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Published: Thursday, 5/10/2012

Spielman gives his all to raise awareness of breast cancer

Former NFL linebacker is man on a mission

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR
Stefanie and Chris Spielman devoted themselves to battling her breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 1998. She died in 2009 at 42. Stefanie and Chris Spielman devoted themselves to battling her breast cancer, which was diagnosed in 1998. She died in 2009 at 42.
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY Enlarge

When Chris Spielman was wreaking havoc on the college and pro football fields, the legendary linebacker credited his success to a relentless drive to outwork, outlift, and outrun the competition.

But the Ohio State All-American and four time NFL Pro Bowl player found himself facing a different and much more sinister foe in July, 1998, when his wife and high school sweetheart, Stefanie, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

For the first time in his life, Mr. Spielman said in a recent interview, he found himself facing an opponent he could not defeat through his own skills, strength, and determination. "I had no control. I had to submit to God and accept that no matter what the outcome, there's got to be trust. There's got to be a plan," he said.

Mr. Spielman will talk about his and his wife's long battle with breast cancer on Friday as the featured speaker at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event at CedarCreek Church in Perrysburg.

For the 11 years after her diagnosis, the Spielmans poured everything they had into fighting cancer, both for Stefanie's sake and for all those who face the same world-shattering diagnosis. After Stefanie lost her battle on Nov. 19, 2009, at age 42, Mr. Spielman has continued raising awareness and funds for research, saying it has become his purpose in life.

It is also the reason for the title of his new book, That's Why I'm Here: The Chris & Stefanie Spielman Story, published last month by Zondervan. As Maddie Spielman, the couple's 18-year-old daughter, explains in the foreword, when a cancer survivor once thanked her mother for her efforts to end cancer and to give people hope, Stefanie replied, "Don't you understand? That's why I'm here."

In his book, Mr. Spielman weaves together the stories of the two greatest loves of his life, Stefanie and football. He readily admits that football was an off-the-charts obsession for him from childhood through his years with the Massillon Washington High School Tigers, the Ohio State Buckeyes, and the NFL's Detroit Lions, Buffalo Bills, and Cleveland Browns.

Mr. Spielman, now 46, retired from football in 1999 and works as a college football analyst for ESPN and is co-host of ESPN's reality series Rise Up.

He grew up in a football family in Canton, soaking up the lessons as his father coached high school ball. "Ever since I could remember, I wanted to be an NFL football player," he said in the book.

He achieved success early, getting his photo on a Wheaties box while still in high school. He pushed himself to extraordinary lengths, physically and mentally, in his relentless drive to reach the top. "I liked knowing that no other player worked harder and that other players wouldn't do what I did to prepare," he said.

In 1983, Mr. Spielman discovered the only other passion in his life that could compete with football, Stefanie Belcher, a 15-year-old girl who attended a cross-town high school. "In my eyes, she was the most stunning, striking, captivating, gorgeous female I had ever seen, not just in person, but ever," he writes.

Mr. Spielman was raised Roman Catholic and his wife grew up in a Presbyterian family, he said. The couple have four children, ages 9 to 18. Faith and spirituality were always important to him and his wife, Mr. Spielman said.

Despite the firm spiritual foundation, Mr. Spielman said faith was not always a priority as he fought his way to the top in the football world.

"You have more important things going on in your life," he explained.

Like Running. Lifting weights. Studying game films. Slamming into foes so hard they thought they were blindsided by a Hummer.

Eventually, Mr. Spielman said, he "needed to make a decision to have a personal relationship" with God, spending more time reading the Bible and praying. "You've got to put time into it, as in any relationship."

One outcome of his refocused priorities was a decision to sit out the 1998 NFL season, putting his career on hold in order to care for his wife.

Having a personal relationship with Jesus didn't spare the Spielmans from their struggles or provide easy answers to life's tough questions. There were times when Mr. Spielman erupted in anger over Stefanie's illness.

Mr. Spielman held nothing back in That's Why I'm Here, baring his soul about even the most trying and unflattering moments.

"To be effective, books have to be honest," he said. "You must tell people where you fall short. You can learn from that. You can relate to that guy. I was scared and humbled like he was. Yeah, no one wants to admit that at one point I was in the back seat of my car in the fetal position afraid to pick up my kids [after learning of Stefanie's cancer relapse]. It's not easy. But if you want to have an impact, you'd better be honest."

His wife's faith was amazingly strong even at the lowest points of their journey, according to Mr. Spielman.

When first diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, Mr. Spielman went into a rage, yelling that it just wasn't fair and his wife, in a rare outburst, shouted at him. "Stop it!," she yelled, adding, "How dare you?"

Stunned, Mr. Spielman asked what she meant by that.

"She looked at me with this fierce determination and said, 'How dare you say those things with all the blessings we've been given in our life?' " he recalled.

Mr. Spielman has taken on the task of defeating cancer with the same intensity he put into football. The Spielmans have raised nearly $10 million for the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute in Columbus.

He said he is optimistic that cancer will be cured in his lifetime. "We just have to give talented people the tools to succeed," he said.

Ed Bellner, area director for the Northwest Ohio Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has been impressed by Mr. Spielman's continuing efforts to find a cure for breast cancer.

"What's exciting about it is the fact that he's let the momentum continue to build after the passing of his wife. That is a testimony to his character and his faith. He didn't back down, he didn't start a new project or a new venture," Mr. Bellner said.

Mr. Spielman said he and Stefanie believed their story could inspire others and help people find peace amid the storm.

"I think you come to an acceptance that the reason why is there's an impact to be made, that we can be used by God. ... I really think that when she went home, Jesus was there and he wrapped his arms around her, took her by the shoulders, and said, 'Well done my good and faithful servant.' "

Chris Spielman will speak at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes tailgate party from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and a "main event" from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday at CedarCreek Church, 29129 Lime City Rd., Perrysburg. Tickets are $25. For reservations or information, call FCA at 419-724-4420.

Contact David Yonke at: dyonke@theblade.com or 419-724-6154.



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