At this point, you have probably gotten a decent feel for the character I can be and my love for most all Ohio sports. I can rant and rave to anyone with an ear about pretty much any topic that I can possibly dream up, but always try to keep it light-hearted. I really try to find a humorous spin in anything that I can and very seldom do I show a serious side that I sometimes forget I even possess.
This is different.
The NFLNetwork has done an outstanding job with their new “A Football Life” series, rivaling ESPN’s equally as well done, “30 for 30″. The episode last night featuring Chris Spielman and his family was another one of those moving features that hit most of us very close to home. Not because he is an Ohio native or because of his legendary status at Ohio State, but because he lost the better half of his soul to cancer.
I felt compelled to write this review after reading his book because I truly believe it has its benefits for everyone. I did not write for any other reason other than that.
“When I got my first football helmet for Christmas at age five, my grandma came over to the house.’Hey, Chris’ she said, ‘you wanna play some football?’ I tackled her right there in the living room. I mean, I took her out. She bounced right up, though. You could tell she was a Spielman.”
A quintessential line from Spielman that made me laugh out loud and in some ways, what I expected when I bought “That’s Why I’m Here” by Chris Spielman and Bruce Hooley. On the flip side, I also obviously expected this to be extremely depressing considering the journey and ultimate outcome of Stefanie Spielman was no secret at all. As with any good book about a life story, there needs to be a balance between joy and pain. In my opinion, it does not have as much to do with the flow as it does to make you truly ‘feel’ and become engaged in the storyline.
That is exactly where my problem came in; I consider myself to be a pretty honest and open person with people I have grown to trust, but that “feeling” part is different territory. Unfortunately, my recruiting background has taught me to be more cautious and pessimistic than anything else. So halfway through reading this book, when I decided to write this article, I started to get nervous. Not only would I have to be completely transparent, but my opinion is no longer what it has been when writing about sports. It is not an analysis just of X’s and O’s. It is not just a matter of perspective either. Well, it is, but this new perspective can actually have a hard line of being wrong. It is a sole person’s view of the suffering a family had to endure for over a decade and trying to articulate that is more intimidating than it may appear.
So what is “That’s Why I’m Here” really about? Football? Cancer? Tests of faith and family? Love? Yes. But if those are the only pieces you pull out of this book, you will be doing yourself a serious injustice. The Spielman family was and always will be in the spotlight so these points will come as no surprise to anyone, but there is so much more. This book has so many life lessons in it that it should be considered an instruction manual for people to live by. The virtue that came gleaming through the family and particularly through Stefanie, was selflessness. To read all of these instances of how someone can be so strong in the face of not just adversity, but certain death, is absolutely astonishing.
I had a long flight coming up so I bought this book on a whim. I had other movies to watch and games to play, but I was really drawn to the reviews of it and just felt the need to buy this. So other than a couple of the random thoughts above and limited information in the media over the years about the Spielman family, I did not really have any true context of the journey the family lived through. I quickly learned that reading this book is the closest I will ever be to going through menopause because the range of emotions it takes you through is amazing. A quote from the book on Chris describing their drive to the hospital for Stefanie’s first cancer visit struck me initially:
“The emotions, the frustration, the anger, the helplessness, the rage just welled up inside me and came pouring out. I started punching the steering wheel, cussing, screaming: ‘WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO US? WHAT THE @#$#@^#$ IS GOING ON AROUND HERE? FIRST MY NECK AND NOW THIS. IT’S NOT FAIR.
I kept punching and screaming until Stef shouted at me, ‘STOP IT!’ I’d rarely heard her use that tone with me, but she didn’t stop. She looked right at me, almost through me, and said, ‘How dare you?’ I didn’t know how to reply. ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked. She looked at me with fierce determination and said, ‘How dare you say those things with all the blessings we’ve been given in our life?'”
I would like to believe that if I were faced with such a challenge that I could respond in a similar fashion, but I sincerely doubt it. It is chilling messages like that throughout the entire book that seemingly produced crazy amounts of dust or allergies wherever I was reading. In fact, so much so that I skipped my free beverage on the plane to avoid any type of eye contact. It was literally a book that you could not put down; it constantly left you wanting more. Not more of the endured pain, suffering, or looking for a sort of resolve, but how Chris and Stef were able to keep such strong faith and love in the face of such a condemning monster. It’s always said that true character is revealed in times of distress and this could not be held any truer with Stefanie Spielman.
I would be remiss if I did not give very similar accolades to Chris himself for being such a rock throughout all of this. There were definitely breakdowns throughout all of it but every one of them and plenty more, were to be expected. Much like the book in itself, there was a strong balance of sacrifice and collapse with the entire family. This put things in perspective from Chris as well:
“’I’ve thought about this, and it’s the only way. I’m taking a year off from football to deal with this.’
‘She was devastated. She took it harder than she did with the cancer diagnosis.’
‘You can’t do this,’ she said, starting to cry. You have to go. You have to go.’
‘I just said, I’m not going. I’m staying here with you. My mind’s made up.
She cried and told me,’ the cancer is inside me. I don’t want it affecting you. I don’t want to interrupt your career.’
‘You didn’t do this to me’ I said, ‘the cancer did.’
Chris had a crazed, almost unhealthy passion for the game of football and gave it up instinctively. The passion he had for learning the game now transformed into a new passion for knowing everything he needed to about the war that Stefanie waged. He read all he could to be both mentally and emotionally prepared for the battle that their family would come to know for over a decade. He did this all while becoming the foundation for stability in his now tumultuous household.
The outpouring of love and support from friends, family and Buckeye Nation was truly incredible to read about. Through individual stories that many shared in the book, I learned that there is a fine line between support and pity and the Spielman family refused pity.
This is an excerpt from Stefanie’s journal supporting exactly that:
“I do not feel sorry for myself. I do not wish this would have happened to anyone else. I know that I will be thrown for a loop initially, but I pray that I will grow stronger with each passing day. I cannot let this get the best of me and I will not let this ruin the rest of my life – no matter how long it is.”
If you reflect back on reading this book feeling depressed and sad – that is your own fault. The underlying message throughout the entire situation is about love, sacrifice and trying to help people embrace exactly those things in their lives. Stefanie Spielman did precisely that, selflessly, humbly, all while battling a merciless disease.
“Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.”
– James Lane Allen
*photo’s courtesy of stepupforstefanie.org and sports.espn.go.com