Chris Spielman has tackled single fatherhood with the same intensity he once displayed on the football field.
More than two years after the death of his wife, Stefanie, of breast cancer at age 42, the former Ohio State and NFL linebacker juggles parenting; work as an ESPN college-football analyst; and numerous appearances to benefit the Stefanie Spielman Fund for Breast Cancer Research, established in 1999.
Recently, he added author to his resume with That’s Why I’m Here: The Chris & Stefanie Spielman Story — co-written with Bruce Hooley. (Some proceeds from sales will support the fund.)
His most important duty, however, involves raising his children: Maddie, 18; Noah, 16; Macy, 11; and Audrey, 9.
And, although he has always been devoted, the stakes rose after Stefanie died in November 2009.
“I’m an extreme person,” Spielman said. “When I get into something, I’m all in. That’s the way I was as a player, and that’s the way I was as the main caregiver” for Stefanie.
Her father, said Maddie, a senior at Upper Arlington High School, jokingly calls himself “an Upper Arlington housewife” — although he gets help from a house manager.
“He’s been so great; he makes time for all of us,” Maddie said. “He tries so hard. Sometimes he’l l cook dinner — usually toast or eggs or grilled cheese, but that’s OK. He really has stepped up to help us.”
Chris is “doing as well as anybody could under the circumstances,” said Stefanie’s sister Sue Fitz, who lives several blocks away.
As soon as the cancer was diagnosed in 1998, Stefanie chose to go public with her fight, which continued through multiple recurrences during the next 11 years.
The couple, Spielman said, long talked about writing a book. He didn’t start the process until early 2009 — after the cancer had advanced to Stefanie’s brain. For months, he spent time each day telling the story to Hooley, his colleague at the time at WBNS (97.1 FM).
“It was part of our mission to take our situation and use it to help somebody,” Spielman said.
A central theme of the book focuses on how the Spielmans relied on their faith for strength and solace. Writing the book without discussing their faith would have been impossible, said Chris, who adheres to the philosophy of “Expose your beliefs but never impose.”
“If somebody asks me how I got through it, I’m going to tell them what I believe and what I experienced to be the truth,” he said, adding that Stefanie “didn’t have a fear of death. We believe death isn’t the end.”
The book also pulls back the curtain on a family coping with the imminent death of a loved one, offering intimate details of the end-of-life experience.
Just 12 days before Stefanie’s death, Noah was performing the lead role in a middle-school musical, and Stefanie was determined to go. Chris was skeptical; at that point, Stefanie was bedridden and sleeping most of the time.
Stefanie got up at home and sat in a wheelchair for two hours — the length of the musical — to prove she could handle it. Then she attended the performance.
“It was the most meaningful thing for Noah to look out and see his mom,” Fitz said. “She was just not ready to say, ‘I’m done.’??”
Since her death, Chris and their children have adjusted by looking back and looking forward.
Maddie, who is bound for Ohio State in the fall, said her father tries to mention Stefanie once a day — “mainly for my little sisters because they were so young.”
“I think it’s him trying to keep her spirit alive. He always says that to me: ‘Your mom would be so proud of you.’ He always brings her into it.”
Life in the past couple of years hasn’t been without trials.
After his wife’s death, when Spielman resumed his travels to cover football games, Macy “would call me 30 times a day,” he said, “and I would have to let her know I’m OK.”
“He would answer every one of them, too, even if we were in a meeting,” said Dave Pasch, Spielman’s friend and broadcast partner at ESPN.
Macy’s calls have since subsided.
Spielman was surprised that the demand for him to speak and appear in behalf of the Stefanie Spielman Fund increased after his wife’s death. Since the fund’s creation, more than $10 million has been raised.
Charles Shapiro, Stefanie’s oncologist at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital, learned immensely from the couple, he said.
“I’m 54, and I have met very few people who had as powerful an impact on me as Chris and Stefanie did,” he said. “This sounds corny, but I felt like they were my teachers, in terms of selfless giving.”
In a statement to note the $10 million mark, Shapiro said: “Few non-doctors have touched the medical community as she has.”
Maddie plans to get more involved with the fund, possibly starting a blog to help other children of cancer patients cope.
Spielman thinks his children are doing well.
“They have handled it a lot better than I would have as a kid,” he said. “Their resiliency has been motivating for me — how they’ve rallied around each other.
“Their faith has grown. They didn’t run away from it. They ran closer to God, and that’s helped keep me going in the right direction.
“They have been a parent’s dream.”