All-Time Greatest – No. 12: Chris Spielman

BuckeyeSports.com counts down the days until Ohio State's 2008 season opener with its list of the 50 greatest Buckeyes of all-time. The series continues today with No. 12: linebacker Chris Spielman.

If there could be only one player from the modern Ohio State era that was the perfect embodiment of a football player from the top of his head to the bottom of the soles of his feet, it would have to be Chris Spielman. The guy woke up every morning and went to bed every night thinking about football. He probably still does.

Born Oct. 11, 1965, Charles Christopher Spielman grew up in the football hotbed of Canton, Ohio, but moved to another community with a storied past on the gridiron and played his high school ball at Washington High School in Massillon. His exploits were already legendary by the time he caught the attention of college recruiters.

As a senior in 1983, the 6-0, 223-pounder was named the top prep linebacker in the nation by Parade magazine. He earned almost every high school All-American honor available, and Armour-Dial named him the national "Male High School Athlete of the Year."

Street & Smith's called the two-time All-Ohioan one of the top 15 players in the country, and his likeness even wound up on the front of a Wheaties box.

He was recruited heavily by almost every major college program with Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State making the strongest pitches. But in the end, Spielman said he wanted to "stay home" and selected the Buckeyes.

During an interview with Buckeye Sports Bulletin just before his freshman season at OSU, Spielman said he didn't feel any added pressure because of all of the advance publicity he had received. Instead, he was worried about how his future teammates would react to a rookie getting so much attention.

"That's something for the players down there to react to," Spielman said of the media hype. "I'm just trying to be an ordinary guy. The publicity and stuff – I really don't care about it. It's up to them. I just want to come down there and have a good time. I want to be an ordinary freshman that can contribute to the team. If some of those guys are (upset about the publicity), I'll just have to adjust. But all he guys I met down there were good to me and I'm sure that will continue."

Spielman needn't have worried. He was readily accepted into the OSU family, even being allowed to wear his high school jersey No. 36 although it had been previously worn by All-America linebackers Tom Cousineau and Marcus Marek.

Most Buckeye fans believe that Spielman was a starter from the time he first set foot on the Ohio State campus. But that's not true. In fact, he played very sparingly during the 1984 season.

The story goes that he stomped back and forth along the sideline during games early in the season, exhorting head coach Earle Bruce to put him in the games. When Bruce finally relented, Spielman was so exited he bolted onto the field without a helmet.

His first season was marred by injuries to both ankles which limited him to just 85 minutes of action in seven of the Buckeyes' 12 games.

But Spielman flashed signs of what was to come in the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal. Despite the fact OSU lost the game 20-17, Spielman did about all he could do against the Trojans – 12 solo tackles, three assists and a fumble recovery. He finished his freshman season with 45 tackles which included his first career sack.

He only got better and better. As a sophomore, he broke the 100-tackle mark with 104 total stops and also grabbed three interceptions.

Then, as a junior, he became only the second Buckeye defender ever to break the 200-tackle barrier, chalking up 105 solos and assisting on 100 other stops for a total of 205 tackles. The single-season total is second in Ohio State history only to Cousineau, who had 211 in 1978, but the solo total established a single-season mark that remains on the books.

Spielman also had some legendary games during that 1986 season. The Buckeyes lost a gut-wrenching 26-24 decision to Michigan that year, a loss that knocked them out of a trip to the Rose Bowl. But Spielman set the standard for all Michigan game performances when he had 29 tackles against the Wolverines, a single-game mark that still stands.

Then in the Cotton Bowl as the Buckeyes routed Texas A&M by a 28-12 score, he registered 11 more tackles and picked off two interceptions, running the first back 24 yards for a touchdown. He was named the game's defensive most valuable player.

Spielman's senior season was a disappointing one on several levels. First, the Buckeyes lost the services of star receiver Cris Carter prior to the season because Carter had dealt with a sports agent in violation of NCAA rules.

Then, the Buckeyes went through a three-game losing streak to Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa to knock them out of the Big Ten race. Despite the fact that those losses came by a combined 10 points, Bruce was fired and OSU athletic director Rick Bay resigned.

The only redeeming thing that happened that season was a victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor – the team's first win at U-M since 1981 – and Bruce was carried off the field on the shoulders of his team. Spielman also went out in style with another outstanding performance against the Wolverines, racking up 16 tackles, 14 of which were solo stops.

It capped a senior season that saw him hit double digits in tackles in every game but one – and in that one, he had nine before exiting the game early with the rest of the starters in a 42-9 blowout of Minnesota.

Following the season, Spielman earned his third consecutive first-team All-Big Ten honor and was voted OSU's most valuable player by his teammates.

He also was named to his second straight All-America team and was the recipient of the 1987 Lombardi Award, becoming only the third Buckeye to be so honored. Jim Stillwagon won the initial Lombardi Award in 1970 and John Hicks won the 1973 award. (A.J. Hawk took home a fourth Lombardi for Ohio State in 2005.)

Spielman finished his college career with 546 tackles, third on the OSU career list behind Marek (572, 1979-82) and Cousineau (569, 1975-78).

Questions about his relative lack of size caused him to fall to the second round of the 1988 NFL draft where the Detroit Lions made the steal of the century. Spielman rewarded that selection by proving to the other teams in the league there is no way to measure a player's heart.

He totaled 153 tackles and made the all-rookie team in 1988 and went on to make three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons with the Lions.

Spielman missed only four games during his first nine professional seasons and topped the 100-tackle mark in every one of the years, setting a career best in 1994 with 195 stops.

After the 1995 season, Spielman left the Lions and signed with Buffalo where he continued to play well. He totaled 157 tackles for the Bills in his first season, but suffered a neck injury eight games into the 1997 season. The injury later required surgery to fuse two vertebrae in his neck but Spielman sat out the remainder of the '97 season and all of the '98 campaign as he helped his wife, Stefanie, in her battle against breast cancer.

Spielman won a whole new legion of fans who saw him in an entirely different light, but he was matter-of-fact about the situation.

"I was always a husband first and a football player second," he said. "When you say your wedding vows, you say ‘in sickness and in health' and I intended to live up to those. It was a very easy decision to make for me. I told her that I want to be the one to take her to treatments. I want to be the one to hold her hand. I want to be the one to be with my kids when she can't. She always supported me and everything I did, and she was basically in a battle for life and death. I was going to give her every opportunity that I could to help her live."

Stefanie underwent surgery and additional treatments and is now a cancer survivor.

Meanwhile, Chris made a brief comeback with the Cleveland Browns in 1999, but after taking several hits that jammed his neck during training camp, another jarring hit during a preseason game against Minnesota convinced him that he could not continue playing without risk of permanent injury. He quickly retired and returned to his home in suburban Columbus.

Since then, Spielman has remained extremely busy. He remains a spokesman for the Stefanie Spielman Fund, his wife's charitable organization to help fight breast cancer. And for several years, he has been a color analyst on ESPN and ESPN2 for college football games.

He is also a fixture on Columbus radio by hosting his own daytime sports talk show, and even spent one season as head coach of the Arena Football League's Columbus Destroyers.

Yesterday: No. 13 Jim Stillwagon

Tomorrow: No. 11


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