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Linebacker Ryan Shazier will not play in 2018 as he recovers from a spinal injury, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday at the scouting combine in Indianapolis.

“Ryan Shazier won’t play in 2018. He knows that and we know that. We’re going to continue to support him in his recovery,” Colbert said.

Colbert said it will be a challenge because the Steelers will be at 89 players, but “fortunately for Ryan he’s covered in that manner.”

“He will be part of our team officially and really unofficially because he’s still with us day-to-day as he rehabs. He involves himself in team issues so he can be a formidable member in 2018,” Colbert said.

Shazier said on teammate Roosevelt Nix‘s podcast, which was posted to social media last week, that he plans to play again.

Shazier, 25, underwent spinal stabilization surgery Dec. 6 after a tackling attempt on Monday Night Football in Cincinnati left him clutching his lower back. He was rushed to a local hospital and eventually transported to University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Shazier has used a wheelchair but is making progress in his rehab and was cleared for outpatient care on Feb. 1.

ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler contributed to this report.

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Deshaun Watson has asked Houston Texans to trade him, sources say



HOUSTON — Quarterback Deshaun Watson has requested a trade from the Houston Texans, league sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Thursday.

Watson made the request to the team weeks ago, sources told ESPN.

The Texans’ new head coaching hire, David Culley, has not and will not alter Watson’s thinking, sources told ESPN.

Watson hasn’t spoken to new Texans general manager Nick Caserio or executive Jack Easterby, sources told ESPN.

Watson, who signed a four-year, $156 million contract extension in September, is under contract through the 2025 season. He has a no-trade inclusion in his contract, but given the length of his contract and the possibility of franchise-tagging him for three years, the Texans could choose not to trade him and would have control of his rights through the 2028 season.

The trade request comes after Watson was reportedly unhappy with the process used by the team to hire Caserio in early January.

After Watson signed his contract extension last year, he was emotional as he discussed how happy he was to commit to the franchise and the city.

“It’s just an amazing moment for me to be able to extend my career in a location, in a place, in a home, I would say, that my family loves, that I love,” Watson said in September. “I want to continue to dive into the community most of all and just continue to build my legacy, just build our legacy as a whole and do something that we’ve never done before.”

Watson set career-highs this past season in passing yards, touchdowns and completion percentage. He also threw a career-low seven interceptions. His 33 touchdowns and 4,823 passing yards were also single-season franchise records.

The quarterback’s best individual season came in a season where the team went 4-12 and fired head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien after an 0-4 start.

Although he has played only four seasons (54 games), Watson’s 104 passing touchdowns and 14,539 passing yards rank second in Texans franchise history behind Matt Schaub (124 touchdowns and 23,221 passing yards in 90 games).

Watson is currently the NFL’s all-time leader in completion percentage behind New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. In 2020, he became just the 11th player in NFL history to complete at least 70% of his passes in a single season.

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NFL COVID opt-outs like the Browns’ Malcolm Pridgeon grapple with a season that wasn’t



THE CLEVELAND BROWNS were in the middle of their best season in decades, and Malcolm Pridgeon was sitting alone in his Dodge Durango outside the Berkshire Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in West Babylon, New York, thinking about better times.

When there was no pandemic, and the doors to the nursing home were open, Pridgeon would visit his mom during his breaks from football. He’d bring plain buttered bagels and chocolate milk for breakfast, and she always knew he was coming before he even walked into the room, possibly because 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive linemen do not walk softly. Her face would light up when she saw him, and she would almost always say the same thing. “Look, my football player’s home!”

Pridgeon didn’t play football this season. According to the NFL Players Association, he was one of 69 NFL athletes to opt out because of COVID-19 concerns. He never thought he’d do something like this, voluntarily sit out a football season. He believed that this was going to be his year. Maybe all players on the NFL margins think this way, that they’re one break away from making the 53-man roster. Throughout the spring and summer, Pridgeon was intent on playing. If he kept his mind occupied, he could block just about everything else out and forget how much he missed her.

Peggy Jean White died of COVID-19 on March 31 at the age of 60. She had a hard life. Her last conversation with her four children took place over the phone, except no one knew it would be the last time they would talk. Pridgeon and his siblings repeated, “We love you, Ma,” but they weren’t sure whether Peggy, who had tubes snaking out of her, had even heard what they’d said. She was laid to rest in front of a handful of mourners after a scramble to find a funeral home that would take her because the East Coast was being overrun by the coronavirus.

For most of his life, Pridgeon played football for his mother. He wanted to memorize the new playbook, and be the most-improved lineman on the team, because he figured that’s what his mom would’ve wanted him to do. He worked with two trainers on Long Island who said he was down to about 25% body fat by midsummer. He participated in the Browns’ virtual offseason workouts and trained with a purpose. “I wanted to play so bad,” Pridgeon said.

In early July, Pridgeon drove to Cleveland to get a jump on training camp. But something didn’t feel right. His blood pressure soared, and his mind wandered to worst-case scenarios involving his family and his health.

Pridgeon wasn’t the only one grappling with the risks of playing football during a pandemic. Three of the Browns’ offensive linemen opted out by Aug. 5, and two of them were guards like Pridgeon. Those developments, along with the possibility of in-season outbreaks and quarantines, increased the chances of Pridgeon possibly suiting up for a game. But on Aug. 6, the last day to opt out, Pridgeon decided he couldn’t do it. He informed Kevin Stefanski of his decision, and the first-year coach walked outside the facility to talk to him. Stefanski acknowledged that it had been a difficult year for him, and said he understood. He told Pridgeon to stay safe.

Pridgeon drove back to Central Islip, New York, where he lives with his older sister and his 10-year-old niece — isolated from his team and watching games on a living room couch.

“Of course I wish I was out there,” he said. “I can’t look back on it. That causes stress that I don’t need.

“I feel like if someone was in my shoes, they would’ve made the same decision I made.”

ON JULY 24, with training camp looming and the United States’ COVID-19 death toll surpassing 144,000, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to an opt-out amendment for the 2020 season. Players at high risk of COVID-19 complications such as those with diabetes, cancer or heart issues could sit out the year and receive $350,000 and accrue a season toward free agency, and players not deemed high risk could obtain a $150,000 stipend toward their 2021 salary (with no accrued season). All of their contracts would push forward to the 2021 season, when the pandemic would presumably be under control.

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, a starting guard on the Kansas City Chiefs‘ Super Bowl championship team, was the first one to opt out. Duvernay-Tardif spent months as an orderly in a long-term care facility in Canada during the early throes of the pandemic, and it gave him a different perspective of how COVID-19 stresses not only the infected but also the people and the health care system around them. “I cannot allow myself to potentially transmit the virus in our communities to simply play the sport I love,” he said in an announcement. “If I am to take risks, I will do it caring for patients.”

His teammate Damien Williams, who ran for 104 yards in the Super Bowl, opted out a few days later. Williams’ mom is battling stage 4 cancer, and he didn’t want to put her at risk. Thirty-six of the players who opted out started at least one game in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Others were like Pridgeon — young, undrafted and unknown. No quarterbacks, punters or kickers opted out. More than half of the list consisted of linemen, players who don’t substitute much and are constantly grabbing, touching and breathing on one another. Linemen are also larger beings who often weigh more than 300 pounds, which in some cases could be considered a co-morbidity.

But Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a sports medicine specialist and co-chair of medical affairs at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, said it’s impossible to assume anything about health-risk concerns or motivations. In an unprecedented year, with a pernicious virus that has claimed more than 425,000 American lives, everyone has to make choices, and there’s a different story behind each one of those choices.

To address players’ concerns, the NFLPA held a series of Zoom calls over the summer. Carl Francis, the NFLPA’s director of communications, said roughly 2,000 people were on the calls, which usually stretched past two hours. Some of the most-asked questions revolved around what happens if a player carries the virus home to his family, and the long-term impact of COVID-19 on an athlete’s body. Six months later, neither question can be fully answered. Yet the season prevailed through 16 regular-season games and the playoffs, all the way to next week’s Super Bowl.

“I really didn’t think they’d make it this far,” said Indianapolis Colts safety Rolan Milligan, who opted out to protect his young, high-risk family. “I knew they’d probably make it halfway, maybe a little past halfway through the season. Everybody did a good job of handling their business for the most part and being able to let the season play all the way through.”

The New England Patriots had eight players who opted out; the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers had none. Francis said he did not hear any stories of teams that tried to discourage their players from sitting out or threats that the decision would be held against them. Patriots receiver Marqise Lee, who opted out because of concerns over his baby daughter, said coach Bill Belichick wasn’t angry when he told him the news. He said Belichick called it a “grown-man’s decision.”

None of the six opt-outs interviewed for this story said he regretted his decision. These men found purpose in their season without football. Lee has been there for daughter Alia’s first word — Papa — first tooth and first steps. She turns 1 next month, born just before the onset of the pandemic in the United States. Buffalo Bills safety E.J. Gaines, who sat out because his fiancée survived cancer and his son has breathing problems, has been dabbling in the real estate business. He put a playground in the backyard and watches his children run around. New York Giants co-captain Nate Solder is working with Compassion International on an initiative called Fill The Stadium, which aims to provide food and medicine for 70,000 economically vulnerable children during the pandemic.

On a recent January morning, Solder was talking on the phone while his infant son let out a series of small screams, indicating that he was finished with his breakfast. Taking the season off seemed like a no-brainer for Solder, who has survived cancer and whose 5-year-old son, Hudson, has been battling cancer since he was a baby.

But when you’re giving up something so fleeting, something you’ve worked so hard for, it’s never easy to stop.

“In a lot of ways, I felt like I was letting my teammates down,” Solder said. “I felt like I was letting the new coaching staff down. The fact is, as a 32-year-old NFL player, it just hurts my chances of having my career trajectory take off at this point. I just have to trust in God and see where he leads me.

“Trust me, it was an internal tension. But once it became clear, the priority of my family’s lives, of our children and my in-laws and parents and all the connections in our community, man, I just value people more than I value my career in the NFL.”

MALCOLM PRIDGEON WAS 8 years old when his father introduced him to football. James Pridgeon would meet his son at the bus stop after school, and they’d toss a football around in the backyard. Malcolm couldn’t play youth football at first. He was told he was too big. James was a large man too, standing about 6-4, and he worked nights as a street sweeper. One day, when Malcolm was 11, James died of an aneurysm. He was 46 years old.

Malcolm’s mom was inconsolable. They were high school sweethearts, and she always said a piece of her went with him that day. Two years later, Peggy suffered a heart attack and a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Malcolm’s sister Kalisha Garrison, who is 15 years older than he is, assumed the role of family matriarch. She tried to work while caring for her brothers and her mother, but Peggy required around-the-clock care and her insurance paid for only six hours a day. It eventually became too much, and she had to move to the nursing home. She wasn’t happy about it at first, but when her children promised to visit often, and bring food, she became comfortable.

When Malcolm was recruited by Ohio State in 2016 after two seasons at Nassau Community College, he was conflicted. He didn’t want to leave, but he wanted to play for one of the best college football programs in the country and knew he had to go. So he left for Columbus, while his mother waited for him. Pridgeon started every game in 2018, his senior year, and graduated with a degree in human development and family science. When he signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Texans the next spring, Kalisha told Peggy that her baby was going to the pros. “It’s not just my baby,” Peggy told Kalisha. “It’s our baby.”

The Texans waived him in August 2019, and Pridgeon came back home, took two days off to decompress, and started working out at Xceleration Sports Training with John Furia and Steve Wilk, trainers who had become his friends over the years. Pridgeon’s agent, Eugene Lee, called a few weeks later and said that the Browns were interested in bringing him in for a workout. In September 2019, he was signed to the Cleveland practice squad. He was happy to be back in Ohio. His then-girlfriend, Emma Hnat, lived there, and Pridgeon was just an eight-hour drive from his mom. And after years of futility, the Browns were on the verge of finally contending.

