By Christina Rivers
Annually, the Pittsburgh Steelers look at their team for a player who epitomizes courage, one with a quality of mind or spirit that enables that member of their organization that has faced pain, struggles and even doubt with a brave heart. The Ed Block Courage Award honors players who exemplify not only courage and sportsmanship, but professionalism, strength and dedication and is one of most esteemed honor that can be given to an NFL player through selections of his peers. On Tuesday, the Steelers presented the award to linebacker Sean Spence.
Spence was the Steelers’ third-round draft selection out of Miami in 2012. In an August 30 pre-season game that year, the up-and-coming star linebacker suffered what many believed would be a career-ending knee injury. Head coach Mike Tomlin, who presented the award to Spence on Tuesday said, “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.”
Spence was emotional during the presentation. He spent hour upon hour rehabbing following the injury, missing the entire 2012 season and most of the 2013 season. After spending as many grueling moments at the Steelers’ practice and training facilities in order to get his knee in shape, Spence returned to practice in October, 2013, only to suffer a finger injury that required surgery and halted the season. Some wondered if such a young man could overcome the devastating odds he’d been dealt. Sean Spence refused to give up.
“(Sean) 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,” said Tomlin. “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.’
The event was held during the 22nd Annual Arthur J. Rooney, Sr. Courage House Luncheon at Heinz Field and benefits the Holy Family Institute. Spence wasn’t afraid to let his gratitude and emotions show as he was honored. “It feels great to win (the award). It’s a blessing,” Spence said. “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. It showed patience and continuing to work no matter what others thought the outlook was like. It’s been a long road, but I enjoyed the journey.”
Spence, in the eyes of his coaches, trainers and teammates encompassed what the award is about. He exhibited a strength of character that equaled his desire. Teammate, tight end Heath Miller, said that the team was happy to have Spence back on the field and felt that Spence was completely deserving of the award. “We all know what he went through,” said Miller, “we all saw the ups and downs.”
In the nine games Spence has played in during the 2014 regular season, the linebacker has recorded 26 total tackles and recovered a fumble against the Houston Texans. He has played with a ton of heart and used his opportunities on the field to give the Steelers his best performance possible. There is no doubt that Spence had a long way to go to get back on the field, but now that he has returned, his teammates can only smile at how the courageous journey unfolded.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on