by | Oct 6, 1997 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Chris Spielman eyed the enemy in the end zone and screamed, “Phil! Widen out! They’re coming your way!” Then the ball was snapped, and they went on the attack, all of them together, Phil — who is Phil Hansen, Buffalo’s soft-spoken defensive lineman — and Ted Washington, Buffalo’s massive, 325-pound nose tackle, and Bruce Smith, the future Hall of Fame defensive end, and Spielman — right in the middle, Chris Spielman, No. 54 — who for eight years did his bleeding for the Lions but now, for the first time in his life, was determined to bring the Lions down.

And down they went. Spielman had called it right. He stuffed one gap. Washington stuffed another. Smith came in from behind, and closed the door behind Barry Sanders, who had the ball. Hansen swept in and put on the kill. The Lions’ running back, with nowhere to go, collapsed in a sea of blue and red jerseys. A safety.

A safety? Barry Sanders?

It was like shooting a dart through a hot air balloon. The clock was still ticking, but the game was over. You don’t pull down Miracle Man in the end zone and expect the Lions to recover. They were cooked.

And a few minutes later, when the final gun sounded — Buffalo 22, Detroit 13
— Spielman felt a flush of emotion that turned his whiskered face red.

What would you call it? Relief? Satisfaction? Glory? He found his young daughter, Maddie, and lifted her in his arms. That was the hug he expected. And then came a few that he didn’t expect. Former teammates, Lions players, the losers on this day, still coming up to him, one, then another, then another, grabbing him, slapping him, hugging him, telling him he was missed.

What would you call it, beating your old team, beating the guys whom you bled with every week? What would you call it when they embrace you from the other side, and losing and winning merge into a blurry mess? What would you call it?

“Call it,” Spielman would later say, “the end of a chapter in my life.”

And then No. 54 shed a tear …nah!

He was in the hallway now, outside the Lions’ locker room, where he needed to go for an X ray for a broken finger. The door was open, and 20 feet away stood Lions coach Bobby Ross, his hair soaked with sweat, his face contorted with anger, trying to explain how the Lions lost another game they should have won.

Spielman turned his head. He heard enough of this when he wore blue and silver. In the room behind Ross, the Lions players were whispering about the jolting defeat. The defense was mumbling about a 56-yard touchdown it surrendered to Antowain Smith, and special teams were whispering about a punt that landed at the 1, a punt they should have fielded. Sanders, wiping sweat from his brow, was saying a safety “was the worst possible thing that could have happened.”

“Have you ever been pulled down in the end zone before?” he was asked.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

All those whispers, all those head shakes, it was all familiar theater, the theater of defeat. Spielman finished his X ray and trotted over to the Bills’ locker room. He had a different play to catch.

“Was I emotional this week?” he said. “Not until the game started. Then it was tough. And when the game ended, that’s when it really started coming out. I mean, I really got emotional. Those guys, I went to war with them for eight years, you know? That’s what athletics are all about.”

When you say you got emotional, he was asked, what do you mean? Did you cry?

“Come on,” he said. “Give me some credit.”

OK. So he hasn’t changed that much.

The team was always the thing

But this was certainly different, Spielman talking to reporters in the Bills’ locker room, talking about the Lions with foreign pronouns.

“The thing about this Buffalo team,” he said, “is like, after a loss, they — I mean, we — God, why do I say stuff like that? . . .”

Why? Because for eight years, Spielman left his heart on the field with a Detroit imprint. And the best players, the ones who play for the right reasons, for camaraderie, the joy of shared effort, the thrill of pulling off a victory as a team — well, those guys never forget. The old uniform still means something.

It still means something to Spielman. He doesn’t live in Detroit anymore, not house-wise. But he lives there, a little inside. His wife Stephanie, standing in the hallway, admitted that last week he was more intense than usual, getting quiet early, staying up late in his brooding concentration.

“I think playing his old team for the first time,” she said, “it really was important to him.”

Now it was over — ended, essentially, by a jolting defensive play that was not a solo effort but rather, much to Spielman’s delight, a team swarm.

The red welled up in Spielman’s cheeks again. He stayed through a few more questions, then said, “Aw, you know, I’m a better interview after a loss.”

It was odd to see Spielman this way, the old number in a new uniform. They love him here in Buffalo, as well they should, and he loves them back. But it’s nice, after a somewhat bitter departure over money, he still feels a tug from the other locker room across the hall and he still appreciates their embrace.

“Hey, you know I can get Detroit radio out here,” he said before leaving. “I listen on my drive home. Someday, when you’re doing your show around 5:30, say, ‘Hello, Chris,’ OK?”

Saying hello was never difficult with Spielman. Saying good-bye was a lot harder.

To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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