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Raiders LB Spillane Might Be Another Villapiano

Phil Villlapiano is considered one of the Las Vegas Raiders greats, and new MLB Robert Spillane reminds many people of him.
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Longtime members of Raider Nation were stunned when linebacker Robert Spillane made several plays in the first quarter of last Saturday’s 34-17 victory by the Las Vegas Raiders over the Los Angeles Rams.

That’s because Spillane wears the No. 41 that Phil Villapiano made famous when he was one of the greatest linebackers in the history of the Oakland Raiders.

“For a moment I thought that Phil Villlapiano was back on the field for the Raiders, because I have seen him in recent years and he looks like he could still play,” one longtime fan of the Silver and Black told this reporter.

Actually, Spillane wearing No. 41 is a tribute to his grandfather, the great running back Johhny Lattner, the 1953 Heisman Trophy winner and a two-time All-American at Notre Dame, the No. 1 draft choice of the Steelers.

However, a knee injury sustained in the Air Force during the Korean War limited the outstanding Lattner to one season in the National Football League.

The 6-1, 230-pound Spillane, who was signed by the Tennessee Titans as a free agent out of Western Michigan in 2018, has played five seasons in the NFL--one with the Titans and the last four with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were not happy that the Raiders signed him as a free agent this offseason.

“As an undrafted player, you don’t get to pick your jersey number,” Spillane recalled. “They give you the jersey number, and you just accept it, and I had No. 49. We actually had two No. 49s on the team, Christian (tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson) being the other one. Once the season started, they said, ‘It’s time to change your jersey number.’

“I asked: ‘Can I have No. 41 please? That was the number that my grandfather wore back with the Steelers over 50 years ago.’ I said if that number is available, can I please have it, because that number is very special to me.”

So Spillane got that number, but unfortunately, Lattner did not get to see him play in the NFL wearing his No. 41 because he died from cancer in 2016 while Spillane was still playing at We

stern Michigan.

Spillane, a hard-hitter in the Raiders mold, has made 191 tackles in his four NFL seasons, most of them since he became a starter in 2020, with three sacks, an interception that he returned 33 yards for a touchdown, five quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery.

“At the end of the day, there’s not much difference between a two and a four-yard gain, but when you make those splash turnover plays, those really affect the outcome of games,” Spillane said after joining the Raiders, where he figures to be a starter.

"'How can I get my hands on a ball? How can I punch this ball out? How can I get in the passing window and maybe make that quarterback throw a few feet higher in the air, so I give my secondary time to make a play on the ball?' Good defenses get pass breakups, make tackles, and great defenses turn the ball over and score a touchdown. That’s what we’re looking to do.”

So the Raiders have a new guy on their hands, Spillane, who could be the next version of Villapiano, who was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and played a key role for several seasons, including when the Silver and Black routed the favored Minnesota Vikings, 32-14, in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.

Villapiano is another player who suffers because tackles were not an official statistic in the NFL in those days because he had plenty. Still, tackles were kept during Super Bowl XI, and the man they called “Foo” made six solo stops and added a sack of quarterback Fran Tarkenton.

In addition, Villapiano was a real ballhawk, with 11 interceptions, including an 82-yarder from Pete Beathard of the Los Angeles Rams that returned for a touchdown in 1972, and 17 fumble recoveries, in addition to recording 15 sacks that included five in the Super Bowl season of 1977.

Spillane would seem suited for a similar role with the Silver and Black, No. 41 or not.

The Silver and Black return to preseason action when they play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT.

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