Chris Spielman’s menacing persona, football’s version of a fire-breathing dragon, was an act, an alter ego summoned to get the linebacker through an All-America career at Ohio State and 11 seasons in the NFL.
The man behind that image is stripped bare in That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story, released today by Zondervan Books.
As Spielman, an ESPN analyst and father of four, chronicles his wife’s 11-year fight with Stage IV breast cancer, which claimed her life in November 2009, he reveals some of the journey’s most emotional moments with scenes that are sometimes haunting, sometimes uplifting.
I raced through the 224-page book in a week and was unable to put it down for the last 90 minutes, despite the tears it summoned, and nothing struck me more than the day in early 2001 when the Spielmans learned that Stefanie’s cancer had returned and had spread to her lung.
On his way to pick up their oldest children, Maddie and Noah, from school, Spielman parked behind a restaurant on Lane Avenue, climbed into the back seat of his car and curled up, sobbing. He screamed, “God, no more deals. I’m done,” distraught that the pact he’d made after Stefanie’s initial diagnosis in 1998 had disintegrated.
Before that moment, instead of submitting to whatever God had in store for them, Spielman had talked to God as he watched late-night infomercials. He told him if Stefanie could be healed, he wouldn’t sweat the small stuff again.
“I was devastated,” Spielman said of those minutes in the back seat during a telephone interview last week. “I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was almost in shock; I thought everything was OK.
“I thought I had a good deal cut with God and it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go. I was humbled to the core and scared. ‘How am I going to do this?’ ”
Spielman said for the book to be considered “real and honest,” he felt he needed to expose such gut-wrenching stories.
“Some of the things in how I behaved I’m proud of, some I’m not proud of,” he said. “You make a lot of mistakes and you make a lot of good decisions. Part of the reason in sharing that is we’re all human beings and cancer will take you through the gamut of emotions.”
Co-author Bruce Hooley, a former Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter who is now a talk show host on ESPN 850-WKNR, admired how Spielman showed such vulnerability.
“It makes an impression on you because it’s such a contrast to the rough, tough football player you expect Chris to be,” Hooley said. “The book is so authentic because he’s willing to tell those kinds of experiences.”
Starting the book
Spielman and Hooley began working on the book six months before Stefanie died.
“The purpose Stef and I had in putting this down was to help other people deal with it,” Spielman said. “The right time to write it was when I knew there was an end coming. When you find out that news and you kind of see the writing on the wall, then you start reflecting. For the book to be as helpful as it could be, you have to be in that raw of a state.”
Another moment that stands out was Ohio State’s season opener against Navy in 2009, when Spielman was honored at halftime for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Their children joined Chris and Stefanie, who was in a wheelchair. She raised her fist as the crowd cheered.
“That was kind of the basic announcement without announcing it that ‘we’re on our last lap here,’ ” Spielman said. “I’ve made the statement, ‘That ovation was more for her than it was for me, as it should be.’ ”
As Hooley observed, “That was everybody’s epiphany moment.”
Spielman and Hooley shine the spotlight on Stefanie’s indefatigable energy and positive attitude, captured by her motto of “No doom and gloom.” Even when her husband struggled to accept what was happening to the love of his life, she refused to feel sorry for herself and was determined to live for the moment, even during her final days.
“That’s what makes an impression on people,” Hooley said.
“All those things she did, going to Target and shopping until she dropped and going to Noah’s school play. It really endears Stef to people even more because she was such a fighter and not caught up in self-pity. She was a tiger to the very end and it makes people love her so much more.”
That’s not just a proud co-author talking. Even for Ohioans who know the Spielmans’ story and who marveled that Stefanie could have two children after her initial diagnosis, the book reveals in fascinating detail their day-to-day trials and triumphs. Snippets of cards and letters Spielman received from those who had been touched by Stefanie show the powerful emotion of her amazing impact.
For me, the chapters dealing with Spielman’s football career, going back to his high school days at Massillon and his appearance on the Wheaties box, seemed unnecessary at first. But they help put in perspective Spielman’s decision to sit out a year while playing for the Buffalo Bills to care for Stefanie and show where his priorities lie. Amazingly, Hooley said Spielman’s recall on the football section of the book was “pretty sketchy, which is truly indicative of what’s precious to him.”
Still raising money
But Spielman is not telling a football story. His is a story of enduring love and promises to keep, promises he’s still keeping with his involvement in two funds for breast cancer research and patient assistance in association with the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at Ohio State. The Spielmans have raised more than $10 million, 100 times their initial goal.
“If one person does well or receives comfort or realizes they’re not the only person in the world going through something, then it’s well worth it,” Spielman said of the book. “Stefanie understood what her mission is and I understand I can be a proponent for people fighting this disease. I didn’t ask for this job, but I’ll do it to the best of my ability. Nobody asks for this.”
Readers don’t need to have been touched by cancer to be spellbound by That’s Why I’m Here. Anyone who has questioned his faith or struggled with a major life crisis might find solace.
If drawn merely by the captivating spirit of a unique and inspirational woman, there is more than enough to enrich and satisfy.
Spielman will sign copies of That’s Why I’m Here from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Berean Christian Store, 1100 30th Street NW in Canton. Proceeds from book sales at the event will go to the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.