Steelers linebacker Sean Spence says he's optimistic, has 'total confidence' in future



Sean Spence, meet Rocky Bleier. Fifteen years from now, Spence could be earning a living by traveling the country and retelling his inspirational story.

He could take some inspiration of his own from the story that is Bleier's. Granted, Spence's tale does not contain the drama of Bleier's, whose foot was mangled by shrapnel in a Vietnamese jungle. Spence's knee was blown up on home ground at Heinz Field as the rookie linebacker chased down a quarterback.

Yet, their long, seemingly impossible comeback attempts in football parallel one another. Bleier's was a miracle. Spence's is still a possible miracle in the making.

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Injured in August 1969, Bleier had trouble walking in training camp in 1970. Chuck Noll wanted to cut him. The Rooneys instead carried him on their injury list. He made the team in 1971, gained 1,000 yards in 1976 and retired after the 1980 season with four Super Bowl rings.

A book, a movie and thousands of inspirational speeches followed.

Today an important milestone in Spence's comeback takes place. This will be his first day in pads and contact at Saint Vincent College in two years. That contact promises to severely test his injured left knee that has been two years on the mend, particularly when he plants his foot and takes on a block from one of the big linemen.

"I'm looking forward to it," Spence said Sunday.

He has waited two years for this day, since that gruesome injury in the final preseason game of his rookie year against the Carolina Panthers. The anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments tore. The knee dislocated. More important, the peroneal nerve was damaged. That nerve had to regenerate and often it does not. Spence was one of the lucky ones.

There have been some low points over the past two seasons as Spence mounted the long rehabilitative process, but the moment of that injury was not the worst.

"Going back on [injured reserve] last year," Spence cited as No. 1.

Spence, placed on the physically unable to perform list to start last training camp, was allowed to practice with the team for a three-week period in the middle of last season, and it could determine if they would add him to their 53-man roster. Then came another setback when his right middle finger was broken after one day in pads. They wound up putting him on injured reserve again.

"After going through what I went through, then to finally getting back out there and had to break my finger and go back on IR, it was painful," Spence said. "But I think it was best."

Spence said he knows other organizations might not have had so much patience as he continues his comeback, much like the Steelers showed with Bleier.

"I was very blessed to be with this organization because I could have been cut loose a long time ago," he said. "But they didn't, they stayed and waited for me and I'm very thankful and grateful for that."

He remains an optimist, convinced that his left knee will do just fine today while digging in against bigger men from his inside linebacker position.

"The way I trained in the offseason, the way it feels, I have total confidence in it," Spence said. "I'm just looking forward to it."

Nervous?

"I'm a happy nervous, not nervous that I'm afraid, just the regular jitters you get when you put on the pads the first day."

Two summers ago, Spence was among the hits of training camp and in preseason games. A third-round pick, he was the original young inside linebacker expected to move Larry Foote aside and he looked the part.

That promise, the knee injury and his long ordeal since have helped make his story a popular one with Steelers fans.

He believes he can turn his story into a Bleier-like happy ending.

"I hope to play a 10-year career," Spence said. "People probably think it's unlikely, but they probably didn't think I'd be back in this setting and I am. I'm going to take one day, one year at a time and see how it goes.

"The story is still writing itself."


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