There’s a new movie out, called “Heat,” and most people who see it wind up talking about the plot, or the violence, or the fine acting of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.
Chris Spielman remembers one scene.
“Pacino plays the cop,” he says, “and he’s in the hospital with his sick daughter. And he gets the call that they just spotted the killer, and he starts shaking, he’s gotta go get him, he’s gotta go get him, and he’s just waiting for his wife to say it’s OK, and then — boom! He’s gone.”
Spielman likes that scene; he relates to it. Only for him, the obsession is not a killer, it is football. When he hears it, he starts shaking, and nothing is going to stop him, not wind, not rain, not doctors sticking needles in him and draining blood like a vampire.
Which is pretty much what most of the season was like for Spielman. Ever since the opener against Pittsburgh, when he made a play and felt a strange sharp pain. “I thought my arm was broken,” he says. And while most of us would quit after that sentence, I thought my arm was broken, Spielman played on; he didn’t tell the coaches, and he went the entire second half with his arm as useless as a soft ironing board.
He still made his plays. In fact, according to Spielman — and you tend to believe him when he talks football — for the rest of the season, which doctors and friends and pretty much his entire family told him he was crazy to continue, he missed just four plays that he should have made.
“And three were in the Washington game,” he says.
Never mind that he had a torn pectoral muscle. Never mind that his right arm was like a loose attachment. Never mind that they all said, “Stop, let it heal, you can’t keep bulging these bloody growths around your armpit, then draining them like a water balloon!”
Spielman heard their advice, then took the needle.
“I can’t help it; I don’t know any other way. It’s like an animal. There’s the food. Go get it.” Beauty and the beast
Now those of you who don’t know Spielman might read that and think, “Ah, another dumb brute.” The beauty of this guy is that he is not dumb, he is not a brute; he is actually thoughtful, introspective and sensitive.
He is simply obsessed.
And perhaps, until this year, even he didn’t know how much.
All his career, Spielman has been saying things like “I’d play this game for free” and “If you don’t leave everything on the field, you cheated your team.” This is what you’d expect from a coach’s son. But words are just words. When his pectoral muscle ripped, and he looked in the mirror every day and saw the internal bleeding down his arm, he realized this was a test of his sincerity. Did he mean all that stuff?
Apparently so. He played every game. He played when the arm throbbed, he played when it locked up, he played when they drained so much blood that he had to have his hemoglobin tested to make sure he wouldn’t pass out during the third quarter. He took iron pills. He ate red meat and bananas.
Not long before the Thanksgiving game, a giant blister-like growth burst, and Spielman was oozing blood and dead tissue for 45 minutes. By the time the injury turned the corner, he would shed 2,300 cc’s of blood. In familiar terms, that is more than half a gallon.
Half a gallon of blood?
“Did you prove something to yourself?” I ask.
“No, I reaffirmed something,” he says.
The difference is significant. Spielman, who turned 30 this year, always thought he loved this game. Now he felt so in his veins.
What’s the expression? “If you care, give blood?”
Well. There you have it. Sense and sensibility
All of which only makes Saturday’s playoff against Philadelphia that much more significant to Detroit’s most passionate linebacker. For one thing, it could be his last as a Lion. His contract is up, and there’s no telling what will happen.
Besides, in a life that is football, football, football, this will be only his fifth playoff game. The Lions lost three of the four in his seven previous seasons here. And Spielman, Lomas Brown, Kevin Glover, Bennie Blades, even Barry Sanders have all been talking about appreciating the few postseason games you get. How you never know, it could be your last.
This comes with age. And experience.
So does this:
“Do you think I make sense?”
Spielman asks that. It is a question many athletes won’t bother with because, frankly, they don’t care what you think.
Spielman does. So I tell him. I say obsession is not uncommon — stockbrokers get obsessed, writers get obsessed, politicians get obsessed. And in many cases, the most impressive work comes from the most obsessed.
“Except Barry Sanders,” Spielman says. “He just does it.”
I nod. Barry is different.
But you don’t think of Barry bleeding. Spielman, you do. Spielman is one of those guys who was put on earth to be rammed and tested, like a pickup truck; he has to prove his love the hard way. He was always too short, too slow, and when he overcame that, finally, this year, he was too injured.
As always, he played through.
The chest and arm feel better now. He says he is nearly back to full strength. I ask if he ever wonders what price he will pay for this devotion years from now, when he’s stiff and achy and, who knows, maybe limited physically?
Here is his answer: “I know I’m gonna suffer. I don’t mind. Not one bit. That’s how I play the game. It’s pain and it’s punishment. Part of the deal.”
I hope the Eagles are reading this. I really do.