Stefanie Spielman was thirty years old and the wife of a famous NFL player named Chris Spielman. Stefanie was pregnant when she discovered a lump on her breast. Later she would miscarry and get her worst fear, a cancer diagnosis. Stefanie and Chris had a storybook life together. Their love blossomed even though they were often apart. Chris with his football career that he loved passionately and Stephanie as a mother of four and model.
After getting drafted by the Detroit Lions out of Ohio State after an exceptional college career Chris went on to becoming the Lions all time leader in tackles. He also represented the Lions four times in the annual Pro Bowl game which features the best the NFL has to offer! In 1996 Chris joined the Buffalo Bills and promptly set an individual and team record of 206 tackles in a season! In 1997 Chris had a major injury that required spinal surgery. Chris would have been able to continue his career in 1998 except his wife Stefanie was going through her cancer treatments. It shocked the sports world when Chris announced that he would be sitting out the 1998 season to be with his ailing wife. “How could he give up his career and let the Buffalo Bills down?”, they wondered. Chris had a simple reply to these doubters which was “How can I not?” “I made a vow before God and I would be far less a man if I didn’t honor it!”
Chris and Stefanie met while they were in high school. The setting was a high school dance and Chris saw a player from another school dancing with Stefanie. As a new song was starting Chris got the nerve up to ask Stefanie to dance. This forwardness wasn’t an easy thing for Chris. He was an introvert who didn’t like public attention or a lot of interaction. Someone said that he would have been happy living his life on a mountain top away from everyone. Stefanie on the other hand was very outgoing. She was a cheerleader and very popular. Brian DeWitz a high school teammate of Chris remembered the time. He could see something from that early stage in their relationship that would carry them in years ahead. “It was a very, very selfless relationship. It was a very mature relationship.”
Even though Chris didn’t like public attention, he was getting it from his tremendous football exploits. Chris admired Stefs outgoing personality and the way she could be the center of attention. To his surprise Chris was asked by a local booster Jack Gorius if he would be OK with Jack starting a campaign to get Chris on the Wheaties box? “Sure, why not?”, was Chris’ reply thinking nothing would come of it. The booster was interested in getting their town of Massillon, Ohio on the national map. Chris was surprised when the town caught fire for the idea and campaigned for the story vigorously. Between his junior and senior years in high school a Wheaties box was made with Chris on the cover!
Chris continued his football excellence at Ohio State University. His relationship with Stef grew and they repeated their vows on their memorable start of married life!
Although Chris was so dedicated to his football career and improving his game he did his best to be a good husband and father. Four kids followed and it was not easy to balance because Chris had to be away most of the time for six months. However, they both adjusted to the situation and loved each other and their kids very much. Year after year it was the same routine, first in Detroit and then in Buffalo. He was born in Canton Ohio and that was where he was sure his legacy would end up. Canton Ohio is the home to Football’s Hall of Fame. Then the tragic news of the cancer discovery came.
Chris had set aside his football career but the change was not easy. He found himself watching two or three games every Sunday and thinking about the game that he loved. He was also finding it hard to care for the kids when Stef couldn’t. Being away from them for mostly six months at a time had taken it’s toll. They were used to mommy helping them and had a hard time adjusting to Chris. Likewise Chris had a hard time adjusting to the tasks that Stef did without thinking. Tasks like the laundry and cooking. Chris found that his football training knowledge came into play here. It didn’t always look pretty but step by step much like football he could usually get the job done. He felt very humbled by his lack of knowledge and skills but he muddled through the tasks as best he could.
Stef had a hard time with losing her hair as chemo treatments usually cause. One day when a bunch of her hair came off in the hands of one of her children she decided to have a “Hair Picnic”. She had her whole head shaved. As her kids watched and ate peanut butter sandwiches, Stef watched in a mirror as the hair that won her modeling jobs all around the country and Greece was swiftly chopped away. The idea was that she would control when her hair came out, not cancer! Chris arrived a little late because in a support of solidarity he had just had all of his hair shaved off too. He figured that it would draw some attention away from Stef and onto him. It was during this first year of chemo that Stef shared her thoughts in a journal.
