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From football player to breast cancer research advocate

By Leigh Ann Rutledge
Accent Editor

Chris Spielman
Chris Spielman (right) pales in size to the image of his late wife, Stefanie, on a projection screen during a presentation last week at Malone Univeristy.

Talk about a game changer!

Chris Spielman is a football player.  He will tell you how he was raised to be a football player, beginning two-a-days at a young age, not walking up the steps but shuffling up, playing football in high school and college and accomplishing his goal of being a professional football player.

Speaking at Malone University last week, Spielman told the crowd of about 200 people how his game changed and why. 

Spielman is now an advocate for breast cancer research. The former All Ohio High School player, All American player for The Ohio State Buckeyes, three-time All Big 10 and Lombardi Trophy winner, the Pro Bowl and All Pro Detroit Lions-Buffalo Bills-Cleveland Browns football player helps raise money for research to find a cure for the disease that afflicts nearly one out of every eight women.

Spielman has a special connection to breast cancer research. His wife, Stefanie, lost her battle with breast cancer in November 2009 after an 11-year fight.  Prior to her death, the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research was established.  It has raised over $10 million to date.

Opening his presentation, Spielman talked about how good it was to be back in Canton and how he spent time driving by his former residences.  He made the point clear, though, that he was not here to talk about himself but to talk about he and Stefanie’s book, Stefanie, cancer, family and faith.

Spielman gave a run down of his life saying, “Playing for Massillon was a dream come true, as well as playing for Ohio State and the National Football League.  I married my high school sweetheart.  Life was good.  Life was great.” 

His new journey, he said, started when he was playing for the Buffalo Bills, a Monday night game against the Indianapolis Colts.  He was going through his pregame ritual and visualizing the game.

“I would visualize something happening to my wife and children because that would get me angry,” he explained.  “I played the game with controlled rage.  That’s what I had to do to play the game.” During this pregame ritual something happened, the question, “What is your purpose?” came to mind.  Spielman said he ignored the premonition then and again during the coin toss.  In the fourth quarter of the game, Spielman had one of those “this is it” hits, the kind every football player dreams of making, the one where he hit the oncoming man with everything in his being.  He could hear the man grunt and the cheers from the crowds.

As a result of the hit, Spielman had a few seconds of total paralysis where he couldn’t feel anything or move his body.  When he was able, he got up because “I’m a football player.  This is what I am trained to do.  I can’t show pain or weakness or show that I am hurt.”

He finished that game, had similar results the next week and walked up to his wife after the game against the Denver Broncos and told her he’d be back and went to see the doctor.  The doctor said a disc in the C-5 C-6 area of his spine had exploded onto his spinal cord and would require major surgery.

As he was recovering from surgery, Spielman said the question returned, “What is your purpose?”  He knew the answer. 

“My purpose was to be a football player and come back from this injury because I knew no linebackers had ever come back from this type of injury.”  He told himself no matter where he had to go, he would find a doctor who would let him play.

“That’s what I do.  That’s how I’m made. That’s my purpose,” said Spielman.  He admitted he was a good husband and father but stressed he was a football player and his time was not up.  Life was going good.  He had a mission to come back from the injury to be a football player.

During his recuperation, Stefanie suffered a miscarriage and found a lump in her breast.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer July 7, 1998.  Upon hearing the diagnosis, Spielman said his stomach was in knots and he thought, “How am I going to do this?  How am I going to play?  I have to get her healthy.  How can I do both?”  On the way to the doctor, in a moment of rage, he punched the window and roof of his vehicle, and asked, “Why is this happening to us?  I can’t believe this is happening.  It’s not fair.”  He continued on questioning “why us, we are good people, we give to charity, we are only 30.”

Spielman said Stefanie looked at him with disgust and said how dare you say that to him.  He told her he had a right to complain.  They had lost a baby, his career was in jeopardy and now she had cancer. 

Stephanie told him, “Why don’t you once in your life stop thinking that you are owed something.  Why don’t you turn around and look at all the blessings you have received.  Look at all the hands that have served you and us up to this point.” 

And she asked, “Why not us?”

Thinking about her comment, he realized she was crushed about what was going to happen to her.  The voice returned and asked him once again, “What is your purpose Chris?”  He realized his purpose was to serve God, family and community, in that order.  That was when he walked away from football.  When he told Stefanie his decision, he said she cried harder than when she found out she had cancer.  She did not want her disease to take away his dreams.

Spielman knows when children are faced with tough decisions in their life, they look back at their parents, at their actions and words when things get rough.   

“The philosophy of ‘what you give will grow, what you keep you lose’ served us well for 12 years,” he said.  “We looked at cancer as a blessing.  We were able to start a fund to raise money for cancer research, to have a powerful impact on people and to make a difference.  To serve.”
He learned, what you give grows, whether it’s your time, talents, or efforts, it multiplies and spreads.  He noted if you keep everything to yourself, it withers. 

“Stefanie said instead of looking at the tough times ahead, sometimes you have to look behind you and see all the blessings you’ve been given and all the hands that have served you up to this point,” he said.

Spielman talked about his last days with Stefanie and how he asked if she was afraid.  “She said, ‘Why would I be afraid of heaven?”  He promised her he would continue her legacy.  He admitted, “This is not a job I want but it is my job to do and I will do it the best I can.”

Stefanie encouraged him to live life, enjoy life.  She told him, “You have a full life to live; our children have a full life to live.  I just have to go home to be healed.”

Spielman often hears the question from those affected by cancer, “How can I be brave?” 

“There is always hope.  Hope, that is not a wish as the secular world defines it, but hope as a promise, hope that there will be no more pain, no more tears, no more fear, no more sorrow.  Pure joy,” he said.  “Be brave.  Stand firm in your faith.  It will be your rock.  Be men and women of strength and courage.  Above all do everything with love.”

In closing, he said, “I have a mission and I have a passion.  That’s why I’m here.”

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