It’s not very often we see gaps bridged when it comes to divisional rivals. Especially in the AFC North, there’s almost too much bad blood to overcome no matter the situation. Well, there isn’t quite enough for Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson to not express his emotional support for Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who went down with a horrific neck injury earlier this month.
If you know anything about the AFC North, then you know that’s a big deal. Although the Browns aren’t exactly a team worth taking seriously at 0-15, they’ve never been too fond of their neighbors to the east. More often than not, the two squads take their fair share of cheap shots during the two times they meet every season. However, you won’t be seeing any of that from (or against?) Johnson when the two teams butt heads in Week 17.
Why? Because Johnson has been going out of his way to show his love for Shazier during this most trying time.
Since the Steelers’ defensive captain fell to injury on December 4, Johnson has foregone his opportunity to celebrate his touchdowns, instead using that brief window to take a knee and pray for No. 50. Nasty rivalry aside, the gesture proves that this is bigger than football.
Now there is a slight caveat to this — Johnson has only found the end zone twice since early December. Then again, that’s rather impressive when you consider how awful the Browns have been in 2017. That’s beside the point, though.
Here’s a video of the first time Johnson took to his knee, joining Team Shazier for a small sliver of time:
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 10, 2017
That came during the Browns’ overtime loss to the Green Bay Packers. Then, a week later against the Baltimore Ravens, Johnson again struck paydirt. Instead of praying on his own, though, he recruited a few of his Browns teammates to join the cause. Those players included Josh Gordon, Rashard Higgins, Seth DeValve, DeShone Kizer and Spencer Drango.
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) December 17, 2017
So why does Johnson do it? Although him and Shazier grew up in or near Miami, Florida, they didn’t go to the same college, don’t have a particular bond and aren’t long-time friends. They obviously play on two teams with a history of hating each other. And yet, there’s a very simple explanation behind the Browns running backs’ willingness to lend a knee for the fallen Steeler.
“I just do it and kind of move on,” Johnson said, via ESPN’s Pat McManamon. “Once again I’m not actually doing it for praise, for people to reach out. To me it’s bigger than that.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also chimed in with his thoughts during a Cleveland media call:
“It’s just great to be in a business where that gets highlighted. That happens all around us. Guys show class in a lot of ways, but for whatever reason in today’s sports society we spend a lot of time talking about negativity. … I tip my cap to him for what he’s doing.”
Now if you’re not sure what happened to Shazier, here’s a brief refresher.
During a Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Shazier went to tackle wide receiver Josh Malone, hitting his thigh with the crown of his helmet.
The former first-round pick immediately crumpled to the ground, needing to be stretchered off the field while showing almost no motion in his legs. Although initial reports were optimistic, Shazier eventually underwent surgery to address what was diagnosed as a spinal contusion. There’s still no word on a timetable, or if there’s even a future in football for the Steelers’ star linebacker. More importantly, though, the focus is on ensuring that his spine heals and he can return to living a normal life.
Prior to his terrifying injury, Shazier was having another outstanding season as the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh defense. In 12 appearances, he had compiled 89 tackles, 11 passes defended and three interceptions — all career highs. His efforts were enough to earn him his second Pro Bowl nod, although he obviously won’t be able to participate. Still, it was further evidence of the type of impact he has both on this Steelers team as well as on the rest of the league.
As for Johnson, he’s been one of the lone bright spots for a historically inept Browns club. Despite not starting a single game, he’s amassed a career-high 946 offensive yards while scoring on six separate occasions. He’s continuing to prove himself as one of the NFL’s most versatile and elusive running backs, even earning the local PFWA’s Browns Player of the Year award (via Cleveland.com). Johnson’s 68 receptions are the most ever by a Cleveland running back, and there’s still one game left to be played.
If Johnson does happen to find his way into the end zone on Sunday, you better believe he’ll be showing love for Shazier yet again. If the Steelers really want to show some class, maybe some of their defenders will throw caution to the wind and join him. Seems blasphemous, but it would be a true sign of solidarity among football players who simply want to see their comrade clear this hurdle.