PITTSBURGH (AP) — It wasn’t so much a conscious decision Vince Williams made to wear teammate Ryan Shazier’s jersey during Steelers practice this week. And there wasn’t anyone who compelled him to do it, either.
For Williams, donning the No. 50 of his close friend while he’s in the hospital with a spinal injury just felt … right.
“I didn’t really think nothing of it,” said the veteran inside linebacker who started all 12 this season next to Shazier in the middle of the Steelers’ defense. “I didn’t really make a big deal out of it. … Nobody even commented on it. I just saw (Shazier’s practice piney) over there, and I put it on.
“I knew I was going to be calling the signals, so I just felt like (the defense) had been seeing `50′ in front of the huddle for so long, it would just be familiar to everybody.”
Williams has taken over the defensive playcalling duties for the Steelers this week in Shazier’s stead, but the past five days have felt anything but familiar to players who had to watch Shazier be carted off the field and ambulanced to a Cincinnati hospital early during Monday night’s win against the Bengals.
Now, during a short week of preparation for playing another division rival in Baltimore, Steelers players have thoughts of Shazier weighing on them. Shazier underwent spinal stabilization surgery Wednesday and remains in a Pittsburgh hospital recovering.
Arguably, when combining the personal and professional aspects of the situation, no player has had a more difficult week to adjust to than Williams. First and foremost is compartmentalizing thoughts and well-wishes for Shazier, his teammate and friend for four years.
“Honestly, as hard as it is, you’ve just got to focus on the mission at hand,” Williams said. “It’s a division game; it’s a chance for us to close out the division. So we’ve got to go out and do our jobs, really.”
Football-wise, Williams has spent his week getting re-acclimated to calling out the signals for a full game, as well as get a new partner at inside linebacker up and running with the position’s responsibilities: the left inside linebacker spot will be manned by a combination of Arthur Moats (an outside linebacker in four seasons with Pittsburgh) and Sean Spence (signed as a free agent Tuesday).
“(Williams) has been with this defense for (five) years,” Moats said. “He’s made the calls before, whether it was the preseason or during the season as well. So it’s not going to be unfamiliar for him. He’s a guy who’s very cerebral, an extremely smart football junkie, so he knows everything and knows what to look for pre-snap. I feel like he’s going to flourish.”
The fourth-longest continuously tenured player on the Steelers defense, Williams concedes that “it’s going to be hard” to focus on football. But he also recognizes the irony that while Shazier’s injury makes him realize football isn’t the most important thing, it also has made him appreciate it all the more.
“Everybody knows how much this game means to Ryan,” Williams said. “I can’t really say we are going to play for him, but there’s definitely a little added incentive because we understand that you can’t take this for granted. It’s a blessing to be able to play this game. And it’s a very violent game; at any moment you could suffer an injury.
“So you can’t take any game for granted, you can’t take any play for granted. You’ve just got to play as hard as you can while you have the ability to be able to.”