By Stephen D. Riley, Special to AFRO
The NFL has been under so much scrutiny the past few years for health concerns, domestic violence accusations and social issues that it feels almost unfair to pile on during a weak moment but heck, why not? The NFL Draft continues to be pimped out by the league at every opportunity. From guest appearances, prime time TV slots or extra media coverage, it’s all too much. You can stream, download and record the draft nowadays, and the NFL goes out its way to make sure it’s a Broadway performance. Sometimes they hit on good ideas and sometimes they backfire.
Two moments stood out during the draft that had my NFL fandom at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. After seeing Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier gingerly walk to the podium to announce the Steelers first round pick, it made me cringe. Shazier suffered a spinal injury in an otherwise routine play against Cincinnati late last season on Monday night football. The incident forced Shazier out on a stretcher, unable to walk. A few months later, there Shazier was on opening round on draft night, with the aid of his fiancé, walking to the podium like a recovering paraplegic.
NFL Network’s Scott Hanson, left, talks with Seattle Seahawks cornerback Shaquill Griffin, center, and Shaquem Griffin on stage during the NFL football draft in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, April 28, 2018. The Seahawks selected Shaquem in the fourth round. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
The moment received social media support worldwide, with players and fans broadcasting their support for Shazier. For me, at that moment, it made me want to pull my 7-year-old out of tackle football, never to return again. Just a few seasons ago, Shazier was creating his own NFL buzz, blazing a 4.36 time at his pro day shortly before the 2014 draft. Just four years later, he’s learning to walk all over again, looking like a retired soldier who’s been given a medical discharge after being injured at war.
Stories like Shaquem and Shaquill Griffin being reunited in Seattle were the best highlights of the weekend, helping me to erase the memory of seeing one of the fastest guys in the league reduced to walking like a 90-year-old. Shaquem and Shaquill, twin brothers who have played on the same football team all their lives despite Shaquem being born with only one functioning hand, restored my faith in the sport. Both sacrifice and strength were covered in the same story as Shaquill rejected a flurry of college offers from big time programs to stay united with his brother, forcing schools to offer Shaquem a scholarship as well if schools really wanted Shaquill. They starred at UCF together, and now Shaquem will begin his NFL career with Seattle, his brother’s team.
For every complaint we can find with the NFL, there are also several stories that remind us of how much the sport is loved. You have to take the good with the bad, unfortunately. Sadly for me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get Shazier completely out of my memory.