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Steelers LB Ryan Shazier embraces what makes him different

LATROBE, Pa. -- Ryan Shazier blew by one receiver. Then another. Antonio Brown fell off partway through, and when Shazier -- the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker -- was done officially out-racing the Pittsburgh Steelers' receiving corps, one of his teammates cackled, "It's because he has no hair!"

Shazier doesn't know if hairlessness caters to the law of aerodynamics, but he laughed anyway. It was a laugh, after all, two decades in the making.

Shazier is the Steelers' third-year linebacker, a 15th overall pick who's started two years already, but who pronounced at the start of training camp this July: "This is going to be my breakout year."

It's a long line of game-altering linebackers here in Pittsburgh. Shazier's selection was sandwiched between two other first-round linebackers (Jarvis Jones in 2013, Bud Dupree in '15), he plays inside next to a fourth first-round linebacker (Lawrence Timmons, 2007) and takes daily lessons from the dean of NFL linebackers, James Harrison. And yet, the way Shazier plays inside linebacker, the way he can seamlessly go from blitzing to covering, the way he can blow up a block, crush a tailback and outrun a receiver, it all has the potential to redefine the position.

Of course, definitions have never been a big part of Shazier's worldview.

Shazier has alopecia. It's an autoimmune disease that attacks hair follicles. It has robbed Shazier of all the hair on his body, save for a tiny clump under his chin, a thin line above his upper lip and, he says, a spot in his armpits. He's been the boy without hair for as far back as his memory takes him, and yet, in his head, he was never really The Boy Without Hair.

"You don't see 5-year-olds who are bald. And people make fun of people who are different. That's just the way the world is," he says, matter-of-factly and without rancor. "But at the end of the day, I thought I was a lot of other things. I was big. I liked to talk. I was healthy. My parents told me over and over again that there was nothing wrong with me."

And when those other little kids tried to chip at his self-esteem, the Shaziers told their older son to do one thing: laugh.

"That would make kids so mad," he says, smiling as he thinks back. "I used to laugh so much. Even still now, I laugh. I'm not sick, so why not?"

This is one of the reasons, Steelers veteran linebacker Arthur Moats says, Shazier is so likeable. That and, as Moats says, "Have you seen him play?"

Shazier is of that breed that genuinely loves the game of football. There's nary a groan after a three-hour training camp practice. The abandon with which he plays recalls a sandlot game in grade school, which is where he was when he says he decided he loved defense.

He's never had much interest in offense. And even though he has the speed -- and the height -- to play corner, he's never been drawn to splashier positions.

"I like hitting and I like being in the mix of everything," he says.

That's where he's been all camp. If a player can dominate practice, it's been him, from the crunching backs-on-'backers drills (where a linebacker takes on a running back or tight end, straight on) to the full 11-on-11 periods.

Before the legendary Dick LeBeau was ushered out of town, following the 2014 campaign, and Keith Butler was promoted to defensive coordinator, Butler was the linebackers coach. He admits he'll always be hardest on this group. He speaks critically about Shazier needing "to develop his mind a little bit more." And yet, he unflinchingly says, "He's going to be a lot better than he was last year."

Last year was a revelation in some ways. In Week 2, against the 49ers, Shazier was essentially the "spy" on San Francisco's absurdly athletic quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. He freelanced on occasion, he resembled a safety on others and he, in general, defied what the Niners expected to see. Shazier finished with 15 tackles, including a sack. He also forced one fumble and recovered another.

Butler, a starting linebacker himself for nine of his 10 pro seasons in Seattle, dances the line of giving Shazier free rein while impressing upon him the rules of reliability. Shazier says, in truth, he takes fewer chances now. In Year 1, he was apt to use his speed to get underneath a block. In Year 3, he's more apt to take the block head on.

"Coach Butler says if I'm going to do that, I better be sure I can make the play -- or I'm hurting the defense. He doesn't yell at me, but I know he's not a big fan," Shazier acknowledges.

Butler has had Shazier call the defense and set his teammates since last season. It's certainly a responsibility, Shazier says, and one that netted some, as he put it, "growing pains," a year ago.

"I made some mistakes. But Coach Butts puts trust in me, he knows I know the defense and I have to be better this year," Shazier says. Frankly enough, he admits the toughest part is not being able to loaf after a play; he has to hustle back to the huddle to give everyone their assignment.

If there is a criticism of Shazier, it has nothing to do with calling plays. He's missed 11 games in two years and has been a regular on the injury report. He had issues with his knee and then his ankle as a rookie. Last year, it was a shoulder, then a knee and then a concussion. He didn't miss a game in three years at Ohio State, though, and the injury-prone label, Shazier says, "pisses me off."

"Some people say I play too hard, but that's how I play. Troy played the same way," he says unapologetically, referencing the last great position-bender the Steelers had, Troy Polamalu. "I'm not going to change who I am."

His teammates, head coach Mike Tomlin -- none of them are censuring his style, either. He has a knack for the big play; he was the one who stripped Bengals running back Jeremy Hill in the playoffs last January, setting up the game-winning drive that pushed the Steelers to the Divisional Round.

Shazier turns 24 six days before the Steelers' Monday night opener at Washington. He has a young son, he's engaged to be married (and wears a ring to show it) and his parents have entrusted him with his younger brother. Vernon Shazier II is going to a community college in Pittsburgh. His older brother, to explain the living arrangement, says, "We're four years apart, so we couldn't be really close when we were growing up. This way we can be."

This desire for closeness, for connection -- it's all part of Shazier's shaping, too. It was in this past year when Shazier sought out Charlie Villanueva. A star at UConn before embarking on an NBA career that has lasted over a decade, Villanueva too has alopecia, and drew headlines when he accused Kevin Garnett of mockingly calling him a "cancer patient." Shazier said he asked the basketball player about outreach; Villanueva told him about a yearly gathering of the National Alopecia Areata Foundation, and in the offseason, Shazier spoke to the group, children and adults alike.

"I've been in sports, so I've always had people around me, and people who've had to accept me. If you don't have it, it's harder," he says. "I really believe God gave me alopecia so I can help other people. Just because you're not the same doesn't mean you're less."

He knows how this platform that is the NFL can help. And he does feel a keen sense of responsibility to do something -- to speak, to motivate, to simply show that different is not other. Off the field. Because on the field, he wants different. He wants unique, he wants distinctive, he wants, he says, immortality.

"I want to be the best linebacker on the field every time I play," he says. "I want to be my best me and I want to make it to the Hall of Fame."

And if it sounds far-fetched? Bring on the naysayers, he says: "I like that kind of pressure. I feel better when people doubt me." And then he offers Exhibit A, that footrace this past June against the Steelers' wide receivers.

"Coach Tomlin said there were 10 guys on the team faster than me. I said, 'No way.' He picked three," Shazier says. And then he stops. Because, well, the point is made.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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