“I never thought I could love my family more than I did, but I do. I am a happy person. I really don’t like being sad. I always try to find the good things in life. I know God is with me. I know there is a reason God gave me breast cancer, and I’m supposed to do something with it. Life throws us a lot of curve balls, sometimes all at once. I think God has a reason and a plan for all of it. Now is the time for me to suck it up and follow the path put before me. I’m thirty years old and I have breast cancer. My life already has had some struggles, but I have been so fortunate and blessed and truly fulfilled. I have love, excitement, thrill, and adventure. I am otherwise healthy and physically fit and have always been confident and sure of my capabilities. I am trying to direct my strength to get me through this new chapter in my life. I will beat this thing. I have to. Madison and Noah are so much motivation. I will do anything for them. Chris, too. I need him so much, it’s not even funny.”
Although the chemo was having devastating effects on Stef, Chris was there to encourage her! He made it a point to keep telling her that the chemo was the good guy. That it was their ally! Stef bought in because she was willing to go through anything to resume her life with her family.
After the year away Chris was anxious to resume his football career and Stef was anxious to get on with life. She had her last treatment and they celebrated. Her cancer was now in remission and everyone was happy! Chris diligently got ready for the 1999 season. He would be playing for his hometown Cleveland Browns. His comeback from spinal neck fusion surgery didn’t last long. In an exhibition game against the Bears he was blindsided by the Bears center. Spielman remained prone on the field for several minutes before walking off on his own power. He told his former teammate from the Lions Lomas Brown that he had been temporarily paralyzed. Days later Chris announced his retirement from the NFL. He had given all that his body had to offer and he couldn’t give the game anymore. He was getting out while he could still walk away.
This whole cancer experience was having a deep spiritual effect on Chris. He had shamefully realized that football had really been his God through the years. He had played it since the age of nine and he religiously did everything he could to get better. Although he loved his wife and family football was his God. Now he was forced to deal with the real question “What is my purpose?’ He struggled with the question of why God was putting him and his family through this? He wished he could be as strong as Stef who seemed to see a purpose in this whole ordeal. He dedicated himself to the cause of helping find a cure for cancer. Stef and Chris’ story began to take a national turn as they both dedicated themselves to raising money for the cause. They also wanted to expand the education of the disease. As determined and dedicated as Chris was in football he became even more so to the cause. He forced himself to be more of an upfront person as he and Stef went on national shows such as Oprah.
Stefanie established the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research in 1998 considering it a life mission to improve research and awareness. At the time she stated “I know there is a reason God gave me breast cancer, and I’m supposed to do something with it.” She shared her story through the years throughout Central Ohio and the fund accumulated more than 6.5 million dollars for breast cancer research, education, and patient assistance at Ohio State University’s Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. There was another important award that Stef established. It was called Stefanie’s Champions and it was a yearly award for the caregivers that gave so much to the patients. Stefanie lovingly gave the first award to Chris as her way of saying thanks.
It was a constant fight for Stef through the years. The cancer would go into remission only to start back up again. Still she went to events as her body let her. One time Chris noted a firm and direct answer that Stef gave a recent cancer patient. The young lady was asking Stef questions and suddenly became concerned thinking she was bothering her. Stef put a grip on her hand and said these words, “Don’t you know this is what I’m here for?” After four re-occurrences through eleven years the doctors let Chris know that this time it was terminal. Ironically there was a little good news in 2009. Chris had been elected to the College Football Hall of Fame! As sick as she was Stef willed herself to be part of Chris’ celebration. She needed to be wheeled out to the field but she was there with Chris and their children to honor the man that she loved so much!
It was November of 2009 and Chris was preparing in his mind for life without Stef. It was hard and yet their faith in God gave them hope for the after life. Stefanie Spielman died in November of 2009. Before she did as both knew what the outcome would be Chris asked Stef a heart wrenching question..”Was I a good husband?” “The best”, she answered without hesitating. Those simple words of praise meant more to Chris than all the football fame he ever received!