How Michelle Rodriguez Shazier became the strong one, and helped light the way for other caregivers.

Michelle (Rodriguez) Shazier, a former University of Texas (Arlington) basketball player, graduated with a sports and exercise science degree in 2014.

She had moved back to her hometown of Arlington and started her career working with special needs children. Rodriguez, a focused young woman, said she had little time or interest in social media.

“So, I was new to the Instagram scene,” she jokes. “My friends made my Instagram for me a little before I graduated college because I was like, ‘What is this?’

Scrolling, not Trolling

She was scrolling through the app one day and found a photo of the cutest baby, so she gave it a “heart.” “I didn’t know the mom, didn’t know the dad, just liked the photo and kept moving,” she says.

A couple of days later, Ryan Shazier messaged her on Instagram and said she had a beautiful smile, “or something like that…like a line that most men do,” she laughs. “And I ignored him.”

Instagram indicates when a person has opened and read your message. So Shazier messaged her again, asking why didn’t respond.

She retorted, “I don’t know you.” Michelle’s friend encouraged her to go to Shazier’s page. She did and discovered he was the father of the baby she liked a photo of AND a football player in Pittsburgh.

Never Say Never

“That’s never going to work out,” she relates. “I’m in Texas, and I played college basketball. And, you know how guys in that (pro football) world have that stigma of a lot of women?” she asks, then continues, “I thought, ‘Yeah, no, it’s OK.’”

But Shazier, as we all now know, doesn’t fit any conventional molds. He nudged a little more, and Michelle relented a little. “We started having DM (direct message) conversations,” says Michelle. “We were both going through some things (at that time), and I was really into my Bible.”

From DM To Voice

Ryan Shazier wound up giving Michelle his phone number, and after some prodding from her best friend, to send him a random, anonymous text, Michelle sent him a Bible verse.

“He instantly messaged back, ‘Michelle?’” she says. “He knew because he Googled my area code. And that’s how we really started talking. As real friends.”

Michelle comes from a very traditional family. As Ryan and Michelle developed more feelings, she still hadn’t told her family.

But Michelle remembers watching The Steelers play the Broncos with her family. “And it was so funny because I was with my dad and brother then, and I didn’t care for football.”

The game was a 2015 playoff game, and Michelle’s family was still in the dark about her budding relationship with #50 on the Steelers, Shazier.

Nobody Knows…Yet

“We were watching the game, and my dad says, ‘Man, that number 50 is really good from the Steelers!’”

Michelle continues, “In my mind, I’m dying laughing,” she says. She agrees with her dad, and then her mom adds, “He’s really athletic and really fast!”

The Steelers lost the game, and Ryan called Michelle, saying The Steelers were done with the season and his next venture would be to meet her in person. Michelle hesitated but agreed, only if Ryan would come to Texas.

Michelle told her parents about Ryan a week before he arrived in Texas.

“They were all skeptical at first, but once they met Ryan, they grew to see how genuine he is,” explains Michelle.

Ring It Up

As the new football season was about to begin (2016/17), Ryan proposed, and Michelle joined him in Pittsburgh. “He had already told my parents that he wanted to propose,” she admits, “but he didn’t want to wait. So, four months after our first face-to-face meeting, I was engaged and on my way to Pittsburgh from San Antonio.”

This alone was a huge transition for a 23-year-old woman.

And she hadn’t fully grasped that at 23 she would become a part-time stepmom to Ryan’s son, RJ. “I literally became a stepmom to a one-year-old before I became a wife and a mom,” sighs Michelle.

In the very beginning, Michelle let doubts creep in.

Primetime SCI

But then came December 4, 2017, a Monday Night Football Game against The Cincinnati Bengals.

Number 50 was having another outstanding year; he was coming up on his contract year, and reports were that it would be one of, if not the largest contract offered to a linebacker.

Shazier made a tackle and immediately knew there was something wrong. He couldn’t feel or move his legs, and due to scoliosis, he suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) at the apex of the curve of scoliosis: the weakest part of his spine. The cord compression was around his mid-back.

(Read Ryan Shazier’s inspirational story in his memoir, “Walking Miracle.”)

New Role: Caregiver

And just like that, Michelle Rodriguez became an instant caregiver to her fiancé.

“A lot of things changed when Ryan got hurt,” says Michelle. “Everything changed for both of us, for all of us. We started to realize what was important and what wasn’t important.”

Michelle and little RJ’s mother became a united front, putting little RJ and Ryan at the center of their lives. “Because at the end of the day, we all wanted what was best for Ryan and for RJ,” Michelle explains.

