This Is Not a Football Story

Featured, Sports — By on November 24, 2009 at 12:00 pm

stefanieatlivestrongLast Saturday, Ohio State and Michigan finished their football season the way they always do—playing head-to-head in a game that redefines the term “rivalry.” Even though Michigan’s record was dreadful this season, the game was still huge. It always is. Many consider Ohio State/Michigan to be the greatest rivalry in college football. Others believe it’s the greatest rivalry in all of sports.

But this isn’t a sports story.

An Ohio native and a diehard Buckeye fan, I recently moved to the Columbus area. In the month I’ve lived here, I have frequently tuned in to the local ESPN affiliate, 97.1 The Fan—which devotes much of its programming, not surprisingly, to Ohio State football.

In a column I wrote a few years ago, I said that the Ohio State/Michigan game is more important than Christmas. I didn’t write it to be sensational or to elicit a response; I wrote it because, for the devoted fans, it’s absolutely true.  In this part of the country, nothing is bigger than Ohio State football.

But this isn’t a football story.

Last Thursday night, Stefanie Spielman lost her eleven-year battle with breast cancer. If you follow football (and are older than 25), then you’ve at least heard of her husband, Chris Spielman.

Chris Spielman was a one-of-a-kind athlete. A two-time All-American and a Lombardi Trophy winner as a linebacker at Ohio State, Spielman was a first round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 1988. Spielman played eight seasons in Detroit—leading the team in tackles every season—and he was selected to the Pro Bowl four times. Spielman played for the Buffalo Bills in 1996 and 1997 (setting a team record with 206 tackles in 1996).

And then, in 1998, when his wife, Stefanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30, Chris stepped away from the game for a year to support his wife.

Spielman is a beloved figure in Columbus. He announces games and co-hosts the afternoon radio show I was listening to on Friday afternoon (understandably, he had taken the day off).

But as I listened to that radio station last Friday afternoon, I heard the unthinkable: Spielman’s  co-host and the man filling in for Chris said they were not going to talk about football. The day before “The game”? The day before “Christmas”? Instead, they planned to devote those hours to comments and thoughts about Stefanie Spielman.

And I admit, I was dubious. An entire afternoon of radio programming? The day before the biggest game of the year? I thought, That’s nice, but how much can they possibly say about her?

Obviously, I didn’t know the full story.

People in Columbus live for the Michigan game, and to deny them a platform to speak about it the day before the game…well, it was just unfathomable.

Chris Spielman knew this. That’s probably why he texted his colleague to say, “You can’t do this. The game is tomorrow. You have to talk about the game.”

To which his colleague responded, “I can’t do that. I can’t talk about football today.”

Spielman’s response: “Okay, but…make sure you tell them. Make sure they know.”

In other words, “That’s your decision, but make sure the listeners know that I didn’t want to take the focus off the game.”

At first glance, it sounds strange that a man—a day removed from losing his wife—would be concerned about shifting the focus back to a game (even a game that’s treated like Christmas in Columbus). Without knowing the story, it could almost sound callous, heartless.

But as I listened to the stories shared by those calling the radio station, I began to understand.

I learned that it was during her first bout with cancer that Chris stepped away from football to be by her side; I learned that her cancer would return four more times before finally taking her life. When Stefanie lost her hair, Chris shaved his own. I learned that they have four children (two of which were born after her first diagnosis). When doctors advised her to have an abortion because she was on the drug Herceptin—a newer drug on which no one had ever given birth to a child—Stefanie and Chris refused. And their child was born without any imperfections.

I learned that, in 1998, when Stefanie was first diagnosed (at the age of 30), breast cancer was not nearly as publicized as it is today. Determined to raise breast cancer awareness, she created the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research (and the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Patient Assistance—which provides, among other things, wigs, gas cards, nutrition supplements, compression garments, circulation pumps for lymphedema, lymphedema sleeves, and groceries to women battling breast cancer).

stefanieatlivestrong2The Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research began when a grocery store started selling paper footballs for $1. Kids set up lemonade stands. There were bake sales. Golf tournaments. Numerous other endeavors. The goal, initially, was to raise $250,000. Within 6 months, they topped $1 million. To this day, the Fund has raised over $6.5 million.

