M-O-M! M-O-M!" Precocious four-year-old Maddy Spielman hollers.
Cute kid. She spells out the words that she can, and M-O-M is a
particular favorite in instances like this, when Maddy's most
treasured book, the one about dogs, is missing. Except Mom
(a.k.a. Stefanie) is out of the loop about the dog book because
she was resting when it was misplaced. So she asks her
househusband, Chris, if he has seen it.
"Maddy," Chris says, "you had that book at breakfast, right?"
"Right," she says, "but then I took it upstairs."
"All right," he says, "it'll be up there then." Maddy finds it
upstairs. Crisis averted.
December 14, 1998
This is Chris's year to find the dog book and to go to Maddy's
nursery-school Thanksgiving feast and to try to wean
two-year-old son Noah off Lucky Charms and to give him his bath
every night--and to take Stefanie to chemotherapy every other
Tuesday. There wasn't much discussion in July when Stefanie, 31,
had to have her right breast and 28 lymph nodes removed, and
Chris, a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker, said he was taking the
year off from the Buffalo Bills to care for her and the family.
Although Chris hasn't spent a second regretting his decision, he
has been racked with doubts about his football future and a
severe case of Missing Football Blues, all the while feeling
guilty that he's even thinking about football with Stefanie in
the fight of her life.
But the man with the Butkus intensity can't help it. At his home
in the tony Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, four miles from
the Ohio State campus where he starred a decade ago, Spielman
can't bear to watch an entire NFL game. Plays and highlights
have to suffice. When he takes Maddy and Noah to the park, he
sometimes steers his pickup to a midget league or junior high
football practice. An Indian summer has only made things worse,
because every day that the temperature is in the 50s is another
fall day he misses the game.
"You can smell football," Spielman said in his kitchen one
afternoon last week, alternately pacing and tidying. "You go
outside, and there's a feel of football I'm so used to. A smell.
The leaves, the air, the wind. It's so familiar. I don't know
what it's like in Florida or California, but I know how football
smells in the Midwest, and when I go out, all I smell and feel is
In November 1997 Spielman had career-threatening surgery to
repair a herniated disk that was pressing dangerously close to
his spinal cord. But he rehabbed well, and by last spring the
Bills were cautiously counting on him as the run-stuffing left
inside linebacker in their 3-4 defense. It was shaping up to be
a glorious year for the Spielmans because Stefanie was pregnant.
However, in April she miscarried. A self-exam soon after
confirmed what she'd felt during the pregnancy, a lemon-sized
lump on the right side of her right breast. Tests confirmed one
large precancerous tumor and a smaller malignant one near the
chest wall; two lymph nodes had pea-sized malignancies. On July
15 she underwent surgery. Doctors prescribed five months of
One late July day Chris walked into the kitchen and told
Stefanie, "I've thought about this, and it's the only way. I'm
taking the year off from football to deal with this."
"What?" she said. "You're crazy! Don't even say that."
Her tears of protest didn't change his mind. She blamed herself.
"It's not your fault," Chris said. "It's cancer's fault." Now,
sitting at the kitchen table, Stefanie takes off the brown
corduroy hat she often wears in public. She's not ashamed of the
baldness caused by chemotherapy. "I knew he was a great person,"
she says. "I knew we had a strong marriage. But for what he did
for me and our family, I can never repay him. I just hope he
never looks back at this year and regrets it."
"Never," he says firmly.
He needed only a day to reach his decision. "I would have
considered myself a fraud if I didn't do this," he says. "Lots of
guys would have done the same thing. I'm just blessed because we
have the money to do it."
What has the season away from football taught him? "Homemaking
is difficult," Chris says. "Before I never cared if the kitchen
was clean. Now I clean it three times a day. I've learned how
important mothering is. Women are the only people who can do it
perfectly. I've gained so much respect for mothers, and I've
learned patience. Real patience. You sit here waiting for a
biopsy report after your wife has had a mastectomy, wishing it
was you who had the cancer. You need patience for that."
