Between plays, he walks in these nervous circles, as if chained to a tree. He goes halfway, then turns, heads back. His arms hang thick, pushed out by his well-pumped back muscles, the Incredible Hulk in a helmet. And there he goes again, another half circle, backwards, forward. You say to yourself,
“He’s a raging bull. He’s a lion in a cage. He’s fuming.”
“Why do you do that?” he is asked.
“Walk in those circles.”
“I do that?”
You want to know why Chris Spielman was chosen Thursday to his fourth Pro Bowl, as starting linebacker? Not because he pounds running backs like a mallet hitting a gong. Not because he flattens receivers like a falling rock flattens mud. Not because he calls the defensive plays, leads the Lions in tackles, or comes to the Silverdome on his day off to watch film.
No. It’s those circles. He looks dangerous. I figure opposing players see him pacing around, they say, ‘Shoot, I’m voting this guy to the Pro Bowl so he doesn’t kill me.’ “
Not that Spielman would. Kill them. He is sensitive to the brutality of his sport. His most vivid memory of his rookie year is when running back Karl Bernard’s leg twisted grotesquely during practice. It was completely backwards, the foot facing the other way.
“And you know what the coaches did? They said, ‘All right, let’s move practice down the other side of the field.’ That’s it.”
Spielman, 29, shakes his head, spits tobacco into a small cup.
“I don’t think anyone who doesn’t play pro football really understands the courage it takes to be out there.” Prototypical player . . .
Of course, some call it courage, others call it insanity.
Spielman calls it a way of life. “The greatest game in the world,” he says, proudly.
That’s Spielman. If you were painting his portrait you’d put blood on his elbows and mud on his knees, black under his eyes, three-day stubble on his chin. There’d be puffs of smoke coming from his breath, and his fingernails would be chewed down. His jersey would hang loose from his silver pants.
And of course, he’d be pacing.
“Why do you do that?”
“I don’t know. I’m so busy thinking about the next play, I don’t even realize I’m moving. It’s a part of me.”
As is football, which chose Spielman as much as he chose it. A hundred years ago, he would have been a professional soldier, like his father before him. Today his life is football, like his father, the football coach, before him. Spielman, out of Massillon, Ohio — a town that should use yard markers instead of street signs — was taught football as a way of life (sweat good, surrender bad) and he draws his rewards from hitting hard, laying a lick, feeling the opponent crunch on the turf beneath him.
“My wife is worried that when our daughter grows up, I’m gonna scare off all her boyfriends with football,” Spielman, a new daddy, says, laughing.
“She’s probably right. The first question out of my mouth will be: ‘What position do you play?’ And he better not say ‘shortstop.’ “
Poor girl won’t have a date before grad school.
Ah, well. What did you expect? Have you ever met a kid who didn’t want to play quarterback? Spielman was one. He tried it for a year. “I went to the coaches and said, let me do something else. You had to keep handing the ball off, or passing it. I hated it.”
Let the other kids have the beginning of the play. Spielman wanted to be there for the finish.
So he became a linebacker, the way Mozart became a composer, the way Charlemagne became an emperor, it was fate, even his body grew into the mold
— squat, thick, powerful. He keeps it that way, every week, every month. He takes no vacation from training.
The game is war; the war is never-ending.
. . . with a quiet personality
Still, you cannot throw Spielman into the “typical football monster” mold. You know what he did on the plane trip to his first Pro Bowl? He read Lawrence Taylor’s book, because he was playing on the same team with him.
He read a book to prep for the Pro Bowl?
“I told Lawrence that, and he just looked at me like, you what?” Spielman says.
And though he no longer needs to cram before Pro Bowls, he still reads, mostly autobiographies of successful people: Norman Schwarzkopf, Larry Bird, Rush Limbaugh, Ronnie Lott, Woody Hayes. Not exactly your leftist liberal reading list, but hey, at least he’s not watching cartoons.
He is also shy, charitable and doesn’t even sound like a linebacker. His voice is thin, and at times he speaks in almost pained tones, as if the words won’t come as fast as his thoughts. That may be because his thoughts are often as intense as a typhoon.
“Before a game, I get so worked up, it’s like burning a fire, I want more fuel, more fuel. I hate to say it, but now that I have a little girl, I think of the other team as like, kidnappers, they’re trying to hurt her, I got to stop them.”
He pauses. “I’m giving you my innermost stuff here.”
No, he saves that for the field — and for his family. You have to like a guy who not only plays each down as if it were the end of the world but also says, “If my little girl was in danger, I’d throw myself in front of a moving car to save her, no questions asked.”
The difference is, Chris Spielman would expect to take the hit and get up.
Who are we to argue? CUTLINE: Chris Spielman: “I hate to say it, but now that I have a little girl, I think of the other team as, like, kidnappers.”