When you read or hear about sports figures, the most prominent part of their initial introduction or bio normally is bursting with a plethora of facts, figures and dates. Sports heroes are normally more likely to be known for yards rushed, homeruns hit or baskets scored than they are for their other accomplishments. For the most part, one could say Chris Spielman is no different. A two-time All-American, three-time All-Big Ten selection, all-time leader in solo tackles and all-time leading tackler with over 546 to his name. That’s just a few facts and figures to get started. He also was the 29th pick in the 1988 NFL draft for the Detroit Lions where he earned Pro Bowl honors four times during his eight seasons there. He continued to build on those numbers during his two seasons with the Buffalo Bills and one season with the Cleveland Browns.
But these are not the only statistics or facts you should keep in mind when it comes to Chris Spielman. Four is the number of kids he proudly raises. Eight is the number of years since his wife Stefanie was diagnosed with Breast Cancer, and seven is the span of years since he last set foot on the field as a player due to a career-ending neck injury. These are the numbers that have undoubtedly affected Spielman more than any amount of tackles or yards he has accumulated in his lifetime.
Upon sitting down with Spielman, we wanted to put some meaning behind all of those numbers in addition to getting the break-down of his new reality show on ESPN – Summer House, where six incoming freshman football players from diverse backgrounds are put in the same house to compete against each other in competitions aimed at determining the "Big Man on Campus,” all while having Spielman as their “house dad.” Without question, Spielman’s story is one worth learning, and he’s a human being worth emulating.
In Summer House, you chose six incoming football freshman to put in one house together and compete. If there were a Big House with six NFL guys up against each other, whom would you choose in order to create the same diversity presented on the show?
I would probably put Terrell Owens, Troy Polamalu, Peyton Manning, Warren Sapp, the center for Minnesota, Matt Birk, and Phil Dawson, the kicker from Cleveland, just to get a kicker. The reason [for these picks] is that I think they are all different personalities, and if I were to take the same approach, it would be challenging for me to get all those different personalities together with a common goal, a common bond, and to learn from each other. I think it would be more challenging, because money serves ego, and the egos get bigger as the money gets bigger.
What is the best advice you can give, or even gave, those six men about remaining grounded and not letting thoughts of the big leagues lure them too quickly or make their egos swell?
It’s never about you. Life to me is defined by service. The more you serve others, the more you get served. If you keep everything inside, you keep all the good that you have or all the good that you can do inside. Eventually, that dissipates and falls away. But if you give everything that you have, all the good that you have inside, and you give it to other people, it grows. I think that is the best piece of advice I could give them and hopefully they could take it. I have to really give ESPN credit where they let me do what I wanted to do and say what I wanted to say, whether it be a spiritual point of view or any type of view, and that was to invest in people. In order to invest in people, you have got to sit down and talk with them.
Do you feel like you were grounded prior to your injury, or had you taken those steps already?
I have always been grounded. I do believe when I was playing, I took my level off passion for football to an unhealthy level. As I got older and became a father, I started to see life as it should be. As I went on that spiritual journey through college, I knew what I believed, but I didn’t know why I believed it. So when I learned why I believed it - that grounded me even more. So, when the rough waters came, I was certainly able to deal with the adversity, whether it was a neck injury, two neck injuries or dealing with cancer or whatever. I think that my being humbled in submitting myself to being humbled helped me deal with all the adverse circumstances.
You obviously played a pivotal role in the lives of these young men. Whom did look up to as you began your college and pro careers?
I really didn’t look up to a lot of people. Obviously, I was raised in a good house and always kind of admired my brother. I admired him, because he was a good athlete and he played in a national championship with Southern Illinois. He got a full scholarship, [was] always very smart, received a master’s degree from Ohio State, had two NFL tryouts and didn’t make the team, but I always admired him. One, because he had tremendous work ethic; two, he never quit. He has been a general manager of two professional football teams and is currently the general manager of the Minnesota Vikings. It gives me such joy to see him succeed at the highest level that he can get at and I just sit back and say, “Man, he deserves it.”
You and your wife have been heavily involved in the fight against breast cancer since her diagnosis and her story has touched many. Whose story has touched you the most?
Hers, because I live it, and this disease does not go away. She has had two reoccurrences since her original diagnosis. I see the grace and humility and dignity that she handles herself and the courage and it is amazing. Why I say courage is that she has no fear of death, and that is awesome, and her courage has rubbed off on me. So whose story? It’s her story. Watching her taking an adverse situation and turning it into something positive. I can’t begin to tell you how many people who have been either touched or inspired or even reminded to go home and tell their sister or their wife or their mother to get a breast exam. She has a great saying that, “Cancer is not something that I wanted, and I wish that I didn’t have it, but now that I have it, it [has given] us so many blessings in our life that we cannot even count.” That is a pretty unique way of looking at it.
Are you as tough on your kids as you were on the kids on the show?
