PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ryan Shazier's locker sat untouched in a corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room Wednesday save for one little piece: his yellow No. 50 practice jersey, which found its way into the hands and over the shoulders of good friend and fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams.
While Williams and the rest of Shazier's teammates tried to go about the business of preparing for a visit from Baltimore on Sunday night that could clinch Pittsburgh's third AFC North title in four years, Shazier spent the day being transported from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to undergo further testing on a spinal injury that left his future murky and his teammates shaken.
"I think it's just weird without 50 here," rookie outside linebacker T.J. Watt said. "He's the heart and soul of this defense. He's the quarterback. It's just different not having him here in meetings and out there in practices. It's weird."
Pittsburgh signed Sean Spence, who spent three seasons with the Steelers after being taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, to fill Shazier's spot on the roster.
Tyler Matakevich could start in Shazier's spot against the Ravens if his aching left shoulder comes around in time.
Yet the void left by the relentlessly upbeat and charismatic Shazier both on the field and off will be more difficult to replace. Perhaps impossible. And Shazier's teammates know it.
While they've inundated him with texts and phone calls and tried to stay positive, the sight of one of the league's best linebackers on a stretcher, his legs motionless after a routine hit served as a jarring reminder of their own football mortality.
"It just brings it back to reality of how dangerous the sport truly is," linebacker Arthur Moats said. "A lot of times, especially with injury stuff like that, people just kind of get ... you get kind of 'Oh, we see it all the time, guys get hit all the time, guys get hurt all the time but it's nothing crazy.' When you see a guy go down like that, it kind of puts it into perspective like 'Oh yeah, it's real life.'"
Safety Mike Mitchell was 20 feet away when Shazier lowered his head to hit Cincinnati wide receiver Josh Malone in the back. Shazier bounced off and rolled over, pointing to the bottom of his back in obvious pain, his legs splayed awkwardly.
"That's my brother," Mitchell said. "When we walked out there, that was one of the things that really shook me up a little bit because Shay's tough as nails. When I look at him, he had tears in his eyes. I could clearly see he was really scared."
The Steelers seemed to spend the rest of the first half in a daze before rallying to win on Chris Boswell's last-second field goal . They remain guardedly optimistic about Shazier's prognosis while also a bit powerless. All they can do is sit, and wait, and play.
"You understand that the only way to do your job and help him with his recovery is make sure we go out there and execute, him not having to have that burden of 'Dang, the team's struggling. The team's doing bad. I got to hurry up and get back,'" Moats said. "I feel like if we just continue to be successful, that'll make it a little easier on him."
Trying to compartmentalize their jobs with concern for their friend isn't easy, especially when it remains unclear if Shazier will be able to walk again let alone continue a career that appeared on the verge of stardom up until the moment his helmet struck Malone's back.
Yet to a man the Steelers know this is what they signed up for, Shazier included. If he can't be alongside them, the next best thing they can do is honor him with their play.
"It sucks the injury that happened," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "I think the air was let out of the building for a while, but we understand we've got to keep playing.
"We know it's not easy. He was an integral part of our defense and our team. We keep him in our prayers. Keep in contact with him and then we try to focus on football."
NOTES: TE Vance McDonald (ankle) and Mitchell (ankle) practiced on Wednesday. ... CB Joe Haden (fractured leg) and Matakevich (shoulder) did not.
This story has been corrected to note Spence was taken in the third round of the 2012 draft, not the fifth round.
For more NFL coverage: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL