There was no rule against crashing into the water so often and
so hard that your belly turned puce, so the lifeguards left him
alone. But they kept a close eye on this peculiar, glowering
eight-year-old. Undeterred by his almost total lack of diving
ability, Chris Spielman had decided not to leave a public pool
in Massillon, Ohio, until he completed 10 consecutive 1 1/2
dives off the high board. Spielman was not executing what you
would call rip entries.
"I was scared to death, but I made myself do 10," says Spielman.
So what had he been trying to prove with that diving exhibition?
Was he out of his mind? He takes the question literally.
"No, no, no, no," he says. "I was very much in my mind. Even at
that age I was putting myself through mental tests. I've always
wanted to make the training and everything else as difficult as
possible. That way, the game is easy."
Spielman, who last March signed as a free-agent linebacker with
the Buffalo Bills after eight seasons with the Detroit Lions,
sees life as a series of self-imposed ordeals designed to make
Sundays proceed more smoothly. At age four this son of a high
school football coach was ambulating around the house in a
curious, bent-knee gait: He had already learned to assume the
linebacker's "break-down" position. One morning last spring
Spielman drove to Rich Stadium around six o'clock to enjoy a
half hour's suffering on the Stairmaster. Already on a treadmill
was his new boss, Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
September 29, 1996
"He came up and put his face really close to mine," recalls
Wilson. "He said, 'Thanks for bringing me here. You won't be
disappointed.' He didn't smile. I was a little afraid." Wilson
smiles at his Spielman anecdote, then adds, "He's the most
intense player we've had here in 37 years."
That same warrior's intensity made him much beloved in Detroit.
But the Lions couldn't come anywhere near matching the
four-year, $8 million package the Bills offered Spielman, which
didn't exactly break his heart. Detroit has not advanced past
the first round of the playoffs since 1991, and Spielman, who
speaks of "a sadness" he will feel if he concludes his career
without having played in a Super Bowl, felt as if he were
spinning his wheels in the Motor City. He wanted to join a team
with a real Super Bowl shot. The Bills gave him one. That didn't
mean he had to speak to his teammates.
By 7 a.m. on the first day of a May minicamp, he was sitting in
his stall, ankles taped, staring straight ahead like some
oversized gargoyle. His teammates began trickling in a couple of
hours later. "He really didn't talk to anybody until somebody
talked to him," says fullback Tim Tindale. On the field, without
discussing it with anyone, Spielman assumed the responsibility
of calling defensive signals. "He didn't know anybody on the
team," says defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, "but he was
going to take over because that's the way he thought it ought to
be. That told us a little about his mentality."
The Bills' newest alpha male has not disappointed. Signed to add
starch to Buffalo's interior run defense, Spielman has done just
that. He had nine tackles in the Bills' 10-7 win over the Dallas
Cowboys on Sunday and helped limit Emmitt Smith to 25 rushing
yards. In Buffalo's season opening 23-20 overtime win against
the New York Giants, Spielman had a team-leading 17
tackles--most of them of Rodney Hampton, who gained an
insignificant 50 yards on 18 carries. "That guy must read film
pretty well," Giants guard Ron Stone said afterward, "because he
would see the formation and know what was coming. He was always
in the right spot."
Indeed, Spielman's fumble recovery set up the game-winning field
goal. His teammates awarded him a game ball. Sitting in his
stall, his pants splotched with blood from abrasions on both
elbows, Spielman said of his night's work, "Not bad for an
Two days earlier he had responded crankily to the suggestion
that he has overachieved in the NFL. "A lot of stuff doesn't
bother me," he said, "but that's one thing that does. I've heard
that a million times."
Gosh, Chris, why would people think you are an overachiever?
Could it be that you're undersized (six feet, 247) and not
overly fast for a linebacker, that you conduct yourself like the
53rd man on a 53-man roster, that most days you're studying film
by 6:30 a.m., that you make it a point of pride to be the last
guy out of the weight room, that you subject yourself to a
masochistic off-season workout regimen, that you shuffle
sideways up stairs in your own house the better to increase your
lateral mobility, that you perform "rip" and "swim" moves on
phantom blockers as you go through doorways, that you have
admitted that every day you try "to do something in practice to
convince them not to cut me"?
The guy has been to four Pro Bowls, yet he acts as if he'll be
waived if he misses a practice. "If I ever lay down on the
football field," Spielman told reporters last March, "one of you
guys get your hunting rifle out and put me out of my misery." He
expects his teammates to have similarly stratospheric pain
thresholds. During camp defensive end Phil Hansen missed a few
days of practice with a shoulder injury. Naturally Spielman
sought to make him feel bad. What's the problem, he asked? "It's
my A-C joint," said Hansen, referring to his left
"A-C joint?" Spielman replied. "You don't even need that thing.
I had mine taken out, and I've never had a problem!"
While that surgery to repair Spielman's A-C joint was being
performed six seasons ago, Lions coach Wayne Fontes put Spielman
on an injured reserve list, causing Spielman to miss four games.
"They did it while I was on the operating table," he says with a
trace of bitterness, the implication being that the only way to
make him inactive is to do it while he is under the influence of
a general anesthetic.
He has missed only those four games in eight years, none last
season, despite tearing his right pectoral from his rib cage in
the Lions' opener. "I thought I'd broken my collarbone," he
recalls, "so I said, 'We'll just finish her out.'
"Maybe I do bring it on myself," he says of that overachiever
tag. But then, if he didn't do what he calls "the extras, maybe
I wouldn't be where I am."
Which raises the question: Is all this necessary? Couldn't he
cut back, say, 10% on the weightlifting, the bounding up stadium
steps while wearing a weight vest, the poring over film, and
still enjoy comparable success? "I'll never answer that
question," he says, "because I'll never cut back. The trick is
to find time away from football to be a good husband and father."
It is a trick he has mastered by banishing everything from his
life but his obsessions--family and work. The balance he has
struck, he says, "would not be possible without the supportive,
loving wife I have."
As she spooned cereal into the mouth of 5 1/2-month-old Noah one
recent morning, this supportive, loving wife was asked what drew
her to Chris in the first place. "It wasn't his wardrobe," said
Neither Stefanie nor Chris remembers what unfortunate ensemble
he sported on the night they met, at a school hangout in
Massillon 13 years ago. She was 15; he was 17. She was dancing
to a slow song with the quarterback from another school.
Employing bodily force on the QB, Chris cut in.
They attended Ohio State and were married seven years ago, but
it was not until their daughter, Madison, was born in March
1994, Stefanie says, that she began to detect signs that her
husband was mellowing. During the couple's childless years in
Detroit, Stefanie spent extended periods in Chicago doing
modeling work. "When I was gone," she says, "Chris would seal
himself off from the rest of the world. Our friends called him
Nowadays, rather than sequester himself in the house each night,
he takes Madison and Noah for a walk and often ends up playing
with the neighborhood kids. During Madison's equestrian lessons,
he sits in the bleachers at the stables, cheering and performing
one-man waves. Stefanie reports that while watching a trailer
for a movie in which misfortune befalls a child, her so-called
brutish husband "covered his eyes and said, 'I can't watch. It's
He has approached fatherhood the way he approaches the gap for
which he is responsible on goal line defense: by hurling himself
into it. He became so excited and full of wonder during both of
Stefanie's pregnancies that he wrote short poems, which he
shared last summer with The Sporting News. An excerpt from one:
I can't wait to see
Our baby's first stare
Then for sure I will know
The unconditional love that
babies and parents share
Robert Louis Stevenson he ain't. Still, it took guts to share
that. Why make his poems public? "I don't think it had anything
to do with showing my feminine side," says Spielman. (We didn't
think so either.) "I am such a strong believer in marriage and
family, I have no problem with people seeing how passionately I
feel about my kids."
He had the camcorder out this month for Madison's first day of
preschool. He had already interviewed the teacher. Having given
the place the once-over, he said, "I see a lot of toys. Where
are the letters and numbers? Are we going to get any work done?"
Before driving to that interview, he had made a wisecrack about
making sure his daughter wouldn't be subjected to any
"Communist" influences. This is a frequent vein of Spielman
humor: He has posited that artificial turf and domed stadiums
are "a Communist plot" to weaken the U.S.
Even his conspiracy theories have a quaint, retro flavor, in
keeping with his reputation as a throwback player. If there was
ever a doubt that he sees himself as such, it was erased during
a 1994 game against the Chicago Bears, when having stripped a
receiver, he raced 25 yards into the end zone, slid on his knees
and touched the ball down with both hands--which is what you had
to do to score a touchdown in the NFL's Jurassic era. This
arcane act, Spielman explained, was his way of "paying tribute
to all the men who have played this wonderful game before me."
Did we mention that Spielman was born in Canton, Ohio?
When his playing career is over, he would like to coach. Would
he hold his players to the same gonzo standard that has made him
one of the most intense, most extreme players in NFL history?
The answer is no. "I realize there's more than one way to skin a
cat," he says. Just because he enjoys denying himself water
during off-season workouts ("I know it's stupid," he says)
doesn't mean he would make his players do that. As he expounds
on his coaching theories--he's big on consistency and positive
reinforcement--Spielman sounds almost progressive.
Until the subject of his son arises. The question is posed to
Stefanie: Will Noah play football? "Chris will be supportive of
whatever he chooses to do," she says, "whether it's golf or
"Anything but soccer," says Chris, who is eavesdropping as he
forages through the refrigerator. "Americans will never take to
soccer. It's too slow."
"Baseball's not slow?" says Stefanie.
"Yeah, but baseball is America's game."
He is walking around with blades of grass on his back. He has
been rolling around in the yard, playing with Noah. When
Spielman lifts his son, you can't help noticing in his left
biceps a golf-ball-sized divot, which deepens, then flattens. It
is the result of his having torn the muscle several years ago.
It is a reminder of his rough trade.
He has not had the last word. Says Stefanie, "Would you change
Noah's diaper and put him down for a nap?" It really isn't a
Silently, obediently, he carries his son out of the room and up