“It was good times,” he said. “They treated me with respect. I just miss that, playing football and learning from the older dudes.”

PRIDGEON WAS CONSIDERED at higher risk because he suffers from hypertension, a condition that was so worrisome that it temporarily halted his football career in junior high. He had to sit out a season because he couldn’t get his blood pressure under control.

He did a lot of research on COVID-19 health risks this past summer and talked to just about everyone close to him — his girlfriend, his siblings, his trainers and his agent — about what he should do. “He was really conflicted,” Lee said, so he connected Pridgeon with Dr. Herb Martin, a psychologist who works with Lee’s agency, Vanguard Sports.

Pridgeon eventually told his sister he had a gut feeling that opting out was what he was supposed to do. She asked him how he felt. “I feel hurt,” he told her. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get picked to play on the team after I opt out.”

The decision weighed heavy for players in all stages of NFL life. Colts’ safety Rolan Milligan had been playing football since he was 4 years old. It had taken him three years and three teams before he was finally promoted to Indianapolis active roster in 2019 . And now he was going to opt out?

His girlfriend is due on Jan. 30, and her pregnancy is high-risk because she only has one kidney. She told him to play. “She knew how much playing meant to me,” he said. “She didn’t want to be the reason why I didn’t play.”

He couldn’t take the risk.

Chandler Brewer wanted to play so badly that he took an exit-row seat on a flight to California this past summer, slathered on the Germ-X and was intent on getting to training camp even though he was considered at higher risk. Brewer’s toughness is well-documented. His senior year at Middle Tennessee State, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, underwent radiation in between games and still played the entire season.

But his agent, Buddy Baker, consulted with a number of doctors, and they decided the risk was too great for him to play. To keep himself connected, Brewer, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Rams, held onto his team-issued tablet. He watched archived team meetings and game film for games he would never play.

“I don’t want to do nothing,” he said. “I’m coming back, and this is going to make me better, having rest and recovery. I’m going to be ready to go and not miss an inch.”

IF THERE WAS anything positive to be taken from 2020, it’s that Pridgeon got engaged. It happened in late December. He took his then-girlfriend to look at Christmas lights, and then he was down on one knee, and then Hnat said yes.

Then it was back to the reality of waiting. The second weekend of January, he was sitting in his sister’s living room in Central Islip on a Sunday night, watching football with his brothers. Pridgeon was wearing his Browns sweatshirt, a reminder of his life before the pandemic. Cleveland was on the verge of winning a playoff game for the first time in 26 years. A guard named Blake Hance subbed into the game, filling in for injured Michael Dunn, who was filling in for Joel Bitonio, who was on the COVID-19 list. Hance had never played in the NFL before and was acquired in Week 17 from the New York Jets‘ practice squad.

Pridgeon couldn’t help but wonder, on another cold night in isolation, what could’ve been. He couldn’t dwell on it anymore. He smiled and cheered and waited for better times.

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Trent Dilfer still bitter about split with Baltimore Ravens after winning Super Bowl XXXV



BALTIMORE — As the Baltimore Ravens celebrate the 20th anniversary of their Super Bowl XXXV triumph on Thursday, Trent Dilfer remains disappointed that he became the first quarterback not given the chance to defend his title.

On Jan. 28, 2001, Dilfer made a triumphant return to Tampa, Florida, where he left as a struggling first-round pick for the Buccaneers and came back to help the Ravens to a 34-7 win over the New York Giants. Two weeks later, Dilfer was informed that Baltimore intended to sign another starting quarterback in free agency.

“You know, I’ve been through a lot in my life and I try not to be bitter about anything,” said Dilfer, who is now a high school head coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’d say that’s one I’m still harboring a little bit of bitterness because of the why. It was so poorly evaluated on their behalf. They knew I was hurt.”

