LATROBE – For most players, the prospect of facing six consecutive days of practice is a little like looking forward to a root canal.
For Steelers linebacker Sean Spence, however, the pain of practice sessions is a welcome relief.
“I don’t mind it at all,” Spence said Wednesday at the Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College.
After missing the past two years of football, the first time he’s been forced to sit out since taking up the game as a 6-year-old, getting onto the practice field is a major accomplishment. Making it through his first live contact Monday and having no repercussions Tuesday or Wednesday was the next step in the journey of coming back from a severe injury to his left knee.
“I was anxious, champing at the bit,” Spence said of the first day of live contact. “I was ready for backs-on-backers, just to see how my body was going to react, how I was going to react. It was hard sleeping, thinking what was I going to come out here and do and all of the emotions (were) running around wild.”
A third-round draft pick out of Miami in 2012, Spence’s promising rookie season came to an abrupt end in the third quarter of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. As he chased quarterback Jimmy Clausen in the backfield, Spence hyperextended his left knee when his cleats caught in the Heinz Field turf.
Every major ligament was torn in the knee and his kneecap was dislocated. Worse, he suffered nerve damage that left doctors wondering if he would ever walk again, let alone play football.
“They said that it was one of the most traumatic injuries they had ever seen,” Spence said. “(But) they always kept me uplifted. They always were honest with me. But they never doubted me either.”
Spence’s rookie season was a washout as he learned to walk again, but he continued to rehab hard. He was placed on the physically unable to perform list last year and returned to practice at midseason. But he still had the faintest signs of a limp when he walked and ran.
Then, during a practice, he suffered a broken hand. The Steelers placed him on season-ending injured reserve.
Though Spence said at the time he was ready to return to action, the injury was actually a blessing. It gave him more time to work on rebuilding the strength and his confidence in his knee.
“I don’t think I was fully back, but it was a huge step and a huge confidence booster. It made this transition go more smoothly,” Spence said.
This transition was getting back onto the football field on a full-time basis. Spence has been working with the second team defense at inside linebacker. And this week offered his first opportunities to test his rebuilt knee in game-type situations.
“I really didn’t think a lot about it, because we’ve had a great deal of comfort where he is for some time,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “I know he is glad to be back out there and has a smile on his face.”
The next step will be earning a spot on the 53-man roster. After what he’s already been through, nobody should doubt Spence’s chances.
“There were some (tough) days, especially going through rehab and not being able to play for two years and just having to watch,” Spence said. “There’s always that doubt that creeps into the back of your mind. But you just have to continue to work.”
Odds and end zones
Guard Ramon Foster reported to camp and practiced Wednesday after missing time because of the death of his mother. … Running back Le’Veon Bell (hamstring), linebacker Jordan Zumwalt (groin), wide receiver C.J. Goodwin (shoulder) and tight end Rob Blanchflower (ankle) did not practice Wednesday. Blanchflower’s injury was a new one. … The Steelers’ practice at 3 p.m. today is open to the public.