The reason for the disbelief is that early in his senior year at USC, Spanos suffered an injury to his right arm that should have ended his final collegiate season, and perhaps his entire career.
“I tore my tricep and some ligaments in my right arm, and that’s pretty essential for a lineman, especially a center,” Spanos said. “I was blocking somebody, and my guard came back to help, and he ran full-speed into the defender, and when he hit him, it kind of shocked my arm.
“The smart thing would have been to have gotten surgery and have it heal up, but at the same time, the healing process would have cost me my whole senior year. I hadn’t started any games before (the 2007 season), so I missed the first three games, and let it build up some strength. After that, I wore what was essentially a knee brace — I wore that on my arm, which helped stop the arm from over-flexing, and it gave a little bit more stability when I punched. I wore that the rest of the year.”
Spanos missed three games, allowing his arm to rest and rehabbing to add some strength, but even with the addition of his high-tech body armor on his injured arm, Spanos had to adjust his blocking style to compensate for the lingering pain in his arm.
“It (blocking) wasn’t easy,” he said. “I had to figure out little ways to position my arm so the pain was less, but the brace I wore really helped, so no matter where my arm was, it was always stable. It never got pulled in too much, and it never got forced out too much, or hyperextended. So pretty much, it was like a concrete brace — I was able to move it to a point, but it was strong enough that it didn’t let me flex too much. It really helped out a lot.”
After his senior season in 2007, the only year in which he started for the Trojans, Spanos went undrafted and signed with the Miami Dolphins. He spent the summer with the team before getting released after the last preseason game. In January, he got a call from the Cowboys.
Spanos said he often has encountered people who assume he has an inside track for a tryout with the San Diego Chargers, because he shares his surname with owner San Diego Alex Spanos and team president Dean Spanos. Matt Spanos allowed only that he “might be” related to the top of the Chargers’ administration, but admitted he doesn’t know them personally.
“They’re distant cousins, somehow,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been told we’re related somehow, but I don’t know exactly how. I’ve never met them. My grandfather used to say, whenever the winter came around (Spanos was born in Chicago, and moved to California around age 3), ‘I’m going to go live with my cousins in California, where it’s warm.’ I always assumed he was telling the truth, but I never really asked him beyond that.”
But family name aside, when the Cowboys called, Spanos jumped at the chance, with his still-unrepaired arm.
“I never had surgery on it — it’s still partly torn,” he said. “It won’t heal by itself — there’s something that needs to be screwed or glued back somewhere. I never got it done, but I’ve definitely built up the muscles around it. The muscles, for the most part, are healed, but I’ve got to keep them strong to keep the ligament from going AWOL in my arm.”
Spanos said the decision to forego surgery was difficult, but basically came down to his desire to keep playing, and the knowledge that if he didn’t play his senior season at USC, he might not get the chance to play beyond college.
“I had a lot of things running through my head, about whether or not I wanted to go ahead and get it,” he said. “My parents said they’d support me, whatever I did. They knew what the smarter idea would have been, but they also knew I wanted to play bad enough that they were going to support whatever decision I made.
“The coaches were really surprised, more than anything, because a guy like me — going into my senior year, the smart thing to do would have been to get surgery and get healed up, and then go do a Pro Day and hopefully get picked up by somebody. But I didn’t have any previous film to help with that, so I figured that I wanted to play so bad, this one little thing is in my way right now, so I could either stick it out and play, or just be done.”
At the Cowboys’ recently-completed mini-camp for rookies and one-year veterans, Spanos worked as a center, but said the flexibility he developed at USC to play other positions along the line could increase his chances of making the Dallas roster.
“Right now I’m playing center, but I’m assuming that once we get into the other mini-camps, I’ll be backing up at guard, too,” Spanos said. “At SC, I started at center, but I played in games at all five positions, and in Miami, I played center and guard — mostly guard. But right now, they have me at center, and if they want to move me around to one of the guard spots, I’ll do that, too.”
Spanos said the strength in his arm is almost back to its pre-injury level.
“I’m getting built back up to the point where I was (before the injury),” he said. “It (his strength) might not be exactly the same, but it’s getting pretty close. My bench (press) is a lot higher than it was after the injury — I’m doing sets with 285. That’s pretty high for me. It’s a little low, compared to what I used to do (before the injury), but only 20 or 30 pounds lower.”
With his arm back in working order, and his foot in the NFL door, Spanos didn’t hesitate when the Cowboys called. He said he has been assured nothing, in terms of playing time or even a roster spot, but said his versatility gives him a chance, and he’s ready to do whatever is asked of him.
“Dallas was the first team that called me after the season was over, and it was a no-brainer,” he said. “Essentially what I was going to do was, once I got through with football, I was going to go back and finish up school and try to go the CFL route, play up in Canada. But once I got a call from these guys, it was ‘when do you want me out there? I’ll walk to Dallas if I have to.’”