We did it all wrong, the way we watched Chris Spielman play football for the Detroit Lions.
How dare we enjoy Spielman’s eight seasons with the Lions under a Teflon roof with climate control!
How dare we have him play the game on phony grass, without a snowball’s chance in Hell of even a raindrop splatting onto his helmet?
How could we watch him in the lap of the Silverdome’s luxury, an ice-cold drink in one hand and a red hot in the other?
Spielman should have been crunching ball carriers and blockers on a muddy field under a sheet of rain, wearing a leather helmet and shoulder pads made of the latest Sears catalogues.
He should have been wearing a jersey made of wool, and shoes that went over his ankles. The football should have been more rounded.
The other team should have been from Canton, not Tampa.
The on-field officials should have been wearing all white with floppy hats, not stripes and baseball caps. They shouldn’t have been armed with penalty flags—just whistles.
The playing field should have literally been a gridiron, sans hash marks. The goalposts should have formed an “H.”
There shouldn’t have been an ambulance on standby. Instead, just a megaphone and a call for “Is there a doctor in the house?”
The fans should have worn fur coats and twirled noisemakers. And they should have gotten there by horse and buggy, or at least not until hand-cranking their automobile engine started. All the men should have been wearing hats, many smoking cigars.
There should have been no facemasks or elbow pads. The forward pass should have been considered radical. The drop kick should have been part of the playbook.
The games should have been heard on radio, not seen on television. The accounts should have been read from a newspaper, not the Internet.
The players should have played both offense and defense. There should have been one coach per team.
Red Grange should have been around for advice. Jim Thorpe, too.
Chris Spielman was born too late. Like by about 50 years. To say he was a throwback isn’t enough. Spielman wasn’t a throwback; he was a pro football player from the 1920s and ‘30s who somehow was transported to our time. Robert Zemeckis ought to give him a call for the next “Back to the Future” treatment.
It’s a good thing something called football was invented, because without it, I’m not sure what Chris Spielman would have done with himself. Maybe strap on a hard hat and ram himself into a brick wall.
Spielman played football as if it was his duty. He treated the sport with respect and was mindful of its history and tradition.
One time, he scored a touchdown at the Silverdome and rolled into the end zone, pounding the football into the turf, like they did when FDR was president.
They put Spielman, the great former linebacker from the Ohio State University, into the College Football Hall of Fame last week.
Considering Spielman last played a down of college ball 23 years ago, I’d say someone was asleep at the switch on this one.
He’s finally in, but damn them for being late, because Stefanie Spielman wasn’t around to enjoy it.
Spielman got everything he wanted on the football field by willing it to happen. Everything except an NFL Championship, that is.
But aside from that, Spielman cracked heads every Saturday, then every Sunday, with behemoths from the other side. If there was a problem, he’d take care of it on the field.
Then his wife Stefanie got sick with cancer.
Spielman quit pro football in 1996 to take care of her. No word on who took care of him, however. It had to kill him, to be so helpless for the first time ever.
“People say, ‘It’s a great thing that you’re doing,’ ” Chris Spielman said at the time.”I always say it would be a terrible thing if I didn’t.”
This was one opponent Spielman couldn’t beat into submission, but Stefanie proved to be as tough, if not more so, than her husband.
She gave breast cancer all it could handle. She was Joe Frazier and the cancer was Muhammad Ali. She’d win a round, and then cancer would take a few. It would land a big blow to the head, and Stefanie would counter with a jab to the face.
On and on it went for years.
Four times the cancer came and went. When she lost her hair to radiation, Chris Spielman shaved his head, too, in an act of solidarity and love.
But when it came back for the fifth time—cancer is as stubborn as the day is long—Stefanie didn’t have any more counter-punching left in her. She died last November, at age 42.
She had started an awareness group and became a spokesperson. The Spielmans became a sports couple to be admired and by whom to be inspired.
Her husband went back to the grind of pro football, but he didn’t last long. Chris Spielman retired in 1999 as a Cleveland Brown, his back and neck no longer in proper condition to withstand the head-on collisions that occurred every week.
So Stefanie wasn’t at last week’s ceremony in South Bend, Ind. At least, not physically.
Spielman was a Buckeye, and then he went to the Lions, which was like being plucked from the crystal waters of the Caribbean and being dunked into the swill of a swamp.
The losing killed him in Detroit. But there was just enough winning, eventually, to keep his hopes up. The Lions would make the playoffs, and then get drummed out in the first round, usually convincingly.
The last straw was the 58-37 thumping in Philadelphia in the first round in 1995—after the Lions had won their last seven games in a row to make the playoffs.
Spielman was 30 and he had had enough. He went to four Pro Bowls and led the Lions in tackles in all eight seasons he played for them, but after the playoff disaster in Philly, Spielman said the Lions were “spinning their wheels.”
He went to the Buffalo Bills for the 1996 season, and about a year after that, Stefanie was diagnosed.
Spielman probably won’t go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The collegiate honor will have to suffice.
Ironic, really, because Spielman was an old soul, more in tune with the players who were in the NFL during its inception than those he played with and against.
We had him for eight years in Detroit. We watched him play on plastic grass in perpetual 72-degree weather that was dry and sans wind.
That was just plain wrong.