Alone in the dark he sits, behind the projector, his thumb clicking the remote button as the players on screen move backwards then forwards then backwards then forwards.
“Corner trap (click, click),” he says, “now a sprint 15 . . . see how that guard rides the center up there (click) . . . now this is a 15 bend, see that tight end (click) he’s supposed to block No. 52 (click) he’s gotta get his butt up there, right now! Look (click) he’s hesitating (click) he’s hesitating (click) . . . GO, RIGHT NOW! (click) . . . too late!”
Coaches do this kind of film watching, sipping coffee and rubbing their eyes. And so Chris Spielman, a coach’s son, does it, too. He is the only player in the Silverdome at this hour. It is Tuesday, “off day,” the day when other Lions are at home sleeping or playing with the kids.
And here is Spielman with his joystick.
“This is Washington’s draw play (click) . . . see that hole? Where that guy is going? (click) I gotta be there (click) . . . Ooh (click) I’ll be faster than that guy Sunday, guaranteed (click).”
You might think this unusual behavior for an athlete, even during the playoffs, but remember, we are talking about Chris Spielman, a fellow whose first tackle came at age 5, when he took down his grandmother. “She had just walked in the door and I wanted to play football and I went” — he holds his arms out and leans forward — “whompf!”
“Jeez,” I say. “Did you hurt her?”
“Nah, she’s still living.”
He flicks on the lights and laughs, his broad neck muscles rolling under his T-shirt. His hair is matted flat, his stubble is at least three days thick, and there is a noticeable scar on his forehead. I ask Spielman the last time he was without a scar someplace on his body and he says, “When I was born.”
Meet the man who brings more spit and desire to the NFC title game this Sunday than any player out there. Tough? Here is a story about Spielman’s toughness: When he was 3 years old, he was playing a “kamikaze race through the house” with his older brother, Rick. They were neck-and-neck heading for the doorway, and Chris tried to squeeze past, desperate to win, he lunged forward — and ran smack into the wall. Opened this bloody gash on his forehead.
“Dad, does Chris have to get stitches?” Rick asked their father.
“I think so,’ his father said, frowning.
Legend has it Chris said: “Goody.”
But that’s only a legend.
And you can’t believe every legend you hear, right? Otherwise, you’d think Spielman, 26, is no more than a tightly wound instrument of destruction, a walking set of shoulder pads whose only form of expression is “GRRRRRR!”
Not true. The linebacker factory-workers-most-love-to-root- for is also a shy, patriotic husband with a thin tenor voice, a guy who sees things simply but honestly and without pretension. He sort of reminds you of the Tom Cruise character in “Born on the Fourth of July” — before he goes to Vietnam. Life is black and white. You work hard. You strive to be the best. And you do what you have to do. Spielman does not enjoy neckties, but he’ll wear one if he has to. He is not much for books, but he went back to college to earn his diploma.
He does not swoon at romance, but he has his moments. The summer after he was drafted by the Lions, Spielman proposed to his high school sweetheart, Stefanie, the only girlfriend he’s ever had. He took her to a miniature golf course in Canton, Ohio, and when they reached the 18th hole, he told her he left his keys near the green, could she please go get them? When she got near the hole, she looked down and saw an engagement ring wedged inside. She began to cry.
“Then what did you say?” I ask.
“I said, ‘Go ahead and putt.”
“No, after that.”
“Oh. I said, ‘Stefanie, will you marry me?’ She finally said yes. Afterwards, the place gave us a free game because we got engaged on their putt-putt course.”
See? Told you he had a romantic side.
“This place has good food,” he says, pulling open the door. “You ever been here?”
We are entering Klancy’s on Opdyke Road, one of Spielman’s favorite restaurants — largely because it’s within a mile of the Silverdome. Klancy’s has a formica counter, booth tables and, according to Spielman, “great mashed potatoes.” It is busy, but one of the workers motions to a booth near the back. Several waitresses say “Hi, Chris.” The cook pokes his head out and says, “Chris, how ya doin?’ “
Spielman sits down, looking sheepish.