Dilfer, 48, plans to participate in the Ravens’ virtual reunion and speaks fondly of the camaraderie of that 2000 Ravens team. In going 11-1 as the starting quarterback — including 11 straight wins — he was considered the perfect complement to Baltimore’s historic defense by producing few turnovers and timely big plays, which included a 38-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Stokley in the Super Bowl.

But Dilfer only completed 47.9% of his passes in the postseason and heard the criticism that he was the worst quarterback to play in a Super Bowl. He estimated that he played at 65% to 70% because he was coming off a shoulder injury from the previous season and was dealing with osteitis pubis, an inflammation around the pubic bone and hip flexor muscle.

“There’s legendary stories of how bad I was in practice and they’re all true,” Dilfer said. “I had some of the worst practices in the history of football for a quarterback. If my high school quarterback practiced like I did sometimes that year, I wouldn’t play him. But I was hurt. There was a reason for it. It wasn’t that I was trying. I didn’t suck. I sucked physically.”

Dilfer, who had joined the Ravens on a one-year, $1 million deal, was a free agent after winning the Super Bowl and hoped he could return to Baltimore healthier than the previous year. As he waited in the airport with his wife to fly to the ESPYS, Dilfer received a call from offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh.

“He could barely talk. He could barely get it out of his mouth,” Dilfer said. “You’re their third choice in free agency. And I just went, ‘What?’ I was shell-shocked.”

The Ravens eventually signed Elvis Grbac to replace Dilfer after Brad Johnson, their top choice, signed with Tampa Bay. Baltimore was enamored by the big arm of Grbac, who had just gone to the Pro Bowl after throwing for 4,000 yards.

Dilfer said neither general manager Ozzie Newsome nor Brian Billick ever called him to inform him of the team’s decision to not re-sign him. Newsome and Billick didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

“That’s one of the few things that Brian Billick did that I didn’t agree with,” Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jonathan Ogden said. “Just give the guy a chance to come back and win his job. But it didn’t happen that way.”

Ravens defensive tackle Sam Adams said Dilfer earned the right to compete for another championship.

“I felt betrayed by them letting Trent go,” Adams said. “I was hurt by that. He was a great leader, he was a scrapper, and he was the consummate Baltimore Raven. If it wasn’t for Trent Dilfer, I don’t care what we did on defense — if it wasn’t for him coming in doing what he did — we would have never won a Super Bowl.”

Dilfer said he approached Newsome at the 10-year reunion of the Super Bowl team about not bringing him back.

“It didn’t go very far,” Dilfer said. “It doesn’t matter at that point, but it was a tough one. Still is tough because I do think that 2001 team was better probably from a talent standpoint and I would have loved to have been able to captain that ship.”

Grbac played only one season with the Ravens, losing to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. He retired after refusing to accept a $5 million pay cut.

“I’ll take a shot at Elvis because it doesn’t bother me at all,” Dilfer said. “The core value of that team was toughness. And Brian didn’t realize that. It wasn’t their coaching. It wasn’t their talent evaluation. It wasn’t all the things that they think it was. The core value of that team was mental and physical toughness and that’s who I am and that’s the opposite of who Elvis is. They set their identity back light years by getting it wrong.”

Dilfer remains the only Super Bowl-winning quarterback to immediately change teams.

After winning the Super Bowl with the Ravens, Dilfer played six more seasons, bouncing from the Seattle Seahawks to the Cleveland Browns to the San Francisco 49ers. He went 13-16 as a starter from 2001 to 2007 and never returned to the postseason.

Dilfer, who worked with ESPN as an analyst after his playing career, has kept his Super Bowl ring primarily in an underwear drawer over the years. He still hasn’t watched the Super Bowl win over the Giants from start to finish.

“It’s a period of my life that I’m so grateful for and sometimes I feel guilty I don’t think about it more, but I just really don’t,” Dilfer said. “I don’t identify with that. I identify with husband, father, coach. Now the one thing, I’m not stupid, is all that allowed for what’s happened in my life since. You can never undervalue enough how being a part of greatness helps accelerate your ability to do other great things in life.”

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