Gary Curtis, his team manager at Plantation High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. Curtis succumbed to muscular dystrophy a few months earlier and Shazier thought he could help bring more awareness to the disease by wearing a different uniform number.
Curtis never played football because of his illness, but he always wore a No. 48 jersey to games. He befriended Shazier and the two stayed in touch.
“I just wanted to honor him because he never got to play, so I just wanted to play through him and let people understand what the disease is about,” Shazier said.
When Ohio State linebacker Curtis Grant had to return home to Virginia in October because of the death of his father, Shazier asked coach Urban Meyer to allow him to accompany his teammate for support.
And when safety and team captain Christian Bryant had his season ended with a broken ankle in October, Shazier decided to wear Bryant’s No. 2 jersey the rest of the season.
“He was the main guy,” Shazier said of Bryant. “He was the guy who could everybody going and a rah-rah guy. Just to see him hurt, it was just deep in my heart. I feel like I had to do something about it.”
The Steelers did not enter the first round of the draft thinking they would take Shazier.
They intended to draft Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, thinking he could still be available with the 15th overall pick. Gilbert would provide a need at a position where longtime starter Ike Taylor is in his final season with the Steelers and there is little depth.
But when the Browns took Gilbert at No. 8, the Steelers shifted their target to wide receiver Odell Beckham of LSU. But, when the Giants drafted Beckham with the 12th overall pick, the Steelers made the move to take Shazier, even though they have three young players who they think can play next to Lawrence Timmons on the inside — Vince Williams, Sean Spence and Terence Garvin. Williams, the incumbent starter, and Garvin were rookies in 2013.
The Steelers had Shazier rated so much higher than anyone else on the board they felt they couldn’t pass on him.
“He’s about the team,” Fickell said. “He’s a big-picture guy who does anything we ask him to do. In this world, that’s not always what you get with some guys.”
By drafting Shazier, that will allow the Steelers to move Timmons from the “mack” position to the “buck” — the inside linebacker who typically lines to the strong side. The buck linebacker also is responsible for calling the defensive signals for the front seven, though Timmons handled that role in 2013 at the “mack” after Larry Foote had a season-ending injury in the opener.
More important, because of Shazier’s speed, the Steelers also think they can keep Troy Polamalu at safety rather than move him to linebacker in their dime defense.
“What we needed was a defensive playmaker,” Tomlin said. “He fits the bill in that regard.”
When he was 5, Shazier developed a skin disorder called “alopecia,” which causes hair loss. As a youth, he was teased and taunted because “I was the only little kid walking around with a bald head.” The insults wore on Shazier and damaged his self-esteem.
But, with the help of his mom and dad, Shazier learned to deal with the verbal jabs and develop an even temperament.
“It was kind of tough because kids are mean,” Shazier said. “Kids pick on you and say things that will hurt your feelings, but I just embraced it. I feel like, if you don’t like me for who I am, then there’s a problem with you. I feel like it’s my signature now. I love having alopecia. Having a bald head actually saves me a lot of money.”
Pretty soon, he will have lots of it to save.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.