Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler told Spence Wednesday morning that the 5-foot-11, 231-pounder will start in place of Ryan Shazier, who is nursing a sprained knee, against the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It had to be particularly gratifying for Butler to deliver that news to Spence.
It was Butler, after all, who said in April of 2013 that it would be a “miracle” if Spence ever played again.
“The tunnel was dark for me for a long time, but I stayed positive and Steelers Nation stayed behind me,” said Spence, who shredded his left knee in a 2012 preseason game and dislocated his knee cap while also sustaining nerve damage. “I finally get to get some good quality reps on defense.”
And the 2012 third-round pick played well enough to earn the start this week with Shazier already declared out against the Buccaneers.
Spence recorded three tackles against Carolina, including one when he tripped up Cam Newton after the Panthers quarterback had escaped a collapsing pocket. Newton had a lot of grass in front of him when he started to scramble, but Spence limited him to a 5-yard gain.
Spence, who logged a career-high 35 snaps last Sunday night, said his play in Carolina proved “that I can play in the National Football League. I hadn’t done it in two years, and the preseason doesn’t really count and Sunday night counted. I think I held up pretty well.”
Spence will probably make more than a few calls after his work day is finished.
His parents are at the top of the list of people with whom he wants to share his latest good news. Spence will also call former Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, who is now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, at some point.
“I talk to Larry every week. He’s like a big brother to me,” Spence said. “He mentored me when he was here, not only in football but life.”