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Chris Spielman, a real hero and a real man

October 1, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
I have had the opportunity to cover something on the order of about 25 or 30 Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce annual banquets. I’ve heard speakers big and famous, from Charleton Heston to Robert F. Kennedy to Chuck Noll, Jerome Bettis and Mike Ditka.

And I have to admit that, without pulling out a clip file, I just don’t remember what they said. Oh, there were memorable tales of football and glories past, but the true gist of the message is lost. (Well, except maybe a bit of Ditka, who sort of reminded me of my dad.)

Monday night at St. Florian Hall in Wintersville, I finally got a chamber speech that will stick with me forever.

Chris Spielman is not just some linebacker regaling you with tales of gridiron greatness. In fact, he does none of that. He is not just there to talk about his wife’s fight with cancer, though it is the essential catalyst for his story.

He is a man with a message of transformation that can apply to any of us at any time. All we have to do is choose.

Spielman is articulate, approachable and humble. It is not, I venture, an act or a marketing device. When I met him before the event, as Mike Florak of the Franciscan University of Steubenville introduced me, the conversation was warm and genial. There were no handlers. His words weren’t scripted responses that he gives 10,000 times a day. And afterward, when I took a moment to go thank him for his message, he didn’t just give a quick handshake and move on. This guy is just a regular guy.

His message was about what was behind the headlines of Chris Spielman, great Ohio State and NFL linebacker, who courageously came back from a spinal injury to play again, who left the field of battle to take care of his wife during her initial fight with cancer. We admired him for those things. To listen to his side of it we recognize our own humanity. The tales of courage are quite different viewed from inside Chris Spielman’s head.

He connected with me on a lasting level that some football coach shouting inspirational platitudes from the stage never could.

There was a very dark hole in my life a decade ago through a variety of factors. I was saved from that place by what can only be described as the miracle of friendship, and what Spielman terms grace.

As Spielman talked about hearing that message asking “What is your purpose” as he fought injury and dealt with Stephanie Spielman’s illness, I was transported back to about 2004. Life was a mess, and everything I thought I was put here to do made no sense at that time.

Connection? Chris Spielman has been there, right there in the hole. It’s not just some tale developed for speaking engagements. His reactions to Stephanie’s cancer, his thought that he made a deal with God so everything was better, his “why us” moment, his not understanding just how to climb out of the hole all resonated like a bass drum in the hollow concrete room that sometimes is my head.

All of us have been through these deep, dark moments, or will be, and how we choose to get through life is exactly that: A choice.

Spielman describes it as knowing grace, as asking God to make him the weakest man so that through weakness, God gives him grace that makes him strong.

I was in need of a reminder of that. Everyone needs a reminder of that.

Because it is only through that grace and the people around me that I am here today to write this, both in the “thank God these folks at the newspaper took the crazy guy back and gave him this blog” sense and in the “If it weren’t for my friends and family, I’d have fallen fully apart years ago” sense.

The term “football hero” to me used to mean tough guys, fast guys, graceful guys, guys who gave their all for their team and community and forged legends on the field. Regular readers and my friends know I’ve been struggling with even watching the thuggery that pro football is now, along with the knowledge that the guys I watched really are sacrificing their lives for a game.

Chris Spielman restores those words “football hero” to their proper dignity. And it’s got very little to do with football.


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