“I told them we were coming. They’re kind of excited.”
Spielman does not do a lot of interviews outside of the locker room. He is painfully shy about his private life, mostly because when he was in high school in Ohio, his picture was on the cover of a Wheaties box — part of the cereal’s efforts to honor young athletes — and instantly, his world was turned upside down. People asked him to speak to Boy Scout troops, to make appearances, to serve as an upstanding example of American youth. That’s a tall order for a sweaty teenager who mostly liked to play football, lift weights, and watch TV with his buddies. He would go out with Stefanie, and guys would laugh behind his back and call him “the Cheerios boy.” He chose to attend Ohio State, not far from home, and that only made his celebrity more intense. He started his freshman year, and from that moment on, everyone on campus knew who he was, every class, every lunch room.
“The hardest thing for me to do is to let people get close to me,’ he says. “Mostly because of that Wheaties box thing. I only have about five people who I really let know me. With everyone else, I mostly talk football.
“Maybe because of that, there’s this misconception that I’m only a football player, not a person. I always hear how intense I am, and my wife and I talk about that. She tries to get me to stop and . . . what is it, smell the roses? But I can’t do it. It’s not me.
“After a game, whether we win or lose, if there was one play I messed up on, it haunts me for days. I’m in this constant search for perfection, I don’t know why. When I come home from a game I start walking around the house in circles. I go from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen — and I don’t even realize I’m doing it. Stefanie says, ‘Chris, sit down.’ And I say,
In order to understand this intensity, you must understand Spielman’s relationship with his father, Sonny, a high school coach who once took his 4-year-old son to practice, pointed to a group of linebackers and said, “Go watch them.” Sonny Spielman demanded excellence and hard work. When Chris was 11, he took a job raking baseball fields at a summer camp — while other kids his age were playing on them.
“Responsibility,” his father called it.
You hear stories about Chris’s obsession with football: how he once smashed a window in college to break into the weight room. How he would meet the Ohio State coaches before sunrise to watch film. “My goal was always to get to the building before (head coach) Earle Bruce did,” he admits.
That meant 6 a.m. He did it.
Even now, he rises at that hour every day in the off-season to work out. He is so consistently excellent, that no one even bothers to ask coach Wayne Fontes how Spielman played this week. He does the film thing every Tuesday, and calls out defensive signals in the two seconds between the time the opposing team drops at the line and snaps the ball.
“He is unbelievable,” his teammates will tell you, rolling their eyes in a mix of admiration and disbelief.
But he is also human. It is not hard to see beneath the whiskers and the piercing eyes, to find there a boy who is trying to earn the love of his father. Is that so unusual?
As he struggles to talk about himself at Klancy’s, I notice he has pulled apart several toothpicks and destroyed a straw. Nerves, he says.
Yes. And that’s the thing about Spielman. There are a lot of levels operating here. There is the guy who will be counted on to lead the Lions defense against the Redskins this weekend, but there is also the guy who looks down when people compliment him. It is true he won the Lombardi Trophy, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a Pro Bowl Selection for his never- ending toughness. It is also true that he wears sweat socks under black dress socks, because the dress ones are “too thin.” He swears by his country, his religion, says he would have fought in Vietnam (“definitely”) but when I ask what he would say if he had a son came to him and said “Dad, I want to be a florist,” this is what he answers:
“I’d tell him ‘Be the best florist there is.’ “
And ultimately, that is the core of Chris Spielman. His obsession comes not from a desire to inflict pain, but from a desire to be the best, the way his parents taught him. Because of that, he is truly passionate about his work, football, and there are those who say this is not the healthiest obsession.
You know what I think? I think in an age of apathy, passion is not something you take lightly. It could be in art, music, or football — it is still passion, and it should be celebrated, at least when it blossoms in a fair and decent man, who doesn’t ask for more than his share, and doesn’t put himself above the mashed potato-eaters.
“I’m really not a grrrr person,” he says, “it’s just when I talk football, I get excited . . .”
We understand. You are what you are. So next time passion gets the better of Chris Spielman, maybe you can forgive him.
His grandmother did.