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Steelers Sean Spence early front-runner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year

Just getting on the field in Week 1 should serve as enough reason for Steelers linebacker Sean Spence to win the 2014 NFL Comeback Player of the Year. The third-year player who cried himself to sleep after another devastating injury is as inspirational a story as this franchise has told.


Originally run as part of BTSC's The Renegade, a 2014 season preview

"She was right, old man. You ain't goin' nowhere!"

"You're 5 feet nothin', a 100 and nothin', and you got hardly a speck of athletic ability."

Those quotes are from inspirational sports movies--Invincible and Rudy, respectively--that champion two underdogs who defeated very long odds to reach their dreams.

In the mid-70s, Vince Papale, a Philadelphia native, was 30 years old, a teacher and a part-time bartender who couldn't seem to find full-time employment. Down on his luck, he attended an open tryout held by new Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil. Papale so wowed the coach with his 4.5 speed, Vermeil invited him to training camp. Weeks later, Papale inexplicably made the final cut and wound up playing three years as a special teams ace for the football team he grew up rooting for.

In the early 70s, Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger was already in his mid-20s and far too undersized (5-foot-6, 185 pounds) to even dream of ever donning a Notre Dame uniform and getting into a game for the college football team he grew up adoring. But through hard work and total dedication, Ruettiger earned admittance to the college he loved, and in 1974, he landed a spot on the Fighting Irish scout team. In 1975, Ruettiger's senior season, he was allowed to dress for the team's final home game at South Bend against Georgia Tech. He also managed to get in for three plays and, again, inexplicably, recorded a sack in the final seconds and was then carried off the field on the broad shoulders of his teammates.

Two great real-life stories that made for two great heart-tugging movies.

America loves the underdog, and Papale and Ruettiger certainly fit the bill.

But a linebacker who was a four year starter at a signature college football factory, gets picked in the third round of the NFL Draft, and possesses pretty much all the physical attributes one could want (4.7 40 time and a 33.5 vertical jump, just for starters), those guys aren't underdogs.

In fact, the expectations are generally for those types of draft choices to "get it" sooner rather than later and become productive starters at the pro level.

Such was the case for Sean Spence, an inside linebacker from Miami that the Steelers selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

For a Dick LeBeau defense that appeared to be on the decline, Spence was seen as a potential life-preserver throughout the 2012 preseason, and a player who could possibly contribute sooner than most rookies actually do in the legendary defensive coordinator's sophisticated scheme.

Had the Steelers already found their heir apparent to James Farrior so soon after having to part ways with him after 10 extraordinary seasons?

If the front office and fans thought that of Spence (and they certainly had that right), those sentiments were harshly dashed on August 30, 2012, in the final preseason game against Carolina.

While trying to chase down the Panthers' Jimmy Clausen, Spence's cleat got caught in the Heinz Field turf, and the initial reactions left no doubt that he suffered a very significant knee injury.

It wasn't until later, when the early reports of a torn ACL, torn LCL and dislocated knee cap (along with nerve damage, as it later turned out) became official, that everyone realized just how significant the injury was.

Before what looked to be a very promising NFL career even took off, there were thoughts that Spence may never play a down in the NFL.

Those thoughts were maybe reinforced last spring when Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said it would be  "miraculous" if Spence came back, and especially for the 2013 season:

"It will be miraculous if he comes back next year," Butler said. "We are going to take a chance on him and see if he can come back. To me, he is worth every bit of that."

And even though head coach Mike Tomlin was clearly on the other side of the fence and more optimistic regarding his young player, the significance of the injury being what it was, and the history of such an injury being what it was, one had to wonder if Butler's sentiments were more realistic and Tomlin's were more wishful thinking.

Thankfully, Spence has come along during an era where medical advances seem almost miraculous, and professional athletes are able to come back from serious injuries that, generations before, dashed football dreams and ended NFL careers.

(Four decades after Bears' legendary running back Gale Sayers saw his remarkable career cut short in the early 70s due to significant knee injuries, Adrian Peterson came within nine yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's mark of 2105, when he rushed for 2097 yards in 2012. And he did this one year after suffering a torn ACL.)

Last October, it appeared that Spence had recovered to the point that he could, in-fact, do the seemingly impossible as he began practicing with the Steelers.

Unfortunately for him, just two days later, on October 18, Spence was placed on Injured Reserve after suffering a broken finger in practice (an injury that would require yet another surgery).

As Spence said in an interview with the team's official website in May, he initially took this development hard:

"I cried myself to sleep. I was so mad because I got back to where I wanted with the knee and to have a finger broken and need another surgery, it was so upsetting."

However, Spence soon found the silver-lining:

"But it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me more time to heal, more time to learn. The knee held up pretty good last year when the bullets started flying in practice and that was my first time having contact in a year. It felt good on my knee. It didn't bother me much. This offseason I had more time to train and rehab and going through the offseason workouts I felt good."

With Spence out for a second full season, fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams, Pittsburgh's sixth round draft pick in 2013, got some unexpected on-the-job training and started 11 games as the team scrambled for bodies after the season-ending injury to veteran Larry Foote in Week 1.

And if a catastrophic knee injury along with a rookie performing adequately in his rookie season didn't significantly increase the odds against Spence and his efforts to ever make an on-field contribution with the team that drafted him, what about the first round selection of Ryan Shazier, a linebacker who seems to be even more of a physical freak of nature than Spence was coming out of college, in the just completed 2014 NFL Draft?

Fortunately for Spence, he doesn't appear to be anything but determined to come back. In fact, on June 19, during a practice at mini-camp, Spence intercepted a pass and went the distance.

It remains to be seen if Spence will actually be able to perform once the pads start popping in Latrobe, but at least he appears to have recovered enough physically to have a fighting chance.

Rocky Bleier, drafted by the Steelers in 1968, was also drafted into the military a year later, and thanks to an enemy grenade, he suffered a foot injury severe enough that doctors didn't think he would play football again.

Like Spence, decades later, Bleier spent months and years trying to rehab his injury and get to the point where he could at least try to play football again.

Fortunately, Bleier was successful, and he went on to become an underdog story similar to Papale and Rudy.

In-fact, a movie about his inspirational story called Fighting Back was released in 1980.

With the final chapter of his football story still years away (at least he probably hopes so), it's hard to say for sure whether or not a Hollywood producer would ever take notice of Spence's saga (Bleier had a bit of a starring role on four Super Bowl winners in the 1970s and even caught a touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII).

But even if he just makes the team coming out of training camp and contributes anything at all to the 2014 Steelers, Sean Spence should garner strong consideration for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

The award typically goes to players with name recognition who battled back from serious injuries the year before (Peyton Manning was named the AP Comeback Player of the Year in 2012 after missing the 2011 season due to neck surgery). But it's easier to comeback when you're a star like Manning, Peterson or even John Stallworth, who posted career highs in 1984 after missing all but four games of the previous season due to injury and was honored with the award thanks to Pro Football Weekly.

When you're an unknown and unproven player like a Spence or Bleier, and experts, fans and maybe even your own team are writing you off, it's much harder to keep the faith, stay determined and do everything possible to complete such a journey.

Will Spence win Comeback Player of the Year in 2014? The odds are against him, but then again, they have been for two years, and here he is, still with a chance to fulfill his dream of making a career for himself in the NFL.

Just the feeling of being able to run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field on September 7, would be the ultimate comeback and probably trump any award Sean Spence could possibly receive.