Stefanie writes in a journal every day, and some of her entries
sound like a cross between Norman Vincent Peale and Chris
Spielman. July 11: "Now is the time to suck it up and follow the
path put before me." July 19: "I will beat this thing. I have
to. Maddy and Noah are so much motivation. I will do anything
for them. Chris too. I need him so much it's not even funny."
He has needed her too. When he remarked one day how the family
seemed snakebit, with the neck injury and the miscarriage and
the cancer, she fired back, "How can you say that, with all the
blessings this family has?" She has raised $237,000 for
breast-cancer research at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital
and Research Institute in Columbus, and her story has become the
centerpiece of a drive to have women do self-examinations and
have mammograms. One woman called a Columbus TV station to say
she wouldn't have done a self-exam had it not been for
Stefanie's story. She found a lump and had it removed.
"Sometimes," Stefanie says, "it's hard to believe this is my life
and not a nightmare. But I've learned a lot from the way Chris
approaches football. He's taught me strength and discipline and
His shoulders have been strong too. In August, a couple of days
after Stefanie bought a pricey wig, a hairdresser came to the
house to shave her head. Stefanie wondered where Chris was,
because he had promised to be there for the trimming. He arrived
late in her shearing with a bald head of his own, nicked and cut.
He had shaved himself. She cried.
She has never worn the wig. He says jokingly, "That was a great
"Men go bald all the time," she says. "Why should I try to look
like someone I'm not? I'm sick."
Chris's voice goes soft. He looks at the tiled floor. "I'm glad
you don't wear it," he says.
On Sundays, when Stefanie is up to it, the Spielmans go to
church. Fortunately, that has been most Sundays. During Mass,
Chris's mind wanders to the football field. When they get home,
Chris turns on a game in the family room--the Columbus CBS
affiliate has tortured its viewers with the Cincinnati Bengals
all fall--and walks by it, never sitting for any length of time.
"I might go for a walk or take a drive or watch a movie or run
errands," he says. "I can watch a college game, I guess because
I know I'm done with that. But I can't watch an NFL game. It's
Even with the Bills in the thick of the AFC playoff race, it was
too hard to travel down I-71 to watch his teammates beat the
Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday. He hardly knows Doug Flutie, so
it's strange for him to watch the highlights of Flutie's
transforming the Bills back into a playoff contender. "It's a
strange, no-win situation," Spielman says. "When they win, I'm
really happy for them, but I also feel, Well, they don't need me
anymore. When they lose, I wish I could have been there to do
something to help."
Doctors have told the Spielmans they believe Stefanie's cancer
was caught in time. Chris wants badly to continue his career
next season. But will he do it in Buffalo? A friend says
Spielman was angered to hear that the man playing his position,
inside linebacker John Holecek, signed a five-year, $12 million
contract extension in October. Spielman says he's happy for
Holecek and doesn't blame the Bills for ensuring their future.
"But when I come back," he says, "Holecek is going to have to
move. That's my position."
Spielman is working out three hours a morning, five days a week
under Ohio State strength coach Dave Kennedy--his mother and
mother-in-law help with the kids while he's exercising--and he
says he's certain he can return as a starter in 1999. He's so
certain that he keeps a calendar counting down the days to
training camp. Still, last Thursday he called Bills owner Ralph
Wilson and asked where he stood. "I told Chris to forget the
rumors he's hearing," Wilson says. "I want him back. We want him
back." But as a starter, at age 33, after taking a year off?
Spielman is pacing again. He stops to fix his questioner with
the same stare he has beamed at the likes of Brett Favre and
Steve Young for the last decade. "My neck is healed," he says,
"and some linebackers--Hardy Nickerson, Kevin Greene, Jessie
Tuggle--are playing great in their 30s. When Stefanie beats this
cancer, whatever hunger and passion I had as a player, multiply
that times three. That's what I will bring back to the NFL."
"I would have considered myself a fraud if I didn't do this,"
Spielman says of taking the season off.