COLUMBUS - Scores of current and former pro athletes are involved with instructional camps, where young people go to learn the secrets of the game.
What they get in some cases is an appearance by the celebrity at the start of camp, a 79-cent motivational speech, and then the pro climbs back in the Escalade, gets on the cell phone, and the next time the kids see him is on ESPN. They too often hang their name on the camp brochure, but they don't hang around the camp for long.
Legendary Ohio State linebacker and former NFL standout Chris Spielman has taken a different approach at his youth football camp, which he started three years ago. Spielman is the anti-star. If he were any more "hands-on" during the camp, there might be broken bones to deal with.
"Chris has been fully involved with this camp and these kids from the day the idea was proposed," said Andy Olds, a high school coach from Cincinnati who has worked at the Spielman camp since its inception.
"He's out there every minute of every day, making sure the drills are done exactly right, and constantly conveying life lessons while he's teaching football technique. He's all over this camp."
That hyper-involvement should not surprise anyone familiar with Spielman. If you ever saw him play for the Buckeyes, and possibly watched him register 29 tackles in a game against Michigan, you know he does things differently.
Spielman was one of the nation's most sought-after high school players as a linebacker at Massillon Washington, and he went on to be a two-time All-American with the Buckeyes, and was All-Big Ten three times. Spielman won the Lombardi Award as college football's best lineman or linebacker, and is Ohio State's all-time leader in solo tackles, and one of the Buckeyes' all-time leading tacklers overall with 546.
Spielman went to the Detroit Lions as the 29th choice in the 1988 NFL draft, and was a Pro Bowl pick four times over the next eight seasons. He was the first Lion to lead the team in tackles for seven straight seasons. Following two years with the Buffalo Bills, Spielman joined the Cleveland Browns.
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But after his wife, Stefanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer, Spielman walked away from his lucrative pro football career for a year to be at her side during chemotherapy, and to help his children deal with the crisis. When his wife lost her hair due to the treatments, Spielman shaved his head to match hers.
Spielman returned to the NFL the next year, but suffered a career-ending neck injury. After interviewing for the head coaching job at Ohio State in 2001 after John Cooper's departure, Spielman settled into a career in broadcasting, co-hosting a daily radio show in Columbus, and working college football games for ESPN.
He also teamed with Stefanie to launch the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, and the pair raised millions for the cause. After his wife lost her very public, decade-long fight with the disease last November at age 42, Spielman carried on her crusade in her absence.
"She taught me what true will, true desire, and true courage really are," Spielman said about his wife at his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.
Those happen to be some of the same lessons Spielman conveys to his campers, who get football technique and character coaching in a simultaneous delivery.
"In all likelihood, these kids leave this camp as better football players, but without a doubt they leave as better members of society," said Bruce Hooley, who is Spielman's broadcast partner for "The Big Show" on Columbus-based sports talk station 97.1 FM The Fan.
"The thing that never takes a holiday with Chris is his passion, and he is imparting lessons on integrity and honesty and character all the time while he is teaching football. The guy really cares."
That was exactly what Amy Kirkpatrick was looking for to help her son Josh, a promising junior high-age football player at Lakota, develop on and off the field. She enrolled him in the three-day camp two years ago, and commuted to Columbus from northwest Ohio each day.
"Chris Spielman absolutely impacted my son's confidence level, as well as improving his football technique," Kirkpatrick said. "My son was changed by the whole experience. He came back from that camp and wanted to be a linebacker, just like Chris."
"At first, he seemed like a real scary-looking guy," Josh Kirkpatrick said about the six-foot, 247-pound Spielman, "but once we were around him at camp, he was cool. He made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to do. He really gave me a lot of confidence."
Josh Kirkpatrick is from a generation of kids who never saw Chris Spielman play football, because he retired more than a decade ago. But Olds, who played linebacker at Capital University before starting his coaching career, said name recognition is not an issue.
"These kids fall in love with Chris Spielman because of who he is, not because of who he was," Olds said. "He is here hours before the camp starts, and hours after it is over. Chris is so popular, he owns Columbus, so he doesn't have to do this, but he puts his heart and soul in it, and the kids recognize that."
"It is hard to fully comprehend how commanding a presence Chris is, until you find him standing right in front of you," Hooley said.
"The kids at his camp have never seen him play, but once they hear him talk about football, and life, it is impossible for them to not be affected by it. He is so committed to everything he does - nothing with Chris is ever watered-down."
Spielman, as humble and understated as ever, said he is just offering this group of kids the same football instruction - and the more importantly, coaching on how to handle situations in school, at home and with friends - that he received.
"The camp is rewarding because it gives me an opportunity to give back lessons in football, and life," Spielman said.
This summer's Spielman Camp will be held in July at Dublin Coffman High School in suburban Columbus. It is expected to attract 350-400 kids from second through eighth grade, boys and girls.
Many of them will be able to attend even if they are not able to come up with the modest enrollment fee. Spielman has established a network of sponsors to set up scholarships, and uses these to get more kids into the fold.
"The way the camp is set up, we are able to offer kids a chance to attend for free, if they need financial help," Spielman said.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said Spielman is one of a number of former OSU players who has remained a great ambassador for the sport, the school, and the football program. Tressel is not surprised at the mission and the success of the Chris Spielman Football Camp, and is proud of all that Spielman has done with his charity work, and in giving back to Ohio State, and the sport.
"That's as simple as it comes: once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye," Tressel said. "Our current guys get so much from the experience and life lessons they learn from interacting with our former players. Nobody can understand what it's like to stand in the same shoes like family, and the Buckeye family is a great example of that."
The reward of interacting with a former Buckeye such as Spielman appears to be significant.
"When we first heard about the camp, I knew who he was and that he had been a football player at Ohio State, but I had no idea what kind of person Chris Spielman was," Mrs. Kirkpatrick said.
"I was shocked at how much he interacted with these kids. He was out there all the time, and they were locked in on his every word. He is an outstanding person, who also happened to be a great football player, and the kids at this camp benefit from both."
Contact Matt Markey at:
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COLUMBUS - Legendary Ohio State linebacker and former NFL standout Chris Spielman has taken a different approach at his youth football camp, which he started three years ago. Spielman is the anti-star. If he were any more "hands-on" during the camp, there might be broken bones to deal with.