Football great shares stories about faith, family, tragedy

Words about faith, family and community were humbly spoken by Chris Spielman, Ohio State football legend and ESPN college football analyst Monday night.

During the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce’s 99th annual dinner, Spielman was the keynote speaker who talked not only about his football career, but about his wife Stefanie’s battle with breast cancer. She fought the disease for 12 years before passing away in 2009 at age 42. Before her death, the couple, parents to four children, raised millions for cancer research.

Spielman said that growing up, he had action figures, but they weren’t played with in the traditional way.

“My guys were football guys,” he said.

The sport was his life for a long time.

“I embraced it,” he said. “I started defining myself as a football player. I truly believe God put me on earth to do that.”

Spielman, who graduated from The Ohio State University in 1988, played 10 seasons in the NFL for the Buffalo Bills, Detroit Lions and Cleveland Browns.

He said after having surgery on his back he became obsessed with recovery, and not soon after Stefanie had a miscarriage and was diagnosed with cancer.

Spielman said he lost it.

“I was screaming, ‘Are you kidding me? First of all, I hurt my neck, my career’s in jeopardy, we lost the baby and you have cancer…What did we do wrong? Why are we being punished?” he said.

He said Stefanie looked at him with disgust and said, “For once in your life, stop looking down the road and thinking that you deserve something good…Look behind you…Look at the thousands of blessings you’ve received.”

He said then he decided to spend time working on his family instead of playing football.

After Stefanie’s cancer returned, he said he had “an honest conversation with God.”

“I learned that I can’t outfight cancer…I can’t out-practice it, I can’t outrun it,” he said. “I learned that God had a different plan.”

Spielman said after Stefanie’s fifth battle with the disease, she was ready to go.

“I had perfect peace,” he said, adding that Stefanie said, “You’ve proved to me you could do it.”

Spielman said she was talking about being a good father. He said she had no fear of dying.

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but they don’t want to die to get there,” he said. “In her last days, I was able to love her and honor her. I was able to watch her go home in peace.”

Spielman said the best thing to do is never take anything for granted and to share love with others.

“What you keep, you will lose,” he said. “If you give all that away, it grows, prospers and spreads throughout your family and community. If you keep it inside it will wither up and die.”

Spielman said after Stefanie’s death, he realized that it is OK to be hurt, but it’s also OK to experience joy again, to love and be loved again and to choose triumph over tragedy.

Charlotte Keim, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce, said Spielman’s story should be an inspiration to everyone.

“For many of us, we have a family member suffering from cancer,” she said. “(Spielman’s) message was inspiring and moving.”

He finished his speech with advice to everyone to find something inspiring, whether it’s family, friends, music or a good book, and gain strength from that.

“You’re much more capable than you ever thought possible,” he said. “You’ll be able to handle anything that comes your way. Do everything with love and you’ll be able to overcome any obstacle, any challenge that comes your way, even death.”