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Injured Steelers linebacker Spence still believes he can return

| Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 11:44 p.m.
When last seen on the field, Sean Spence suffered a horrific knee injury in a preseason game in August 2012. However, the linebacker is close to returning to action, coach Mike Tomlin said.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
When last seen on the field, Sean Spence suffered a horrific knee injury in a preseason game in August 2012. However, the linebacker is close to returning to action, coach Mike Tomlin said.

Don't talk odds with Sean Spence. He doesn't much care about them.

Don't bring up that few — if any — come back from a peroneal nerve injury, let alone an NFL linebacker. He's not interested in hearing about that.

And surely don't suggest sitting out another season. That's just not an option in his mind.

Spence, the Steelers third-round pick in 2012, is convinced that he is going to make his NFL debut this year after suffering a horrific right knee injury during the final preseason game of his rookie season. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament, posterior cruciate ligament and lateral collateral ligament, causing peroneal nerve damage.

“I know, I know,” Spence said when reminded that not many people return from an injury like his. “I know I am going to beat the odds. I am not going to worry about that. The progress that I have made, the doctor said that I already beat the odds.”

Spence continues to proceed with caution nine months after the injury that took him months to have the nerve to watch on tape. He has yet to take the field during any of the Steelers OTAs through the first two weeks and likely won't be participating in the final two weeks either.

“My plan is to make it back for the season,” Spence said. “I am still preparing and attacking this OTA as I am going to play this year. I am going to continue to get better and am looking forward to the season.”

A return this year just might be wishful thinking for the athletic linebacker who the Steelers figured would be pushing veteran Larry Foote for the starting inside linebacker spot.

Linebacker coach Keith Butler said last month that “it will be miraculous if he does come back (this year); it will be miraculous if he comes back next year.”

Butler wasn't being dramatic; he was speaking the truth.

Players recover from multiple torn ligaments all the time to go on to have successful pro football careers. But according Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and director of Medical University of South Carolina sports medicine, few, if any, who have suffered peroneal nerve damage make it back.

“I probably do four of five knee dislocation surgeries a year, and the ones who have peroneal nerve injuries I have never seen one come back,” Geier said. “I can't think of any who have been documented to have a peroneal nerve injury and returned. For me, I would just be trying to have a normal life, but playing at an elite level after something like this is difficult.”

Peroneal nerve injuries occur when multiple ligaments are torn and the leg stretches the outside of the knee, compromising the nerve that controls the upward movement of the foot and toes.

Geier said that patients with peroneal damage end up requiring a nerve graft procedure that typically would be performed six months after the initially injury. Spence said he hasn't had that surgery.

“Nerve injuries are typically slow to heal anyways, so it is going to take a long time for those muscles to work again,” Geier said. “That's the problem with any nerve injury. But a stretch injury to that nerve just doesn't come back like other nerves.”

Spence said he has been running and can do “pretty much anything” right now but set no timetable for his return other than to say that he expects to return sometime during the season.

“You always want to play it safe, but if I am good enough to go, I am going to go,” Spence said. “If not, I would probably wait and take things slow. I can trust myself to do what I know I can do.”

The Steelers have the luxury to wait for Spence after re-signing Foote and Stevenson Sylvester while continuing to develop first-year player Marshall McFadden and rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams.

“I really do (hope he comes back) because this kid is a great kid,” Butler said.

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