Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014 was a day Sean Spence will remember for the rest of his life, because that was the day he realized his dream of being in the starting lineup for a regular season NFL game. Another day he'll never forget is Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, because that was when his dream was threatened by a severe knee injury.
*The time between those two dates represents a period in Spence's life where he repeatedly was tested, both mentally and physically, first through the rehabilitation associated with surgery to repair three torn ligaments in his knee, and then along the process of reclaiming the skill-set that had allowed him to play football at a high level. *
At times, it was trying, but Spence stuck with it and the Steelers stuck by him.
In the following first-person account, Sean Spence shares some of his thoughts, emotions, and experiences along the road that took him to the day when his dream came true.
By SEAN SPENCE
I got the news from our linebackers coach, Keith Butler, during our team meeting on Wednesday. When he announced the depth chart, it was kind of surreal. I've been waiting for this moment all my life, and even though it took two years after I joined the Steelers as a third-round pick, the wait was well worth it.
As soon as I could, after meetings and practice on Wednesday, I called my parents first to tell them the news because they've been with me through this whole process. They've seen my ups and downs. They're the ones who lifted me up when I was down, and they've always been a positive influence. I wanted to break the news to them first, and they were ecstatic.
They were ecstatic with the news, but then that turned into being disappointed they wouldn't be able to make it up to Pittsburgh for the game. My parents had been in the stands at Heinz Field for the home opener against the Cleveland Browns to watch me play in my first regular season NFL game, and they had been so happy for me then. They weren't going to be able to be there for Tampa Bay, but they told me to just go out and have fun, because this opportunity to start in the NFL was one to cherish. Because my parents couldn't be there, I flew up one of my closest friends, Steve Gallon, and my older brother, Samuel Spence, to be there for my first start.
I prepared for the game that was going to be my first start just like I always do. I always prepare like I'm a starter, because you never know what will happen. I didn't want to make it too big for me, so I just stuck to my daily routine and went on with my day. The closer and closer it got to the game, though, the more real it became.
At the start of every practice – from OTAs and training camp until now – I always take some time to take myself back to where I was at the same time last year when I was on the PUP list and away from the team. I cherish everything now, the practices and walkthroughs, because you never know when it's going to be gone.
There were sleepless nights I had not knowing if I'd ever play again, times I was in the car by myself with nothing to do but think about whether I'd ever play again. Sure, there was that doubt in the back of my mind, but I just continued to work hard and push through as if nothing was wrong.
After injuring his knee in 2012, Sean Spence made his first NFL start on Sunday vs the Buccaneers.
It was hard to sleep on the Saturday night before the game against the Buccaneers. I laid there in bed, just trying to play the game in my mind, especially with it being the first game for me as a starter. It was kind of tough to sleep because I was thinking about the game all night, but I did finally get some sleep.
I set my alarm for 8:15 a.m., but I ended up waking up at 7:30 and just sat in the bed at the hotel and prayed. I was just so excited. I haven't had that feeling since I was in college, that feeling of knowing I was going to be a starter and would have to play a lot of reps to help this team win.
I followed my normal routine. I got up. Showered. Ironed my clothes. Went to team breakfast. When I first got to the stadium I had a lot of anxiety. I was excited, pumped, but just trying to control my emotions.
Right before we left the locker room, I found out they were announcing the defense. My first thought was that it was a good thing James Harrison was back, because if not it probably would have been the offense getting introduced. Everything happens for a reason, though, and it gave me an opportunity to be called out with the starters. My eyes were watery and luckily I didn't drop any tears. It just felt so good to come out of the tunnel with the smoke and to hear the fans cheering.
What I will probably remember the most about my first start was the fact I got to play alongside Lawrence Timmons, Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, all of them guys who have played in big games and won Super Bowls. I was able to share my opportunity with them on the field last Sunday.
As I look back on the experience of living my dream, I'd like to thank God, because without Him I wouldn't be here or playing football. I thank Him every chance I get. I also had so much help from the Steelers organization. (Conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont) would always come up to me and tell me, even when I couldn't move my knee, that every day and everyway I would eventually get better. Marcel (Pastoor) and Coach Butler were always on me to make sure I was doing what I had to do to get better. Coach Tomlin always showed strong faith in me and always told me I would be able to come back. Without everyone having that faith in me, it would have been really hard, even harder than it was.
I thank the Rooney family and Kevin Colbert every chance I get for sticking with me. They very easily could have let me go because of my injury, and because it's not often an NFL team waits two years for a third-round draft pick to get onto the field. I'm very, very appreciative to all of them for them for supporting me through this process.
Finally, to Steelers Nation: We have a great fan base, and I get so many messages on Twitter about how my story has inspired people. Thank you all. You are the best fans in football.