IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTHNOTHING COULD KEEP CHRIS SPIELMAN OFF THE FOOTBALL FIELD. UNTIL HIS WIFE,STEFANIE, LEARNED SHE HAD BREAST CANCER.

As he lifted the razor, he thought about her. And as he pulled it across his scalp, he thought about her. He shaved down to stubble, making himself bald, the hair falling in globs on the floor. And all the while he thought about her.

He thought about the happier times, like the night they met, at a high school dance in Canton, Ohio. They held each other close during a slow song. It was nice. But then that fast Prince tune came on, “Little Red Corvette,” and he backed away because he was this macho football player, and macho doesn’t do fast dances.

He thought about that summer night a few years later, when he asked her to marry him. At a Putt-Putt golf course, of all places. He hid the ring in the 18th hole, waited for her to find it.

He thought about 10 years of Sunday afternoons in the NFL. Every game, no matter how much he hurt, no matter how many stitches or ice packs he needed, she greeted him in the tunnel with a hug and a kiss, and he had relief.

Always there for him, she was.

So now it was his turn.

He ran the razor behind his ears and over the crown of his head. He thought about her the previous day, how she had been wrestling with the kids, trying to behave like everything was still normal, like she wasn’t sick, and the 2-year-old, Noah, grabbed her and came up with a mouthful of her hair, which had been falling out for days. Hair. In the shower. On the pillow. Now in their child’s mouth.

Damn, he thought. It was bad enough what chemotherapy did, that awful liquid, dripping into her, eating her cells, so potent that a nurse had to sit with her and make sure none spilled on her skin, lest it burn right through. Bad enough the seasick nausea that chemo brought, or the headaches that felt like brick cymbals slapping her ears. Bad enough, wasn’t it? Why did her hair have to fall out, too?

Never mind. If she was going to lose hers, he was going to lose his, too. What she endures, he endures. He tapped the razor against the sink and rubbed his hand over his now-smooth scalp.

This is a love story about fighting the enemy. Chris Spielman used to think the enemy was the team across the line. He was — he is — a leading candidate for World’s Most Intense Football Player. A Pro Bowl inside linebacker, the aorta of the defense, commander of the chaos. As the son of a football coach, an All-America in college, a kid who made the front of a Wheaties box in high school, he was football-genetic. If he could, he would sleep in shoulder pads. For eight years in Detroit, then two more in Buffalo, he was always the first to the stadium and the last to leave, putting in hours of film and sweat-soaked workouts. And that was in the off-season.

You never met anyone who loved football as much as Chris Spielman. But he loved one thing more.

And he walked away from the game for it.

Untimely audible

In the family room of their home in Upper Arlington, Ohio, Chris and Stefanie Spielman sit side-by-side on a couch, their bald heads covered by caps. It is cool outside, football season, a Monday, and in every other year of his adult life, Chris would be at the stadium, engrossed in Sunday’s game film.

Instead, today, he woke the kids, fed them breakfast, tried to get Noah to keep his chin over the cereal bowl. “I told him the Lucky Charms won’t land on the floor that way,” Chris says.

Stefanie looks over and smiles. She is slim and youthful, only 31. Chris, at 33, is a solid ball of muscle. They do not look like cancer people. But then, what do looks have to do with it?

The disease announced itself last July, in typically rude fashion, right after a miscarriage of what would have been the Spielmans’ third child. That wasn’t sad enough, right? Losing a baby? Now a biopsy of Stefanie’s right breast revealed a tumor the size of a lemon. Pre-cancerous, they said. Their doctor, a good one, suggested a mastectomy.

Eight days later, she went under the knife. “I want it all out,” she told the surgeon. The way they figured it, Stefanie would need six weeks to recover, and then the family would join Chris in Buffalo for the football season. This was not just another season. The previous year, Spielman, then 32, had been forced to miss the last eight games — for the first time in his life — because of a neck injury. Some said he would never come back. It took him eight months of hellish rehabilitation, eight months of the most brutal regimen he had ever put himself through. But he defied them all. He had made it back. He was ready to play the game he loved again.

Then cancer called an audible.

During surgery, doctors found a second lump, worse than the first, invasive cancer. They removed that, too, along with all of the lymph nodes on Stefanie’s right side. And when she awoke, the world was upside down. There would be no quick, six-week recovery. She was in the cancer army now. There would be chemotherapy. There would be tests and more tests. There would be the constant cloud of worry that the doctors didn’t get it all, or worse, that it would return.

