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America's game and the sad case of Sean Spence

"What makes games great, what makes team’s great, are these little stories…" –Troy Polamalu

The America’s Game series by NFL films documents the trials and tribulations of every SuperBowl winning team, and it is by far one of my favourite things about the NFL. In fact it is one of the principal reasons I became a fan in the first place. I lived with an Eagles and a Bucs fan some years ago and maintained a somewhat critical and typical British demeanour toward the sport, "it’s too stop and start…takes too long….action lasts for about 5 seconds at a time".

However Sky Sports began to show the America’s game shows once a week , and I thoroughly enjoyed the drama. The shows made for incredibly gripping and emotive TV, because there always seemed every year to be an incredible person or story(s) line permeating the narrative for every team. Stories that made you fist pump, whoop or often as not tear up. From there my interest grew and eventually snowballed into what it is today, at worst an obsession and at best a passionate interest.

A couple examples of my personal favorite America’s game moments; Jermaine Lewis returning a kick for a TD whilst pointing up to the sky ,only two weeks after the stillbirth of his son Geronimo, a feat he would soon repeat in the Superbowl. It annoys me how much I enjoy the 00’ Ravens America’s game.

Drew Brees holding the Lombardi trophy aloft as confetti rains down, whilst Bruce Springsteen croons "When the Saints go marching in" in the background. A lovely moment post-Katrina and New Orleans first ever Super Bowl.

Ben Roethlisberger handing the Bus the game ball after the 2005 Super Bowl, telling him that’s the last one, after promising to get him to the Super Bowl one year previously. Joey Porter Telling Jerome he can run out onto the field by himself in front of his home town. That whole 2005 Steelers America’s game is absolutely brilliant, it still gives me chills, and it’s the reason why I arbitrarily chose the Steelers as my team to support.

There's no doubting America’s game makes for great TV.

But it seemed a little implausible that almost every winning franchise had these incredible stories season after season, year after year.However I began to realise that winning teams didn’t just happen to have fantastical uplifting stories, they won because of them. Championship teams need something to fight for, something to fight through, or something to fight against, and sometimes all three. Motivation and inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, and in the aftermath of a Superbowl Victory it often very easy to identify, and occasionally manufacture the uplifting and heart-warming narratives.

Because of the preponderance of stirring America’s games, it seems impossible and undesirable for a team to win without a nice wee story to latch on too. For this reason my friends and I generally grant the premature winner of the Super Bowl to the team with the most extraordinary story. When Ray Lewis announced his pending retirement I pegged the Ravens as the winners, because that story writes itself. I crowned the Colts this year, because of Chuck Pagano’s recovery and defeat of cancer/ young upcoming quarterback, so I was a little off base on that one. Then I had Peyton Manning riding of into the sunset quieting his "choke" critics after the best season in history, so I was a little off on that also. Blame the Seahawks and their relative storylessness! Unless you buy into the "we are all so undrafted, look at the size of these chips on our shoulders, they’re absolutely frikin’ massive!" storyline.

Thus in a roundabout fashion brings us to the sad story of Sean Spence, a sad story that has the potential to become a tragedy or a triumph. Drafted in the 3rd round in 2012, Spence had a lot of promise coming out of Miami as a fluid athlete, as well as a competent coverage and run stopping ILB. Some hoped he could become the three down compliment to Lawrence Timmons many had been waiting for. However during a pre-season game in his rookie season he suffered one of the most gruesome injuries I have ever witnessed. The total tally was a torn ACL, LCL, dislocated knee cap and a severely damaged peroneal nerve. All in all, it would be fair to say that many including myself assumed he was finished in the NFL. The damage was brutal and in particular the nerve damage presented a real road block for hopes of a full recovery.

However to his credit he began to rehab and stage a recovery attempt. After missing his first two seasons he is still on the team’s roster and projects to be there in training camp.

My head tells me that Spence is finished. There is no way he ever makes it back from this. The damage was so severe that he will never recover. If he recovers enough to perform physically, there’s no way he can possibly contribute at the level required of an NFL starter, even a situational player. Maybe he can be a special teams gunner, probably not. It’s nothing more than a pipe dream to hope he will play again.

Kevin Colbert recently said that he had one great day of practice which is definitely encouraging. His trainer said that "he had everything back but his burst", also encouraging to hear. However the trainer continued to say "if that nerve keeps coming back the way it has been there’s a chance he can play this season. I’m keeping my fingers crossed".

Now I’m not holding up what the trainer has said as definitive proof of what stage Sean Spence is at in his rehabilitation. But if he is saying words like "if" is his nerve continues to improve, there’s " a chance" he plays this season, and "fingers crossed" then that really does not inspire confidence. If Spence doesn’t make any headway next season I really don’t know what the future holds for him.

That is what my head is saying, my heart on the other hand…

Screw it, I admire the hell out of you Sean Spence. Be all you can be. Work your arse off and don’t give up, make this team if it kills you. Who cares about drop foot, nerve damage, torn ACL’s or dislocated knee caps, get it done and get yourself a spot on the roster if it’s the last thing you do. Come back, if it’s this year or the next, and rack up 180 tackles and 20 sacks, and prove my cynical disbelieving head wrong. And even if you don’t make it back, who the hell cares you gave it your best shot.

The quote at the top of this article is from the 2008 Steelers America’s game. Troy Polomalu is discussing the tense thoughts running through his head prior to his magical pick six in the AFCCG, and then again during the Cardinals final drive in the Super Bowl. I included it because it’s a sentiment I whole heartedly agree with. These little stories not only make games and teams great, I would say it is what makes the entire sport as enjoyable as it is.

Imagine for one second Sean Spence makes a full recovery and subsequently makes the team next year, or perhaps the year after. Imagine he is a special team’s gunner, a situational LB or even a starter. That in itself would be truly inspirational. Imagine somewhere along the line he makes a big stop, a sack or an interception. That’s the sort of thing that pulls a team together and inspires them to greatness. It would be a story to top all stories. As triumphant as it is heroic, as fist pumping in nature as it is tear jerking. In fact in this America’s game logic it would all but guarantee a Super Bowl…wouldn’t it?


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