The 2020 season was definitely something Robert Spillane had been waiting for.
In his third season in the NFL, it was the year he finally cemented himself as a playmaker, as someone who could step in when called upon and not just be the 'next man up,' but be a solid piece of the defense.
And for him, it was everything.
"It meant the world to me, especially when I first went out there to play on the defense and I looked to my left and I looked to my right and the guys out there trusted me and believed in me from the start," said Spillane. "That was a calming, good feeling. I knew I believed in myself and my abilities to play. I had been waiting for that opportunity. I knew when it was my time to shine that is what I had to do to remain on the field.
"I have held myself to a very high standard. I treated my role, even though I was a backup, like I was a starter if something were to happen. I prepped the last few years like I was a starter, so I would be ready for my opportunity. Thankfully I was ready. My teammates trusted me when I went in there. That gave me all of the confidence to be out there and play football. It was special for sure."
The Steelers signed Spillane to a one-year contract this offseason as he was an exclusive rights free agent, something that wasn't surprising after he stepped up in 2020 when the linebacker position was hit with injuries.
"It means I get another opportunity to come into camp and show the coaches and players I am going to do everything I can to be the best player and teammate I can," said Spillane of staying with the team. "I know nothing is promised. I just wanted to focus on being a good teammate and good things will happen."
Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB Robert Spillane from the 2020 season
Last season Spillane took over for former No. 1 pick Devin Bush after he was placed on the Reserve/Injured List and heading into 2021 has the opportunity to continue to see that kind of playing time after the team terminated the contract of Vince Williams.
Spillane played in 12 games, starting seven, before an injury landed him on the Reserve/Injured List for the last four weeks of the regular season, and then activated for the AFC Wild Card game.
He finished the season with 43 tackles, 37 of them solo stops, two sacks, four pass defenses, and an interception and fumble recovery. He had his best game in a Week 9 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Spillane had his first career interception, picking off Lamar Jackson and returning it 33 yards for a touchdown, a play he will always remember for multiple reasons.
"The first third down of the game against our rivals," said Spillane on the interception. "Lamar Jackson who is a Heisman Trophy winner, and I was at his Heisman Trophy ceremony because my grandfather, (Johnny Lattner) won it in 1953 and we went because he passed away that year. Then Lamar won it that year I went. It was kind of full circle seeing him win his Heisman and then be able to get an interception off of him in the NFL.
"It was a feel-good moment for me and my family. There are a few videos of my cousins, my aunts and uncles watching the game, just to see their reaction and the celebrations are unbelievable."
Spillane was originally signed by the Tennessee Titans after a tryout during their rookie minicamp in 2018 and then added to the Titans practice squad at the start of the 2018 season. He was activated in season and played in one game for the Titans in 2018, however he was released midseason.
He signed with the Steelers in the 2019 offseason, was released before the season started, but brought back to the practice squad. He was activated midway through the 2019 season, working mainly on special teams early on.
"I came into the league as an undrafted rookie free agent and I have had so many role models and people I have studied that were other undrafted players," said Spillane. "The way into the league for undrafted players most of the time is through special teams. If you don't have a role on special teams you will never get that opportunity to show if you can play offense or defense. I knew if I was going to do whatever it took to become close with the special teams coordinator, dominate during the special teams period, do everything I can off the field to make sure I am not negatively impacting my chances to go out there and play. I was told in college that special teams isn't the most glorious job, but it's the best thing you can do to be a good teammate. Good teammates are consistently dominant on special teams because they want to go out there and they love what they do. That has stuck with me. You can tell when someone loves what they do when they play on special teams because it's for their teammates. You are not going to get the most glory, but you are going to make plays and change the outcome of the game with how you play."
And how he played, let's just say it opened a lot of eyes. It wasn't just the interception off Jackson, or the bone-crushing goal line stop of Derrick Henry against the Titans. It was much more and it's attributed to the work he has put in since coming into the NFL.
"I know as a rookie I was not the same player I am now," said Spillane. "I have continually improved my game, both on special teams and defense. Just continue to stay true to yourself and being able to continue to grow. That is something that has helped me grow and get better. Little things you practice for years and years you are getting one percent better at each week. Little things add up.
"I am still the same person I was. I still have a deep hunger and passion for football.
"I think there are so many different aspects that go into being a better player. One is understanding the game. One is I got bigger, stronger, faster. Understanding situational football because the NFL is so high on tendencies, teams do what they do, being able to study better, learn from players I am playing with, take things from them, and coaches. Becoming a better pass rusher and in coverage. There are so many aspects to work on to be a better player, especially at linebacker."
There is one other thing Spillane wants to continue to work on, and that is his family's legacy in football. His grandfather won the Heisman Trophy while at Notre Dame, and had a short NFL career, just one season. But that one season was with the Steelers, something that Spillane takes great pride in.
"It means everything to me," said Spillane. "He was the one during family parties when we were little kids growing up, he would bring the football out and get things going. He started my passion and love for football in the backyard.
"Any time I get the chance to honor my grandfather, especially in the black and gold, wearing No. 41 which he wore, I don't take that lightly. Every chance I get to go out on the field on a Sunday, it's a chance to bring my family together back home. I love that they all get together and watch the games together and are around each other. I want to make him proud and my family proud."