Mellowed Spielman prepares for coaching

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

 

  Chris Spielman, the new coach of the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League, watches his team practice Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005, in Columbus, Ohio. Spielman was known for his ferocity during an 11-year NFL career. As an All-American at Ohio State, he said his goal was to see a ball carrier's eyes roll back in his head. Things have changed for Spielman as he approaches his first game as coach of the Arena Football League's Columbus Destroyers on Friday night. AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

Chris Spielman, the new coach of the Columbus Destroyers of the Arena Football League, watches his team practice Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005, in Columbus, Ohio. Spielman was known for his ferocity during an 11-year NFL career. As an All-American at Ohio State, he said his goal was to see a ball carrier's eyes roll back in his head. Things have changed for Spielman as he approaches his first game as coach of the Arena Football League's Columbus Destroyers on Friday night.

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Chris Spielman was known for his ferocity during an 11-year NFL career. As an All-American at Ohio State, he said his goal was to see a ball carrier's eyes roll back in his head.

Things have changed for Spielman as he approaches his first game as coach of the Arena Football League's Columbus Destroyers on Friday night.

He's still intense. But Spielman no longer is the fire-breathing linebacker who led the Detroit Lions in tackles seven years in a row.

Spielman, who turns 40 in October, has been mellowed by the years, by his four kids, by his time away from the game, and particularly by his wife Stefanie's ongoing battle with breast cancer.

''I've been a humbled man. I've been humbled so much, and I probably needed humbling,'' Spielman said, surrounded by the grunts and groans of football players at work. ''This is fun and this is challenging, but I will not let it define me anymore, like it used to.''

Spielman grew up in Massillon, a rust-belt city where nurses used to place a miniature football next to babies right after the newborns were first put in their cribs.

The son of a coach, Spielman was weaned on the game. When he and his friends couldn't get on a field, they played on tennis courts, leading to skinned knees and elbows. In the winter, they laced on ice skates and played football on frozen ponds. Spielman learned early that you wanted to avoid falling down or you might catch a skate in the back.

He was a hero in his football-crazy town, even appearing on a Wheaties box in his Massillon uniform.

From there he moved on to Ohio State, where it didn't take long for coach Earle Bruce to get a true glimpse of the tightly wound Spielman. Bruce was on the sideline during a game and could sense someone behind him pacing back and forth. He turned to see Spielman, fighting an injury, almost shouting to himself: ''Why doesn't he let me go in? I can play! I'm not hurt!''

Despite a glittering college career, Spielman's name wasn't called until the second round of the 1988 draft. But he made an impact almost immediately for the Lions, bouncing around the field like a pinball to make tackles.

He was adored by fans for decking offensive players and for his toughness. He played in 114 games in a row until his streak ended in 1997. A neck injury eventually ended his career after two years with the Buffalo Bills and another with the Cleveland Browns.

In 1999, Stefanie was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she lost her hair because of chemotherapy, Spielman shaved his head so she wouldn't be alone. The cancer went into remission, but has returned twice. Stefanie currently is going through treatments again.

''She's a warrior,'' her husband said softly. ''She's really a warrior.''

The Spielmans have raised $2.6 million for cancer research and prevention. They appear at fund-raisers, in print ads and on television seeking donations. Their fight has been embraced by many who recognize Stefanie's toughness as much as her husband's.

''It's been on his mind since the day they found out, and it'll probably be on his mind until eternity,'' said Jim Lachey, a former teammate at Ohio State who also went on to a solid NFL career. ''It's a terrible disease and unfortunately there's too many families in the world that have to deal with this and the Spielmans are one of them. I commend him.

''He and Stefanie continue to fight through it and continue to support and to love and to raise their family in the right way. You've seen other human beings back down from that kind of pressure. But they stand firm.''

Spielman took the Destroyers job because he felt he had something to give. It's no longer just about winning — although he doesn't apologize for hating to lose — but rather about making a difference. He wants others to see the journey he has taken.

''He's definitely a players' coach,'' Destroyers offensive specialist Bobby Olive said. ''He's intense, but he's definitely a guy that the players want to play for.''

Never having coached anything beyond his kids' soccer teams, he slipped seamlessly into the role with the Destroyers.

''My priorities are God and family and work,'' Spielman said. ''Even though it's time-consuming, it's not like the NFL or college. That's why it was an easy decision for me.

''Also, I like having winning and losing on the line. I like taking a group of men and seeing if they can come together as one. That's the enjoyment I get out of life. I'm still a competitor.''



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