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Chris Spielman's impact extends far beyond 'A Football Life'

By Tim Graham

Chris Spielman never could tolerate losing.

As a child raised in the cradle of football -- Canton, Ohio -- Spielman refused to accept defeat.

"Electric football? I wasn't the only kid who would get frustrated, I'm sure," Spielman says in the latest edition of "A Football Life" on the NFL Network. "But I'm not positive that everybody would smash the game or just throw the players away because they were uncoachable."

"A Football Life" will take a deeply personal look at the former Buffalo Bills linebacker at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Spielman played only two seasons with Buffalo. Here, he defied a career-threatening neck injury and tried to stare down his family's greatest challenge.

The ferocious All-Pro sat out the 1998 season to care for his wife, Stefanie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chris Spielman never would play again.

Cancer surfaced five times in Stefanie Spielman's body, turning her and Chris into crusaders. Chris, whose entire life had been arranged around football, morphed into something else to support his high school sweetheart.

Stefanie Spielman, a mother of four, was 42 when she died in November 2009. Her foundation has raised $11 million for cancer research.

"The whole purpose is to draw something from it, learn from it," Spielman told me Monday by phone. "I always say Stefanie's death wasn't for nothing. It counts for something. It counts that other people can learn from our situation."

SpielmanStefanieThe one-hour Spielman profile is unlike previous episodes of "A Football Life." The prologue to his NFL career offers a more substantial story to tell.

"It's a different feeling than almost all of them," the show's producer, Digger O'Brien, said. "Stefanie didn't survive her cancer, but she in some ways beat it. Chris and all the friends and family we spoke to, that was their words: The Spielmans beat cancer, although they didn't outlast it."

Chris Spielman's attitude certainly is to be admired. He comes across as a Gary Cooper character. He didn't choose his mission, but he confronts it anyway.

"Chris is that reluctant warrior from the movies who would rather not get involved," O'Brien said, "but when he does get involved he cleans up the town and walks away without needing to be thanked. He just tips his hat and says, 'It's just my job.' "

Spielman also shared his family's story in "That's Why I'm Here," a book co-authored by Bruce Hooley that was released in the spring.

"You get used to it," Spielman said of his role as fundraiser and motivational speaker. "It's something that I've done for a while now, but I see the impact.

"I don't want this job. I don't think anybody does. But if I have it, I want to be the best at it."

Spielman's NFL Network profile goes back to his childhood and provides a terrific glimpse of a preternatural competitor.

Because he played for renowned powerhouse Massillon High, that part of his life provides plenty of material for the screen, including the time he won a national campaign to be the first prep athlete on a Wheaties box and footage of him overwhelming opponents -- even returning punts.

Among those interviewed were his brother, Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman, Ohio State coach Earle Bruce, OSU teammates Jeff Uhlenhake and Jim Lachey, Detroit Lions teammate Lomas Brown and Bills running back Thurman Thomas.

In a clip from 1998, Spielman sits at his Bills locker stall and explains why he's leaving the game:

"Her treatments go through January, and it's impossible for me to be in two places at one time. I would play in a heartbeat, but what kind of man would I be if I backed out on my word to her? I wouldn't be a man at all."

Although he was with the Bills when his wife's ordeal began, Spielman said he has fond memories of his time here.

"It was a great two years in how welcoming the fans were," Spielman said. "To play with all those guys was very rewarding for my career.

"I always think back to Stef and I going to a movie on Friday night and walking through the mall and seeing all the folks in their Buffalo Bills jerseys. I would think 'This is such a great place to play football, to be a football fan.' "

Spielman tried to make a comeback with the Cleveland Browns in 1999 but never played in a regular-season game and retired.

His career was decorated. He won the Lombardi Award, was a two-time All-American and got inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He was selected to four Pro Bowls. He still holds unofficial tackling records for the Lions and Bills.

But his life changed forever when he discovered he couldn't dominate cancer like he did opposing ball carriers and quarterbacks.

"The fact that I couldn't stop it was so maddening and frustrating to me, being a competitor," Spielman says in his profile. "I couldn't outwork it, out-lift it, out-tough it, out-watch-film it, outhustle it. Couldn't do anything against it."

Sometimes, though, there's victory in putting up a valiant fight and making a mark that resonates after death.

"It will show people we took a bad situation and turned it into something positive," Spielman said Monday. "We always had hope -- hope through her initial diagnosis, hope through five recurrences and hope after death. You just keep going."

(Photo: Associated Press)


Chris Spielman
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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham |

Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan |

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski |