Dec. 17, 2013
By Tim May
When tragedy strikes, each person has his way of confronting it. It was not surprising to see Chris Spielman read the play, then fill the gap.
Years ago, the challenge of dealing with cancer was thrust upon his wife, and thus upon him and his family.
“When it’s there, when it’s decision time, which way are you going?” said Spielman, the former All-America linebacker and Lombardi Award winner at Ohio State and a former All-Pro in the NFL. “We chose our way, but we couldn’t have done it without a lot of support from a lot of people.
“To me it’s a testament to family and friends and how you are brought up. It’s also important to, more than through your words, through your actions set an example for your kids. And by that, I mean not only take my example but take Stefanie’s example in how to treat people and how to do things the right way.”
His wife -- indeed, his high school sweetheart -- Stefanie Spielman lost her long fight with breast cancer in November 2009. In the years after her first diagnosis and before her passing, Chris Spielman not only helped his wife fight the battle, they established the now $11 million-plus Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research in an effort to crush it, while also trying to uplift those who were in similar fights.
He vowed to continue the crusade in her absence. Spielman, 48, has done so, even as he went about the challenge of raising their four children – daughters Madison, Macy and Audrey, and son Noah -- while also rising in the ranks as a college football game analyst for ESPN.
His commitment to her legacy in hope of finding a cure for cancer is why he was named the 2012 winner of the Big Ten’s Dungy-Thompson Humanitarian Award, which goes annually to a former player who has achieved success in the area of humanitarianism after his college career has ended.
Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner and president and CEO of the Ohio State Alumni Association, has observed Spielman’s work for years, sometimes up close. He believes the effort comes from the heart.
“I think he has been tremendous in his whole humanitarian outlook,” Griffin said. “He has done so much for that breast cancer fund, he supports that wholeheartedly. He gives his all in that effort.
“To me that is absolutely terrific. I respect him so much for what he puts into that. And he is going to keep that going. That’s tremendous.”
Griffin also has helped raise funds and awareness for countless charitable organizations. He can identify with Spielman’s impetus.
“I believe it comes from the fact we realize we’ve been fortunate in our own lives as athletes,” Griffin said. “I know Woody Hayes had a tremendous impact on me, and as you know, one of the things he continually said was ‘You can never pay back, but you can always pay forward by helping other people.’ … Chris is doing the same.”
Spielman promised his wife he would continue the fight in much the same way they had tackled the challenge from the start.
“I think you see people who have struggles every day,” he said. “I heard a quote in church where Jesus says ‘Be extra kind to everyone, because everybody’s got a battle.’ And everybody does have a battle. You don’t always know what people are going through.
“For me, I have been given a lot in life, so many great things, blessings, that I think if you can make a difference in somebody’s life, you try to do it. If the opportunity presents itself, or if you see an opportunity, assert yourself into that. When you do that you’re able to give back the way all people should, I believe, when they have the means and the opportunity before them.”
“I just understand that people are battling, and I always appreciate people’s help. So if I can help I love to do so.”
To deal with it is one thing, to go public with it is another. Then to carry through and, among other things, help raise millions to attack it is still another.
“For whatever reason God allowed cancer into our life, and when you have that type of issue, there is no right way or wrong way to deal with it, but we felt that for us, we had a platform,” Spielman said. “The original platform was me being an NFL player in a football state.
“But it was kind of fun for me to watch the way Stefanie stepped out from kind of being the woman behind me to where all of a sudden in Ohio I became the man behind the woman. That was a joy for me. And again, it was an example set for our children.”
They talked about the latter part often. When a person passes, it’s their legacy that sustains their presence.
“We always thought that our children, when faced with different trials and tribulations, that they’re going to be able to look on their mom and dad and have an action to learn from rather than just our words,” Spielman said. “That was important to us, and also that we had a platform and we decided to use it.”
Many gifted athletes go through their professional sports careers with no real idea what they’re going to do once the playing is done. Long ago, Spielman had a plan.
“I was very narrow and focused as a player,” Spielman said. “Certainly some of that was a blessing because it helped me get to where I wanted to go as player, and it also was a curse.
“And I remember reading an article in the Detroit News when I was a player with the Lions where I was quoted as saying, ‘I’m a football player. I’ll coach. Then I’ll die.’ I was that zeroed in.”
Then came the curveballs.
“Life hits. Reality hits, and you’ve got to make decisions,” Spielman said. “Who are you? What are you? What’s your real purpose? What are you going to do? How are you going to handle it?”
They chronicled their experience in a best-selling book co-authored by Bruce Hooley entitled “That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story.” A book that might need new chapters down the road, because his crusade continues on her behalf.
Spielman makes countless appearances across the country promoting the cause and keeping Stefanie’s spirit at the forefront. He constantly meets people who never knew him as Chris the football player but as Chris the engine behind an effort to obliterate breast cancer. That means the next chapter in his life very likely could go down as being greater than anything he did in football.
“I would hope that would be the case,” Spielman said. “That’s because it would serve a much greater calling and have a greater impact in a positive way in people’s lives.”
Tim May, who grew up in Alabama and Texas, has been a sportswriter at the Columbus Dispatch since 1976, has covered Ohio State football since 1984, and remembers a time when Chris Spielman was just another pretty face on the front of a Wheaties box.