Connections: Robert Spillane's family ties with Steelers

Raiders linebacker Robert Spillane had ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers way before he signed with the team in 2019.

Spillane’s grandfather, Johnny Lattner, was the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time All-American halfback at Notre Dame. The college football superstar was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1954, recording 1,000 all-purpose yards and seven total touchdowns in his lone NFL season. Lattner then entered the United States Air Force for two years, suffering a severe knee injury that prevented him from ever returning to professional football.

“My grandfather was a very special person,” said Spillane, as his grandfather’s Heisman Trophy is on display at their shared high school in Oak Park, Illinois. “He wore No. 41 with the Steelers, so to be able to wear that number with that organization meant the world to me.

“And I’ve carried that tradition here, wearing the 41 in his honor. I just want to make him proud, make my family proud. That’s what I go out every Sunday to do and that’s why I leave my heart out on the field and play my hardest.”

Sixty-five years after Lattner’s Pro Bowl season, Spillane followed his grandfather’s footsteps to Pittsburgh.

The Western Michigan standout signed with the Steelers in 2019 after spending the majority of his rookie season on the Tennessee Titans practice squad. With the Steelers, Spillane developed into a core piece of their defense, racking up 191 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and three sacks in four seasons.

Now in his first season with the Silver and Black, the linebacker has taken what he learned in Pittsburgh to another level. In Week 2 against the Buffalo Bills, Spillane became the first Raider since 2013 to have at least 14 total tackles and a sack in a single game. He currently leads the team in total tackles (21).

“Physical guy, loves football, every aspect of it, incredibly tough, durable,” Josh McDaniels said Wednesday of Spillane. “He played in a system and a defense [where] that’s what they value. That’s what we value, so there’s some carryover there in that regard. … We competed against him last year late in the season, had an opportunity to see that firsthand.

“His physicality, his toughness, his intelligence, passion for football, the way he plays and competes on every play. They asked a lot of him and so do we. Just fortunate that we have him on our team, excited to continue to grow with him, and obviously our team feels the same way about him.”

Coincidentally, the Raiders linebacker will play his first home game with his new team against the Steelers. He’ll also be lining up against Steelers offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, his NFL teammate of four seasons and college teammate for three. While it’s clear Spillane still has love for his former team, it’s going to be all business during the primetime affair.

“I have so much love and respect for the guys over in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Spending the last four years of my life up there, my NFL journey has ran through Pittsburgh. It’s really a great opportunity to see them Sunday night.”

Other notable connections

  • Raiders defensive backs/pass game coordinator Jason Simmons was drafted in the fifth round (137th overall) by the Steelers in the 1998 NFL Draft, playing four seasons there.
  • Steelers safety Miles Killebrew was raised in Henderson, Nevada, and attended Foothill High School.
  • Steelers rookie tight end Darnell Washington was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, and went to Desert Pines High School.
  • Steelers senior conditioning coordinator Garrett Giemont spent eight seasons (1995-02) as a member of the Raiders staff.
  • Steelers inside linebackers coach Aaron Curry appeared in 13 games with the Silver and Black in 2011, recording two fumble recoveries, returning one for a touchdown, and 32 solo tackles that season.

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