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"Bruh"

May 23 2017
Ryan Shazier
Pittsburgh Steelers
May 23 2017

I ’m in the elevator with James Harrison, Joey Porter and Arthur Moats the day after our game against the Cowboys last season. I remember it really well, because we were mad as hell that Ezekiel Elliott had run for 114 yards against us. So James and I are going through our usual routine of breaking down what went right and what went wrong. James is rattling off stuff when all of the sudden he stops talking. Just freezes mid-sentence and stares at the top of my head.

I’m looking at him like, What’s going on?

Then he says, “Bruh …”

You know that feeling when someone is just staring at you all wide-eyed and not saying anything? It’s the worst.

I’m like, “What? Bro, what?

He says, “Bruh … I think your hair’s growing out.”

That stops me cold. The week before, I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed something weird. My head didn’t look as smooth as usual. I ran my hand over my scalp a few times and could have sworn I felt a few rough spots. But, I mean … That’s impossible. I’ve had alopecia since I was 5 years old. I can’t grow hair, period.

Now here’s James saying he thinks he sees hair. I don’t know if he’s serious or just trying to mess with me.

So I say, “Come on, man, don’t play like that. Are you serious?”

Now Joey and Moats are looking at me, because they overheard what James said.

And then Joey says, “No, man … I think he’s right. I see it.”

I rub my hands over my scalp, and it’s even rougher than last week. I have hair. Not just little bristles. I’m talking hair. For the first time in 19 years.

Since the season was going on, I wanted to keep my routine. I was so used to not having hair that I shaved it smooth again. But once the season ended, I decided to let it grow out. I knew it wouldn’t turn into a full head of hair or anything. It was patchy and thin, but to me, it was still like a miracle.

Unfortunately, it’s 2017. We know the world we live in. So to some people, it was the perfect excuse to hit me with some hate on social media.

I knew it was coming, and I got it all. Search “Shazier hair” on Twitter and you’ll see the kind of ignorance that people with alopecia deal with every day. Some stuff was mean, and some stuff was funny as hell. At least to me.

After I went on NFL Network to do a little spot in their studio, somebody posted a screenshot of my head with the caption, “When you drop your lollipop on the carpet and pick it back up.”

Man, I was crying laughing. That’s just creative. I respect it. But that’s me. I’ve been dealing with those comments for 19 years.

My fiancée, though … That was another story. She would go digging in the comments to see what people were saying, and she took it hard. She just didn’t understand why people would be be so cruel for no reason, and why I wouldn’t want to respond to them.

One day, she read something and broke down in tears.

And that really took me back to my childhood, when I wasn’t such a vet in the troll game.

I tried to make her laugh to calm her down.

I was like, “Baby, you know I used to have a ’fro right?”

I really did. I had a full, thick baby ’fro. But when I was five, my hair started falling out. And not just on my head, either. I was young, so the only thing I can remember is that my pillow would have a bunch of eyelashes on it every morning. My mom would run her hand through my ’fro and come out with a handful of curls.

The first few doctors we saw didn’t know what was going on. I was too young to worry, but obviously my parents were scared to death that it was something serious. It wasn’t until we visited a dermatologist that I was finally diagnosed with alopecia.

The doctor explained to my mom that my immune system was attacking my hair follicles, forcing all the hair on my body to fall out. That’s pretty easy for a doctor to explain to an adult, but it’s not so easy for a five year old to explain to kids at school. Kids would ask me if I was dying, or if I had cancer. No matter how many times I told them I just had a thing that made my hair fall out, they’d still tease me.

That was hard for me, at first. I barely understood what was happening to my body, and kids were treating me like I was carrying some kind of plague. Sometimes I’d get angry and want to say something back. Other times I’d just want to cry.

I’ve met a lot of kids (and grown adults) with alopecia who still struggle with self-esteem issues. And I totally get that. ’Cause let me tell you: kids can be mean.

When I was nine, we moved from Ft. Lauderdale to Waco, Texas, so my father could complete his divinity degree and become a pastor. That meant I was going to be the new kid in school. Easy target.

I heard every insult you can think of …. Cueball. Patches. Chia pet.

The thing that allowed me to get through it was how well my parents handled it. They didn’t call those other kids’ parents to get them to stop, or yell at my teacher for not protecting me enough. That would’ve just made things worse, at least where I lived. They didn’t let me wear a hat or a wig. The alopecia wasn’t going to go away. I couldn’t hide from it, so I had to learn to live with it.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” my mom would say. “You just don’t have hair. Most kids do. That’s it.”

When we moved back to Ft. Lauderdale three years later, I was once again in that same situation. New school. New bald kid. New insults. Guess what? Florida kids aren’t any different from Texas kids.

Magic 8 ball. Cancer boy. Professor X (that one was kind of dope).

It just went on and on. And you know what I would do every time they fired off a new insult? I’d just laugh.

That’s how you win against a bully. That’s how you really piss them off.

Laugh. Smile. Don’t give a damn what they think.

Still, I was trying different treatments to stop my hair from falling out completely. One of them was a steroid cream I’d rub on my head and eyebrows. Unfortunately, with that stuff my hair only grew back in patches. That looked even worse.

The other thing I tried, when I was in high school, were cortisone shots. The shots were supposed to stimulate hair growth by suppressing the immune system around my head and eyebrows, since that was what was causing the hair loss. And it worked … a little. I’d get a few patches of hair back on my head and eyebrows, but damn if it didn’t hurt like hell.

Every two weeks or so, I’d show up to the doctor’s office, and he would come in with a tray full of needles. And I’m telling you, these weren’t thin needles. The doctor would tilt my head one way, and then jab the needle into my skull 15 times. Then the other side.

Seriously, 15 times. Each side. Every two weeks. For all of high school.

This is the kind of pain that some kids with alopecia go through. Then they get to go to school and deal with another kind of pain.

When I got to Ohio State, my mom asked me if I wanted to continue the shots. By then, I was at peace with it. I was comfortable with who I was. My teammates at Ohio State didn’t care. My coaches didn’t care. So I just embraced the baldness, and all the comments that come along with it. And it’s been that way ever since.

I was bald when I was chasing my dreams, and I was bald when I was living ’em. Who cares?

That’s my message to people I meet with alopecia who really struggle with it, and who won’t go anywhere without a hat. I know how tough it is. But I look at it this way — if your hair magically grows back tomorrow, it’s not going to change who you are as a person, or what you’re capable of, or who loves you.

I was the bald kid in high school.

Then I was the bald kid at Ohio State.

Then I was the bald guy in the NFL.

Don Wright/AP Images

Then I was standing in an elevator with James Harrison last Thanksgiving.

“… Bruh.”

I’ll never forget the look on his face.

I had some hair again. And I have no idea why. Like, this isn’t supposed to happen. I haven’t been doing the shots or the cream or anything for years. My hair just decided to grow back on its own, I guess.

And you know what? It didn’t change anything. I was amazed for like a day, but then I woke up the next morning, and I was still me, and I was like …

That Ezekiel Elliott, man. Damn.

Ryan Shazier
Pittsburgh Steelers