NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sean Spence went through some dark days, and he's not afraid to admit it.
After signing with the Titans on Wednesday, the inside linebacker was able to look back and smile about it all. But he'll never forget the adversity he was faced with early in his NFL career.
A third-round pick by the Steelers in 2012, Spence suffered a catastrophic knee injury in a preseason game in 2012. He tore his left ACL and LCL, dislocated the kneecap and reportedly damaged the nerve that helps control movement in the lower leg.
At least some wondered if he'd ever return to form.
"There were a lot of nights when I cried myself to sleep,'' Spence said. "It was tough, real tough. I had some real dark times. I was going through rehab, and I was kind of in disbelief that I wasn't playing. I'd played football every year since I was six years old, and here I was a spectator and having to watch other guys out there."
A year later, he was sidelined again. As Spence was working his way back from the knee injury in 2013, he broke a finger during practice leading up to the season, and ended up being placed on Injured Reserve.
Two years into his NFL career, Spence hadn't played in a single snap during the regular season.
"When I first had the (knee) surgery, I wasn't eating, I wasn't laughing. I am a funny guy, a lot of people say, and I like to joke. I am usually always smiling,'' Spence said. "But I was really down during that stretch, with so much running through my mind. And then after that happened the next year (with the finger) ….
"I had finally gotten to the point I wanted to get to, being in the National Football League … and my dreams were just swept from my feet. There were lows all the way through it for sure. But I had to make sure I was going to get better and do my part."
So did Spence, a prep star in Miami who later starred at the University of Miami (Fla.), ever wonder if a professional career just wasn't meant to be? Simple answer: No.
TitansOnline.com looks at the NFL career of LB Sean Spence. (AP Photos)
"That's one thing,'' Spence said. "My plan B was always to enforce Plan A. I wasn't going to give up. And I stuck to it."
Spence rewarded the Steelers over the last two seasons with his play. He believes the year off with the hand injury might have ended up being a "blessing in disguise" because it allowed him more time to heal his knee.
Now, he's ready to make an impact with the Titans. He's proven since he's healthy enough to do it.
Spence played in 31 regular season games in 2014 and 2015 with the Steelers, recording 90 tackles, and two sacks. He started 13 games total over the past two years.
His resiliency earned him the Ed Block Courage Award with the Steelers in 2014, and it also earned him attention when he became a free agent at the end of the 2015 season. Before visiting the Titans, Spence also visited the Jaguars and Dolphins.
With the Titans, Spence will have an opportunity to compete for significant playing time on a defense which started Avery Williamson all 16 games at inside linebacker, and Wesley Woodyard 11 games inside. Spence is also expected to be a key contributor on special teams.
Spence gave Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau a big assist in helping him make the decision to sign with the team. Spence spent time with LeBeau in Pittsburgh.
"Let me tell you a story,'' Spence said with a smile. "I was in Jacksonville (on a free agency visit), and we'd just come from eating lunch and I looked at my phone and I had a message from a Tennessee number. So I listened to it and it was coach LeBeau. He told me he had some room for me, and not to do anything until I talked to him first.
"Hearing from him is like hearing from your grandad or your dad, you know what I mean? That's LeBeau, so everything stopped. … I talked to him and I liked what I heard, and being here, I see the arrow is pointing up for these guys. I know the defense, and this team has a good quarterback. This was just the best decision for me."
Titans general manager Jon Robinson is glad Spence decided to come aboard.
Linebacker Sean Spence signs his contract at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Jeff Harding)
"He's a very intelligent football player,'' Robinson said of Spence. "He's very familiar with coach LeBeau's defense. He actually remembered calls from a couple of years ago when LeBeau was still there. He was calling out defenses (when we had dinner with him). That was pretty impressive. He is a tough football player, mentally and physically. He is a physical tackler. He has good coverage skills, runs well. Is a very instinctive player. He'll be a good addition to that mix at inside linebacker for us. We look forward to getting him out there and competing. He is a guy who is going to make us more competitive.
"And you can tell football is extremely important to him. He studies the game a lot, is a good tackler. I'm looking forward to seeing him out there."
Spence, who has trained this offseason in Arizona with linebackers James Harrison and Terrell Suggs, among others, said he's ready to help the Titans any way he can.
Spence played in 15 games last season, with four starts, and recorded 37 tackles and a sack.
"I love the game, the camaraderie, and the brotherhood and togetherness you get from playing with teammates, and I am looking forward to playing with my new teammates,'' Spence said.
"I know some guys here. Jurrell Casey, I have seen him, and he is a dominant force. (Brian) Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, Al Woods, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard, those guys are great players and I see a good group. Watching film, you see a lot of guys, and I want to be a part of it. And I came here to win, too. I don't just want to play, I want to win."