When Chris Spielman suffered a brutal neck injury, he said overcoming it was a breeze compared to most everything his wife Stefanie had faced. When her hair started falling out, when clumps of it began landing on the floor and in their toddler’s hands, Chris decided to shave his own head, a soldier in solidarity. When it became apparent that more chemotherapy and a mastectomy — breast cancer’s evil twins — were high on Stefanie’s schedule, Chris bid a temporary farewell to the NFL, skipping an entire year so he could be with the woman he proposed to on the 18th hole of a Putt-Putt course.
None of the above should be considered exceptional behavior by husbands or partners forced to watch their loved one undergo treatment for cancer. But everything Chris did back in those gloomy days following his wife’s diagnosis was regarded as unusual and, in some parts, emasculating.
Stefanie Spielman, 42, died Thursday after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. Chris Spielman, the NFL and Ohio State star, was by her side, along with their four children, and while she deserves a thousand hosannas and a billion thanks for her work in raising millions over the years to combat the disease, it should be noted that he was quite the trailblazer.
When they met at a teen dance in their hometown of Massillon, Ohio, Chris was a high school stud who soon would be featured on the cover of a Wheaties box; his football journey continued at Ohio State, where his bone-crunching hits as an All-American linebacker became legendary. By the time Stefanie found a lump in her right breast during a routine self-exam, they had been married 10 years and he was deep into an NFL career. This was 1998, and let’s just say the world of sports was not as enlightened as it is now.
She was three months pregnant when she felt that lump, and later miscarried. Chris told her he wanted to skip his upcoming season with the Buffalo Bills so he could accompany her to doctor appointments, and hold her head when the chemo made her nauseous, and be a calming force as she underwent surgery to remove her breast. Eight stellar years with the Detroit Lions and another two with the Bills (he set a team and personal record in 1996 with 206 tackles) had given him much credibility with the football-crazed public, but how would they understand this kind of absence?
“Players just didn’t leave the game unless they were injured or retiring on their own terms,” Stefanie once told me at a fundraiser for Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation. “It seemed so simple to me. Just tell the fans your wife has breast cancer. Who knows? Maybe it will have some kind of trickle-down effect. Maybe one fan will go home and say to his wife, ‘Honey, sweetheart, don’t forget to make that appointment for your mammogram.’
“Cancer is never just about the person who has it. At least it shouldn’t be. It’s about everyone around that person. Chris made a selfless decision and I love him dearly for it.”
He took the season off, shaved his head to match his wife’s beautiful bald dome and still there were the grumps in the Neanderthal section wondering why a Pro Bowl linebacker had to go and mess up their Sunday fun. When Stefanie’s treatment reached a manageable level, he returned to the NFL for the 1999 season, this time with the Cleveland Browns, but a second neck injury ended his NFL career.
“Nothing my body has gone through can begin to compare to what Stefanie deals with almost every day,” Chris once said. “She’s my hero.”
Stefanie’s plan, formed in the aftermath of her diagnosis, began on a small level, with a sign at Big Bear, the Spielman’s neighborhood grocery story, asking shoppers to please donate money to Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital. A few thousand dollars, she said, would have made her delirious. Girl Scout troops and baseball teams and individuals and clubs from all across the community began offering their pennies, and within six months those pennies totaled $1 million.
The Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, along with the Stefanie’s Champions awards, has since raised more than $6.5 million for the cause. She survived four bouts with cancer before a fifth, and final, recurrence in the spring left her wheelchair-bound. She accompanied Chris to Ohio State’s season opener against Navy, when he was honored at halftime for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Against a backdrop where Chris once played to phenomenal roars, the loudest applause, by far, came when Stefanie was introduced.
And in a cruel coincidence, on one of her last days came a report from a federal task force saying women should delay mammograms until they’re 50, 10 years later than the medical community has traditionally recommended. Not to make the Neanderthals in the balcony squeamish, but if you, the sports fan, have a mother, a sister, a wife, a girlfriend — or if you just happen to like healthy breasts — this might be a subject worth discussing at halftime. There is one tough linebacker who’d appreciate it.
“Stefanie has gone home to be with the Lord,” Chris Spielman said in a statement released by WBNS radio in Columbus, where he co-hosts a radio show. “For that, we celebrate, but with broken hearts. I want to thank everyone for their support over the last 12 years. Together, with your help, hopefully we made a difference in this fight.”
We hear all the time about athletes who’d never win plaques for Father or Husband of the Year. They fail in the complicated tango between celebrity and sports, neglecting their human responsibilities in exchange for fame and an enlarged ego. But there are many more who quietly go about their business between the lines, before returning home and acting as good citizens, good partners.
Chris and Stefanie Spielman’s story might have been one of the first public examples of an athlete doing the right — dare we say, the manly — thing. Thankfully, and in her memory, it won’t be the last.