I would say yes and no. Yes, because I am my kids’ parent before my kids’ friend, and sometimes it requires being tough, and that being said, I think that I am also one of the most positive parents a person can have. There is never a gray area. When they do well, I am hugging them and letting them know they do well. Like all kids, when they screw up, we talk about it. I never attack them as a person, but I do attack the problems.
Why did you choose to return to Ohio after the NFL?
My wife was my high-school sweetheart and we went to school here, and I have always been fascinated by old neighborhoods and older and unique homes. When we were in school, we always thought it would be cool to come back to Columbus and especially Upper Arlington. When we were moving, we looked at other places, but there was something about Upper Arlington that drew us. It is not only the school system and the beautiful homes and all the cool things about it, but there is a tremendous sense of civic pride in this little community.
What bands or songs did you listen to before games to get pumped up in college or in the NFL?
I listened to old Springsteen. Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town are my two favorite Springsteen albums, and then I would throw a little Bob Seger Live in there. Then I would hit a little Pink Floyd and then throw in some AC/DC. In the late ‘90s, I listened to a little bit of Pearl Jam.
What is the most insane way you have ever seen anyone get pumped up
I think that gets a little overrated. I see a lot of guys practice anxiety puking. Jim Kelly used to throw up all the time. Then it was like a chain reaction. My locker in Buffalo was right by the bathroom and I would hear him throw up, and all of a sudden (vomiting sound) I’d start gagging, and the guy next to me would ask, “What are you doing?” and he’d start gagging. I would say it’s just an intense focus to go out and play.
Which is better when it comes to football: pure talent, or pure heart?
It depends what level you are talking about. In little league, it is pure talent. In pro football, you cannot have one without the other. If you have no heart, you are going to get exposed, and if you have no talent, you are not going to get to that level.
Everyone knows you were once featured on a box of Wheaties. Should Wheaties ever decide to run actors on their cereal boxes, which of these actors deserves a shot: Dennis Hopper, Angelina Jolie, Mel Gibson, Christopher Walken or Charlie Sheen?
Mel Gibson. That is not even close.
I would have taken Dennis Hopper.
Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers was great.
“Bad things, man. Bad things.” Remember those Nike commercials?
Barry Sanders or Jim Brown?
Barry Sanders, no question.
Who was the most fun to tackle in either your college or pro career?
I don’t think fun is the word. I think the most challenging was Bo Jackson. When I hit Bo, I might as well have run into a moving car. We were playing the Raiders on Monday night and we got beat and it was toward the end of the game and Bo ran a play and he got spun around and I hit him pretty good, one where there is a noise that comes out. After the game, walking back to the locker room, I ran into Bo and he asked, “Where is Spielman?” and I said, “Good game,” which I normally didn’t do, but I just held this guy in such high regard. Bo said, “Man, that is the hardest any white boy has ever hit me.” That is one of the best compliments I have had in my 11-year period.
Do you think there is any special responsibility in being a star athlete?
Absolutely. You have an obligation to be a role model, on the field and off. If you sit back and look at it and be realistic about it, although it may be an inconvenience to you, the impact you can have on so many people is just amazing.
Besides your neck injuries, name a couple of other things that have
I think the second time my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I pulled into a parking lot and could not move out of fear, and cowardice, and was as crushed as a human being could be. I asked for God’s grace and regained my strength to help her fight her battle. But for a 15-minute period, I was in the fetal position and I would say paralyzed.
Name any real life event that could benefit from play-by-play and color-commentary.
I think covering a congressional meeting or a senate debate and calling people out on both sides. I would love to be the analyst. I think a debate would be an interesting commentary.
Who looks better bald, you or your wife?
Stefanie, because I have a head like an alien. It looks like Sigourney Weaver gave birth to me.
Do you have to be in better shape physically to play football or better shape emotionally to have children?
I don’t think you can ever be in shape emotionally. I think emotions for your children and love for your children doesn’t come until you experience the birth of your child and experience parenthood. So, I would say physically to play football, because you can’t prepare for parenthood.
Root Beer or Cream Soda?
Glazed or Jelly-filled
What one condiment should you never put on a hot dog?
We know they televise competitive eating, but is there any sport too stupid for ESPN to broadcast?
I don’t think so, because they are like anybody else in the market for making money, and so when poker and eating get a rating, then they can sell it. So, no.
Fill in the blank: Football is nothing more than ________.
I don’t know if it fits, but I would say a direct reflection of life, because of working as a team, as sacrifice, as great wins and devastating loses, as just performing and either you produce or you don’t.
The most immediately impressive coach in the NFL is?
Use one adjective to describe the following:
- Being a college football athlete?
- Being an NFL player?
- Being a coach?
- Being a dad?
- Being a husband?
- Being a man?
Summer House currently airs on ESPN and ESPNU. Check local listings for dates and times.