She came home from the hospital and was lying in bed a few days later. Chris came in. He sat down beside her. She didn’t know it, but this is what he had been thinking: Ten years, and she’s sacrificed everything for me. Ten years, and it’s always been about me. Is someone else going to take care of her now?

“Stef,” he said softly, “I can’t play this year. I gotta stay here with you.”

“No,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

A few days later, a small press conference was called. And after a decade of professional football, the man they said could not be dragged off a field walked away on his own.

“It wasn’t a hard decision,” he says now, shrugging. “I love my wife more than football. And I’m trying to set an example for my kids, so when they get married and have to make tough decisions they’ll be able to look back with pride. They’ll be able to say, ‘My Dad was my Dad, he was Mom’s husband, and he was the best he could be.’ “

We told you it was a love story.

True impact players

And so these days, as the Bills march through their playoff season, Spielman loves his wife through her cancer season. He nurses her when she needs it. He accompanies her to the chemo treatments — 11 down, one more to go — and he reads everything about the disease, then hounds doctors with questions until they finally say, “Chris, we know you know more about cancer than us, but just trust us on this, OK?”

And because love is more remarkable than any incurable disease, in the middle of this awful thing that they never wanted, Chris and Stefanie Spielman are finding things they never expected.

Like how many people are out there, fighting the same battle. “We almost race each other to the mailbox these days,” Stefanie says, “because every day we get dozens of letters from cancer survivors, saying you can do it. It pumps us up.”

Or how many people you can touch. “Stefanie hears from people who say, ‘Thanks to your story, I had a mammogram and it saved my life,’ ” Chris says. “By going public, she’s raised over $237,000 for breast cancer research. To me, that’s amazing. I could never do that on the football field.”

And then there are the children, little Noah and his 4-year-old sister, Madison, who are getting to know their father in ways they never did before. The lunches, the horseback rides, the bubble baths.

On the day Chris shaved his head — the same day Stefanie shaved hers — the family had a “hat party.” Mom and Dad and the two kids passed around hats, tried them on, and danced around the family room as Chris ran to the CD player changing the music.

“We told the kids this is how Mommy gets better,” Stefanie says.

It is not always so easy. Chris and Stefanie needed to call a no-cancer day not too long ago, just to get through 24 hours without talk of chemo or doctors. And Sundays, when the Bills are playing? Difficult. Chris leaves the house, then comes back, has TVs on in every room but doesn’t watch, paces back and forth, but will not sit down.

He has been back only once to Buffalo. The fourth game of the year. The Bills were 0-3, and Spielman wanted to show them his support. He drove his truck from Ohio, got there late Saturday night, had breakfast with the players at the team hotel, stood on the sideline, and, in whatever small way he could, helped them to their first victory of the year. Then he drove home and hasn’t been back since.

“You know,” Stefanie says, “he never told me–“

“Never mind,” Chris interrupts.

“He never told me they gave him a standing ovation. I had to read about it in the papers.”

Chris looks at his toes, embarrassed. Is he bothered because an ovation still means something to him, or because it doesn’t?

Maybe next year he goes back to work. The Bills want him. They kept his contract intact. Stefanie’s prognosis is good, so he plans to play. But we now know how plans change.

“If you did go back,” he is asked, “do you think you’d ever get as upset as you used to over losing a game?”

He stares for a moment, then shrugs sheepishly. “Yeah. I think I would.”

Stefanie cracks a smile …

“I mean …I don’t want to ruin a good story . . .” he says.

She’s about to burst …

“But I am what I am. If I go back, I go back as Chris, not Gandhi.”

Stefanie cracks up, hysterical.

Laughter in the cancer season.

This is a love story, we told you that, but it’s a learning story, too. It’s learning about what “strong” really means. It’s learning about how to set an example. It’s learning that good can sometimes come from bad.

“The baby we lost, we see it as an angel now,” Stefanie says. “It was sent to make me take care of my breast cancer.”

She sighs. “To be honest, as long as the cancer doesn’t come back, we’re better people for having had this happen to us.”

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and in some places, affection will be measured by the size of the gift. There is no such foolishness in the Spielman house. There, in a cozy family room, a husband and wife sit side-by-side, two shaved heads, proving one simple truth: Sometimes love isn’t measured by how much you give, but by how much you give up.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

HELP FIND A CURE To contribute to the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, call 614-293-3744 anytime, or write to Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, James Cancer Hospital, Office of Development, 300 W. 10th Ave., Suite 519, Columbus, Ohio 43210.

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