Published October 20, 2016
There’s a lot of Ohio about Chris Spielman but there’s a lot of Honolulu Blue and Silver in him, too.
Spielman, two-time college All-American linebacker at Ohio State, was born in Canton—yes, where the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located—and played high school ball at Massillon Washington, which is legendary in prep circles for its football program.
Spielman was as scarlet and grey as they come while a Buckeye, but when the pro ranks called in 1988, it was the Detroit Lions who snatched him off the board in the second round.
The Lions in 1988 were among the dregs of the NFL. And if Chris Spielman was anything as a football player, it wasn’t a loser.
Yet the Lions lost almost as many games (12) in 1988 as Spielman lost in his four years in Columbus combined (13).
The Lions fired coach Darryl Rogers in November and the team was a mess.
But Spielman, the rambunctious middle linebacker, emerged from those ashes as a team leader.
Spielman was old school, smash mouth in his approach to the game. He once scored a touchdown and pounded the football into the turf in the end zone, like they did in the 1930s.
But after eight years with the Lions, even Spielman had had enough of the team’s inability to advance in the playoffs.
In 1995, the Lions won their final seven games to finish 10-6 and they were flying as they headed into a Wild Card matchup in Philadelphia.
But then offensive tackle Lomas Brown opened his mouth.
Brown boldly predicted a Lions victory in Philly. He said it wouldn’t be close.
The Lions, to that point, had won exactly one playoff game since 1957. Granted, Brown was on the team that pulled it off, but the 1995 Lions were coming off two straight playoff defeats to the Green Bay Packers—one at the Silverdome—and were in no position to be cocky whatsoever.
But Brown flapped his gums. He was right about one thing, though.
The game wasn’t close.
The Lions laid one of the biggest eggs in NFL playoff history, falling behind 51-7 before succumbing, 58-37.
That was when Chris Spielman couldn’t take it anymore.
“We’re spinning our wheels here,” Spielman said shortly after the playoff debacle against the Eagles. He signed with the Buffalo Bills as a free agent in March of 1996.
After his years in Detroit, which included four Pro Bowls and three times as an All-Pro, Spielman’s tragic loss of wife Stephanie to cancer was well-documented. He approached Stephanie’s illness like he approached the Bears and the Packers back in the day—all-out, taking no prisoners.
But cancer is the ultimate F-you disease, and Stephanie succumbed in November, 2009.
Today, Spielman is broadcasting NFL games for Fox. On the air, he sounds as if he’d like to strap on a helmet and do battle.
The passion Spielman has for football—and his depth of knowledge of the game—has always translated well in the broadcast booth. He did college games for several years, and only this year did Fox add him to their NFL team.
The Lions have had Spielman do their exhibition games in recent years.
Spielman has done the last two Lions games—both wins at Ford Field—for Fox. He’s been able to suppress his Lions bias while offering salient analysis. It can’t be easy for him.
Last Sunday, the Lions honored the 1991 team that advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Spielman was an All-Pro that year as well, in which the Lions destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs before bowing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins.
Spielman left the booth a few minutes before halftime on Sunday in order to make the on-field festivities in time. On the final play of the half, the Lions stuffed the Los Angeles Rams on a fourth and goal from inside the one yard line.
Back in the booth to start the third quarter, Spielman said the goal line stand and its importance to the game made him want to jump into the fray. I doubt he was being facetious.
Spielman’s analysis isn’t candy coated. He isn’t afraid to call a player out for malfeasance. I always thought that he’d make a terrific coach.
Spielman did interview for the head coaching gig at his alma mater in 2000, but the Buckeyes hired some guy named Jim Tressel instead.
Spielman, in my mind, would be a wonderful assistant coach, whether in the NFL or in college. I could see him working with linebackers, and maybe rising to a coordinator role.
He’s a very intelligent, well-spoken guy and he’s probably forgotten more about football than even the most rabid fan knows.
But for now, Spielman prowls the booth instead of the sideline, which is good for us, the viewers.
He left the Lions in a huff in 1996, but the Honolulu Blue and Silver still courses through his veins.
“Football is a direct reflection of life,” Spielman once said. “There are wins, there are losses; you get knocked down, you get back up.”
He got knocked down when Stephanie got sick and passed. But he’s up now, and at age 51 he hasn’t lost an ounce of energy and passion for the game he loves.
It’s fun to listen to.