For the first time since he was drafted by the Steelers, linebacker Sean Spence has the luxury of a full offseason. No trying to learn the defense in a rush like he had to prior to his rookie year. No rehab, no recovery, like he had to deal with after his first two seasons.
Instead he is attacking the offseason like the rest of his teammates, getting stronger and soon taking part in all activities like the rest of his teammates will be doing.
"I have a full offseason to do that now," said Spence. "This could be the best offseason. I imagine it's going to feel good this year. Last offseason I was trying to catch up and make sure my knee was going to be better for OTAs and training camp. Now I am riding along with the pack. I am trying to separate myself with my work ethic and work hard."
It's been a long journey for Spence, who suffered what many feared could be a career-ending knee injury on August 30, 2012 in the preseason. He could have easily thrown in the towel, given up on any type of comeback with the severity of the injury. But to know Sean Spence is to know that he is not a quitter. That word doesn't even exist in his vocabulary.
There were bumps in the road, there were discouraging moments, and there were tears. But Spence fought through it all and a little over two years after suffering the injury, he saw his dream come true when he started at linebacker against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Heinz Field last season and played the entire year, his first full season after being in the league for three years.
"It felt great," said Spence of the 2014 season. "I really missed the game being away from it for two years, having to watch guys I got drafted with play and I didn't. Then see guys the next year come in and get drafted and playing and I am not. Through every trial there is a lesson and I learned a lot.
After injuring his knee in 2012, Sean Spence made his first NFL start on Sunday vs the Buccaneers.
"I learned to be patient, good things come to those who wait, everything happens for a reason. When I was injured I was mad at the world. I was saying to myself of all people, why me to have this freak and tragic injury. As time went on I told myself why not me. Why couldn't I be the guy that comes back from this type of injury and beat all odds?"
It was Spence's mental strength, his ability to take a negative and turn it into a positive that kept him fighting through the tough times.
"Every time I went to visit the doctor they would tell me something good, but then there was a 'what if' scenario," said Spence. "Every time I got a bad report I never quit. I never went home and said I am not going to go in today because there is no hope. I got up every day even when I didn't want to, came in and worked out so I could get that edge."
And it all paid off when he got back to being what he wanted more than anything last season, a football player.
"It was amazing," said Spence. "The first preseason game felt good. I ran out of the tunnel, looked around and bust out into tears telling myself, I am here. I am not supposed to be here. I am in a helmet and it means something. It was the first time it hit me I was going to be playing, that I was going to be a pro football player.
"It was great. I was in deep sorrow for so long, for two years, after playing so many years since I was 6 years old. To get to my dream and almost in the blink of an eye have everything almost gone. It was scary. When I had the opportunity to get back on the field, even for the preseason, I couldn't hold back my emotions."