As a new resident in central Ohio, I wouldn’t have learned any of this if a radio station hadn’t decided to devote its afternoon programming to honor the life of Stefanie Spielman. And I admit, at first I almost changed the station. But within the hour, I was nearly moved to tears listening to the secondhand accounts of the Spielmans’ story—their love, their faith, their resilience, and most of all, the countless lives they impacted.

One caller shared the story that summed up everything for me. On the day the Spielmans learned that Stefanie’s cancer had returned for the fifth—and what they expected to be the final—time, Chris was scheduled to speak at a benefit that night. Not only did Chris go to the benefit, but he used it as an opportunity to share about Stefanie’s most recent diagnosis. Spielman proceeded to give a speech, and ten minutes later, the caller said, there were no dry eyes in the place.

And why did he do it? Why did he show up that night? Certainly people would have understood if he chose to cancel. According to this caller, Spielman said he went because he didn’t want to send the wrong message to their children. He didn’t want them to think this disease had beaten them—that it had interfered with, well, life.

And I think that’s why Spielman texted his colleague on Friday afternoon to say, “You can’t do this; you need to talk about the game.” It wasn’t just because Chris thought the fans would want to talk about the game; it was because Chris (and Stefanie) lived for nearly twelve years refusing to let cancer stop them. Even in death, Chris didn’t want to concede anything to cancer.

But his colleagues were right: it didn’t matter that Christmas was less than twenty-four hours away. Friday wasn’t a day for talking about football. And it wasn’t a day for conceding anything—it was a day to celebrate the inspirational story that was and is Chris and Stefanie Spielman.

Rarely do we encounter someone who is so committed to making their life count. Stefanie Spielman was one of those rare individuals. I know this because I heard it in the voices of those who called in last Friday afternoon.

In their voices, I heard admiration for Chris Spielman—a man who played football at the highest level, a man who walked away from the game to support his wife, a man who treated his marriage with the respect it deserves, and a man of unwavering faith. And in those voices, I heard not just admiration for Chris but genuine love for Stefanie, the woman who stole the heart of her husband and everyone who knew her.

It is telling that when Ohio State opened its football season against Navy in September, when Chris Spielman was honored at halftime for his induction into college football’s Hall of Fame, the crowd cheered loudest not for Chris, but for Stefanie, as she sat in a wheelchair on the field, clapping for her husband. It was fitting that the season began with the Spielmans (and their four children) standing on the field together during that halftime—and it ended with the OSU players wearing “SS” stickers to honor Stefanie in the season’s final game against Michigan.

According to a column in Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch, when Stefanie was first diagnosed in 1998, she said, “I know there’s a reason God gave me breast cancer, and I’m supposed to do something with it.”

spielmans_story_imageThe same column also quoted a journal excerpt Stefanie had shared with the paper. In it, she wrote, “I do not feel sorry for myself. I do not wish this would have happened to anyone else. I cannot let this get the best of me, and I will not let this ruin the rest of my life—no matter how long it is.”

Saying it and living it are two different things. But by all accounts, Stefanie lived it. And even though it sounds like a cliché, she lives on.

I know this because I never saw her in person, never gave her a hug, never shook her hand or spoke to her. And yet, I feel like I met her the day after her death—through the stories shared on the radio station, on television, and in the paper.

Following Stefanie’s death, Chris released a public statement that said, “Stefanie has gone home to be with the Lord. For that we celebrate, but with broken hearts. I want to thank everyone for their support over the last twelve years. Together, with your help, hopefully we have made a difference in this fight.”

I think there is little doubt that they have made a difference—and continue to do so. Despite the difficulties she faced, Stefanie often referred to her life as a fairy tale. The fairy tale isn’t over yet.

One of Chris’s colleagues perhaps said it best, “I’m not worried about Chris. And I’m not worried about their kids. I’m worried about us. I wish I had their faith. Because they know, without a doubt, that this isn’t the last time they’ll see each other. When it all ends, they’ll be together again.”

And then Stefanie’s fairy tale will end. Happily ever after.

Tyler Charles is a freelance writer living in Delaware, Ohio. You can connect with him at

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