A Blast from the Past: Third Round Part 2

Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports Sean Spence takes the field during his rookie training camp.

The 2012 third round pick was someone we were all pretty excited about by partway through his first training camp. Sean Spence was fast, and he was a football player. Before that, though, some of us had concerns about him. The first knock on him was his size, the second his intelligence, the third his character. All of these except possibly the first are ironic in retrospect. Here’s what I wrote immediately after he was drafted:

Mike Tomlin said in the post­-draft presser, “he encompasses a lot of football character things that we value.” But there were some concerns. Reportedly, he got a 12 on the Wonderlic, and he was suspended for one game in college for “receiving improper benefits.” The NCAA violation was already an issue with the second round pick. In Spence’s case it was not a big deal. It does, however, call into question his intelligence, which was already reeling from the blow of getting a 12 on the Wonderlic.

But how much does the Wonderlic really matter?  It is a multiple choice intelligence test given at the combine, and is used by employers. It is designed to test the capacity of prospective employees for problem­ solving and learning. A score of 20 (out of 50 questions) indicates average intelligence, correlating to an IQ of around 100.

But how relevant is it for football players? Apparently some of them don’t think there is much relevance. One player drafted by another team whose score this year set a new standard for poor performance claims he looked over the questions, realized none of them were about football, and just turned it in. It will be very interesting to see how he does, because if nothing else this indicates a lack of perseverance because he viewed it as pointless. After all, he presumably knew his prospective employers were going to see it. What happens the first time his coach tells him to do something he doesn’t see the point of? 

Concern about Spence’s intelligence appears to be a non-­starter. Keith Butler, his position coach, said “Sean is a very instinctive, fast, quick kid that is very smart.” This is pretty much a compendium of the words indicating intelligence without actually using the word. Not all intelligence translates into the ability to solve the sort of problems the Wonderlic poses. If Spence didn’t persist in the face of difficult questions on the test, though, that calls into question his ability to persist in the face of difficulties on the field.

The NCAA violation appears to be a single minor incident and is probably not a concern. Sean Spence may ultimately prove to be too small for an NFL linebacker, but that isn’t a knock on his character, and I’m prepared to give him a pass unless he begins to show signs of systemic idiocy.

I looked up who the 2012 draftee with the lowest Wonderlic score was, and it was Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys drafted him with the sixth pick overall, and he still plays for them. Despite playing a position (cornerback) that takes a more-than-average amount of intelligence, he has done just fine in the NFL. Admittedly, according to Pro Football Focus, he was bad on an Antwon Blake scale last season—they ranked him 104th out of 111 ranked corners. However, Dallas is still paying him, so he must be doing something right.

And apparently Claiborne has a learning disability, so there’s that…

To return to Sean Spence, as I’m sure you all remember, he suffered a catastrophic knee injury during a preseason game. He tore his ACL, PCL, LCL, and his kneecap was dislocated, creating nerve damage in the process. The news went from “it was gruesome” to “he’s going to miss all of 2012” to “he may never even walk again.” You can imagine what it was like for him to hear that. You can also imagine the discussions that went on behind closed doors among those who make the decisions.

As we all know, the Steelers kept him. They may be the only team in the league who would have kept him once it was clear it was entirely possible he would miss a second year. And in this time not only the team but Spence demonstrated what character is.

In May of 2013 Ed Bouchette wrote an article for the Post-Gazette with quotes from some of the main players in the drama. First was his position coach:

Keith Butler, his linebacker’s coach, said the team will carry Spence on a reserve list this year as his knee continues to heal and with the hope that a “miraculous” recovery will permit him to play perhaps in 2014.

“It will be miraculous if he comes back next year,” Butler said. “We are going to take a chance on him and see if he can come back. To me, he is worth every bit of that.”

Tomlin begged to differ:

Mike Tomlin disputed Butler’s timetable for Spence’s return when he said early this month that “I did hear the opinion regarding Spence. My opinion differs. I think he’ll have a full recovery.”

And finally,

Spence told reporters that he can run, and that his goal is to play this year.

“I know I’m going to beat the odds,” Spence said. “I’m not even worried about that. The progress that I have made, the doctors say that I’ve already beat the odds. I’m just keeping my faith in God and knowing he’s going to give me another chance.”

Not surprisingly, he won the Ed Block Courage Award in 2014. The speeches from the luncheon were very interesting to me, because in essence Tomlin and Spence each credited the other for the faith which allowed Spence to keep fighting through the tough times. The following quotes are taken from the video:

Mike Tomlin: “This was a catastrophic injury, probably one of the most gruesome injuries that I have seen in person, and I have been around football all of my adult life,” said Tomlin. “He was presented with a unique challenge. It goes beyond the fact that he worked hard and was able to return and play for us. It’s the spirit in which he did it that left an indelible mark on me and his teammates.

Sean didn’t have a bad day. Rehab can be lonely, it can be painful, challenging mentally and physically and it can create a distance for guys going through it. They separate themselves from the pack, can be scarce. This guy didn’t do that. He was there every day, he was there early, late and always had a smile on his face. It’s just amazing. His spirit is something we all feed off of. I have a great deal of respect for this young man.”

Next was the man himself:

Sean Spence: “I think my faith and courage was tested over these past two years with what I was going through and being away from football for two seasons.

This is a bittersweet award to win, because to get it you have to go through something to get it. But I’m blessed to come through the other end of the tunnel.

I want to thank Coach Tomlin for sticking with me through those two years. He didn’t have to, but he did. I just thank him for believing in me when sometimes I didn’t believe in myself.”

Finally, Heath Miller, the winner of the award the previous year, also talked about him:

“It’s a compliment to him, his character, perseverance and hard work. Everything good you can say about someone he encompasses it. Whenever I see him on the field I am smiling from ear to ear because I know how much it means to him and how much work he put into it.”

The story doesn’t have a fairytale ending. Few things do in this world. Although Spence was back, it was in a back-up role, and although he had a number of starts he never really won the job. I’m guessing this is partly because he was not quite the same player as before the injury, which is often the cruel reality of such things.

So was this a successful third round pick or not? Clearly the injury was not his fault, and he did everything one could ask and more to come back from it. This had to be inspiring to his teammates, as it clearly was to his head coach. So from that standpoint I don’t see how you can call it a poor pick. It was just part of the risks you take when you draft anyone at all. It’s entirely possible the Steelers wouldn’t have drafted Ryan Shazier had Spence fulfilled that early promise, but we’ll never know.

But as Shazier started taking over the position (or, more accurately, as his injuries healed) there was less and less need for Spence. Therefore the Steelers let him walk in free agency this offseason. I’m very happy to say he signed with the Titans, where he is reunited with Dick LeBeau. I wish nothing but good for this young man, except, of course, when we play the Titans. Then I’m hoping he has an off day…

to be continued, as there is plenty to say about the 2013 pick as well…


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