Faith Foundation

Michelle and Ryan, both Christians, also found themselves leaning into God. “When you’re in the limelight; when you’re having the best year of your career, you kind of need a guy who says, ‘Hey, let me humble you a little bit,’” explains Michelle.

“And it’s then you realize what truly matters,” she continues. “And that’s your family, your health, the people around you.” The injury also illustrated to the couple who their true friends were, not those who were “football friends.”

But it wasn’t all “unicorns and rainbows” for Michelle. She had already pivoted a few times in their relationship. But becoming the full-time caregiver for her 6’1”, 200 lb. fiancé was overwhelming.

Room “Rat”

“I stayed with him at the hospital pretty much every night,” says Michelle, “whether it was UPMC Presbyterian or UPMC Mercy Inpatient Rehab.”

Ryan had lost weight, was pale, and very unsure. Michelle calmed his fears, warded off some of his “crazy talk,” and ran interference against any negativity, whether that was coming from medical staff or other “well-intentioned” people.

“But, you know, it was hard being his primary caregiver because, as they say, people lash out at those that are closest to them,” Michelle says quietly. “And we had both already been through so much, and we were so young.” (The couple was about 25 years old then).

Friendly Fire

Michelle says Ryan would get frustrated and would then snap at her with what they both knew was misplaced anger.

“It would hurt my feelings, but I didn’t let him see that,” she says because at the time Ryan was very dependent on her. “Whenever I would leave, he would say ‘Are you coming back?’” she says softly.

“And those are the moments I would just let go, cry sometimes, just because I know he’s hurting,” she admits.

Nobody Knows

And in the same breath, Michelle says she didn’t know precisely how Ryan felt because she never was paralyzed. “People don’t know, Ryan. I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to help you,” is what she would remind him.

“And when people would say, ‘I’m sorry, I would have done this,’ I would think, ‘No, you don’t know what you would have done in that situation!’”

As Ryan’s primary caregiver, Michelle was wearing multiple hats, including the therapist’s hat. “We would talk, and I was doing multiple things that I was thrown into, but at the end of the day, like–we always say this–it made our relationship stronger.”

Souls Laid Bare

Michelle says she saw when Ryan was at his weakest and his lowest. We had to switch roles because I was always the Debbie downer!” she says, “Where Ryan was always super positive.” Now, they are both positive people.

While Michelle was grateful for the abundance of support Mercy gave to Ryan to protect his privacy and ensure he had his teammates’ support, she also realized there wasn’t anywhere she could go for support or information as a caregiver.

Like anyone else that suffers an SCI, Michelle and Ryan were new to this world and wondering what the next step would be.

Blanketing Support

Michelle admits Ryan had more rehab time than most SCI warriors (a catalyst for The Fund), and they were surrounded with many medical pros intent on helping him get better.

“But we had no outlet for people to be like, ‘Oh, we know how you feel,’” she says. “There was nowhere for us to go for practical advice or just a place for me to go where someone knew how I felt as a caregiver,” says Michelle.

“No one knew how it felt for me. No one knew how I felt as a caregiver,” she emphasizes. “I know for sure no one knew how I felt.”

“Being who Ryan is, we had a lot of support,” says Michelle. But also, being who Ryan and Michelle are together, it’s clear the Lord was leading them to something bigger than they expected.

Behind the Scenes

So, while Ryan made his first public appearance after the injury announcing The Steelers’ 2018 Draft Pick five years ago. And in May, 2019, Michelle Rodriguez became Mrs. Shazier as she danced with her husband at their wedding.

Their journey together started unusually and was never conventional. Looking back, though, Michelle says it “makes me feel excellent! It was hard,” she admits. “But I always knew that he was going to walk again. Never in my mind did I ever think that he would never walk again.”

And while Ryan was rehabbing and Michelle was caregiving (and step-momming), Ryan and Michelle were gathering a new team together, this one to support the SCI and Caregiver community.

Up and Running

The Ryan Shazier Fund For Spinal Rehabilitation is in its third year and is growing in both scope and service. Michelle Shazier is the chair of The Caregivers’ Working Group, a group dedicated to developing “the support and connection to resources that allow caregivers to attend to their own needs, too.”

“I want to tell caregivers, ‘You’re not alone, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and you’re going to see how strong you are as an individual: emotionally, physically, mentally,’” offers Michelle.

“I tell (Ryan) all the time, you’re reaching and touching people that you would never have touched playing football,” Michelle says.

“God is continuing to bless Ryan,” says Michelle. “I feel like Ryan’s injury humbled him to realize what really matters. He’s touching people that I don’t think he would ever have touched if he was still playing football, just football.”

“People look at him as Ryan, he was a great football player, but Ryan, he’s a better person.”