Next Step On Long Road Back For Sean Spence Comes At Training Camp

Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Sean Spence appears to be on the verge of accomplishing something quite rare at this level of athletic competition: to make a roster after spending his first two seasons unable to participate due to injury.

We all know his story by now, and are brimming with excitement to be finally reaching that next chapter, but it’s worth revisiting now, at the turning of the page.

Spence was a third-round selection of the Steelers in the 2012 NFL Draft. That preseason, he played well, and flashed the potential on the field that many believed he possessed when he was drafted, despite his size.

Then, in the final preseason game, when he was chasing down a play, his foot planted awkwardly into the grass, bending his knee backward. The injury was so severe that the medical staff took the precaution of putting his leg in an air cast before attempting to remove him from the field.

Naturally, he decimated the wide variety of ligaments in his knee. However, he also suffered a kneecap dislocation, which resulted in damage to the peroneal nerve, located behind the kneecap, which helps control the leg’s mobility.

Over much of the past two years, there was great concern over whether Spence would ever be able to play again. Last year, there was a brief glimmer of hope when he was able to participate in a few practices while on the Physically Unable to Perform List, but because of a broken finger, the Steelers had to shut him down again.

Spence later described that finger injury as a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to use the time in the interim to strengthen his knee, to regain full mobility and range of motion, and perhaps most importantly, to regain the confidence necessary to execute the athletic maneuvers that are a prerequisite of the game.

When linebackers coach Keith Butler was asked about whether or not Spence was expected to be able to play in 2013 during that year’s draft, he said it would be miraculous if he were even able to play the following year.

This year? He finally relinquished, and admitted that it was beginning to feel a bit miraculous, during the 2014 NFL Draft.

And the offseason process has done nothing to dissuade that miraculous feeling that has been building for some time. Bob Labriola noted in his observations that there were certain players who always seemed to be around the ball during the scrimmages at OTAs. Sean Spence was one of those players.

And just to drive the point home that he is on his way back, Spence picked off a Landry Jones pass during minicamp and returned it for a touchdown.

Now, we may be talking about practice here, but it’s worth keeping in mind the perspective that even these scrimmages were far beyond Spence’s capabilities not that long ago.

With every step forward that he takes, that’s one step closer to him returning to the field, and there’s no shortage of people who have been waiting for that moment for closing in on two years now. The next step on that road back begins today.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • DoctorNoah

    Knee dislocation, not just kneecap. A knee dislocation typically involves usually three of the four major stabilizing ligaments of the knee (ACL and PCL in the center of the knee and usually one of the collaterals, the MCL or LCL). Patellar dislocations not really associated with peroneal nerve damage; that happens more often in true knee dislocations where the nerve is pulled taught around the head of the fibula and stretched.

  • Burgh Ball

    How can any Steeler fan not be cheering for Sean Spence? Wishing him the best!

  • DoctorNoah

    The biggest issue with a peroneal nerve palsy, btw, is that the nerve controls the tibialis anterior – the muscle on the front of the leg that pulls your foot up, as well as the peroneal muscles on the lateral leg, which stabilize the ankle. This leads to foot drop and ankle instability.

  • 太阳

    Don’t let fear hold you back Seanathon

  • Chad H

    I’m rooting for you Sean!

  • srdan

    Based on your knowledge of the injury, is it possible to regain control of that nerve? I know you would have to examine to give a definite answer, but is it possible that he will be the same as prior to the injury? I guess I am asking if nerves can heal like a bone would.

  • Louis Goetz

    I look at Spence as being a bonus 2nd round draft pick this year. Sure, he’s technically in his third season, but this will be his rookie campaign on the field. And I say he’s a 2nd round guy even though he was drafted in the 3rd, because he knows infinitely more than any other rookie after being allowed to sit back and learn under LeBeau and the crew over the past two seasons. When you take that education and combine it with the improvements his body has gone through, he’s going to be a much better player now than he was when he was a rookie. It’s going to be a problem for the coaches having three starting caliber MLBs to deal with, and it’s gonna be a great problem have.

  • srdan

    Or any fan for that matter. These are human issues.

    I wished well for Sergio Kindle when he went through his ordeal.

  • steeltown

    If Spence returns to form it will truly give us some awesome depth, considering he will most likely be backing up Shazier and possibly playing some sub packages

  • srdan

    I don’t like advocating for people switching positions, this isn’t madden. But if Spence flourishes, next off season we could be talking about Shazier replacing Worldis if his price tag is too high.

    Like you said, it would be an awesome problem to have.

  • Bill Sechrengost

    I was just about to ask the question about this scenario. It would definitely be an awesome problem to have (not to mention saving money from not having to pay Worilds next year). I hope for the best for him.

  • Anthony Tudi

    Imagine the possibilities on Sub package. McClendon and Heyward up front. Shazier, Spence, Timmons, Jones and Worilds. Lebeau should have a field day

  • DoctorNoah

    I do a lot of peripheral nerve surgery. Recovery is often unpredictable. When you stretch a nerve to the point where the fibers are damaged, they need to regrow from the point of injury to the end organs (muscles and skin). If they grow back, they do so at about 1mm per day. It can take months to well over a year to know if you’re going to get meaningful recovery. The younger and healthier you are though, the better the prognosis. It’s very possible to have full recovery, but also possible to have permanent weakness.

    It sounds like Spence has done well though, so we are all hopeful!

  • steeltown

    Then also throw in the eventual contributions of Shamarko Thomas and Stephon Tuitt

  • srdan

    Gotta love this forum, thanks!

  • Douglas Andrews

    I don’t know if you remember the Tackle the Steelers drafted from Texas Tony Hills he had foot drop also. He was able to recover and even though he didn’t make it with the Steelers he has bounced around the league last i heard he was with the Oakland Raiders.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Speed and quickness…shades of the old Blitzburgh maybe?

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Unless the truly miraculous happens and he beats out Shazier for the starting spot. What are the odds of that happening? 50 to 1, maybe?