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Steelers linebacker Spence confident he can avoid injury setbacks

| Monday, July 28, 2014, 7:15 p.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Sean Spence (51) is carted off the field after being injured in the fourth quarter of their NFL preseason football game against the Carolina Panthers, Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
Chaz Pallan | Trib Total Media
Steelers linebacker Sean Spence (left) bull rushes tight end Bryce Davis during backs-on-backers drills Monday, July 28, 2014, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

Sean Spence is entering his third year with the Steelers, but he has yet to step on the field for a regular-season game.

Instead, the inside linebacker's NFL career to date is defined by a gruesome snapshot.

The third-round draft pick out of Miami showed promise in the summer of his rookie season in 2012. A first-team All-ACC linebacker the year prior, Spence figured to be a major special teams player with a chance to work into the defensive rotation.

But in the third quarter of his final preseason game as a rookie, all optimism was thrown out the window. Spence chased down and lunged at then-Carolina Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen, severely hyperextending his left knee as his cleats caught in the Heinz Field grass.

In a horrific split-second, Spence suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament and lateral cruciate ligament, dislocating his kneecap and causing peroneal nerve damage.

Spence missed the 2012 season with the knee injury. After just one practice in pads in 2013, Spence was placed on injured reserve again when he suffered a finger injury that required surgery.

“That's a sad case,” fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “As an athlete, you hate to see that. I know he's just champing at the bit right now to show what he can do.”

Monday was Spence's first padded Steelers practice in months. Amid questions of whether he will be able to return to his post-college form, Day 1 with heavy contact was productive.

Spence powerfully drove his legs on wet grass in a one-on-one drill against several fullbacks and tight ends and ran laterally in 11-on-11 drills without a hitch.

Coach Mike Tomlin paid him one of the best compliments available to a player returning from injury: He didn't notice.

“I really didn't think a lot about it today because we've had a great deal of comfort of where he is for some time,” Tomlin said. “I know (Spence is) glad to be back out there and has a smile on his face.”

The excitement and anticipation of hitting full-speed are welcome emotions for Spence, who admittedly struggled through some of the “dark moments” after the injury.

“It's very difficult, man. Like I said, I cried myself to sleep some nights,” Spence said. “It was tough watching the games and sitting in meetings and not being a part of the team or the game plan.”

Spence said he passed his first test in being able to weather his first series of hits Monday, coming away feeling “100 percent.”

Confronting the uncertainty surrounding him is something Spence is used to, though. After all, he wasn't even supposed to return to the field.

“It's just how I was raised,” Spence said. “I've never been a person to quit, and I'm never going to be that person.”

Andrew Erickson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at aerickson@tribweb.com.

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