PITTSBURGH -- By all accounts, Sean Spence is a happy-go-lucky guy, but no one likely would chastise him if he stomped around with a dour face, slammed a few doors and kicked a few chairs.
That Spence still had a positive outlook when addressing the media this week for the first time since the Pittsburgh Steelers announced Nov. 6 that he was placed on the reserve-injured list to officially end his second NFL season.
"I wouldn't say that I was disappointed, but I would say that I was a little down about going back on IR," Spence said. "But I felt it was the right move. It was just the fact that I was able to go out there with the guys (in practice), and I felt comfortable. So, in time, I'll be back doing what I love to do."
That's what makes Spence so amazing. Few players likely have experienced the roller-coaster ride that he has endured since the Pittsburgh Steelers selected him in the third round during the 2012 NFL Draft. Spence was viewed as eventual replacement for veteran inside linebacker James Farrior, and the 5-foot-11, 231-pound Miami, Fla. product appeared to be progressing after a strong training camp and near the end of the 2012 preseason.
Then, disaster struck when Spence injured his left knee during the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers Aug. 30 at Heinz Field. And this wasn't just any garden-variety knee injury, either. It was catastrophic, as Spence tore the ACL and LCL, dislocated the kneecap and, most significantly, damaged the peroneal nerve that helps control movement in the lower leg. The injury was so severe that it threatened to end his NFL career before it began.
Spence told two Steelers media members during spring practice this year that he expected to play sometime this season and appeared to be on track when he practiced with his teammates Oct. 16 for the first time in some 14 months. That appearance was short-lived, however, and it had nothing to do with the knee. Spence broke the ring finger on his right hand and never practiced again.
"I got it caught on a facemask during the first day," Spence said. "At first, I thought I just sprained it, but when I went to the trainers they said that I broke it. I had a couple stitches put in, but no surgery. I couldn't tell you what else they did to it, but I only have a Band-Aid around the stitches now.
"That broken finger, it could have hurt my development, I guess, but things happen for a reason. And I'm not going to question it. So, I'm looking forward to next year. ... I need to still get better and continue to learn and watch film with the guys and just continue to strengthen my knee. I also can keep my conditioning up, doing cardio and go from there."
With such a great, positive attitude, this guy should be a motivational speaker if this NFL thing doesn't work out. But by observing Spence the past two years and listening to him talk, one shouldn't bet against him returning. It's difficult not to feel badly for him, because Spence was so excited just to be back on the field again with his teammates.
"I felt real good at that point, for being out of football for 14 months and to miss OTAs, camp, preseason and to jump right into a practice," Spence said. "I felt at home. I felt comfortable with a lot of the movements. And, like I've said, it gave me a lot of confidence heading into next year.
"Getting back out there and practicing and competing with the guys after 14 months, it gave me a lot of confidence and took a lot of stress off me, being up at night and wondering whether or not I would be able to compete at a high level. And after the practice that I had, it gave me a sense of comfort."
While there is some video footage of Spence's performance during the 2012 preseason, the most notable is the injury. Highlights from Spence's play on the football field primarily are as a member of the Miami Hurricanes. So, how badly does Spence want to make some highlights for the Steelers?
"Bad. So bad," Spence reiterated. "This has always been my dream, to make it to the NFL and to come to an organization like this that has the high caliber of great leadership and great linebackers. I had a couple setbacks, but I think in due time that I'll have my Pittsburgh highlights. (And) I should be ready to begin making those next spring."
Spence signed a four-year, $2.705 million contract in May, last year, and he is slated to make $590,000 in 2014. That was to escalate to $680,000 in 2015, and he would be a free agent in 2016.
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