There are some players who improve a team just by being out on the field. Chris Spielman was one of those players. His energy, his enthusiasm, his hustle, and his aggressiveness were contagious and helped inspire his teammates to do more than they thought they could. Not only that, but he was a pretty decent ball player as well, good enough to make the cover of a Wheaties box when he was in high school, to start for 3 seasons in college and make All-American status the last two, and to play 11 years in the NFL, making 4 Pro Bowls in the process.
Chris Spielman played high school ball at legendary Massillon Washington, where Paul Brown once prowled the sidelines. His performance as a senior brought him many awards and many offers from colleges around the country. At one point, he was actually considering that School Up North, but his father reportedly told him to choose Ohio State "or don't come home". He made the right choice. I remember at his press conference, Spielman said that Ohio State would "definitely win a national championship" while he was there. It was a bold statement, and sadly not fulfilled, but he had the attitude of a winner.
At Ohio State, Spielman went on to become a Lombardi Award winner and the school's 3rd all-time leading tackler with 546 total (he's first in solo tackles with 283). As a junior playing against Michigan, he set an all-time single game school record with an amazing 29 tackles. Then in the Cotton Bowl game, he collected 11 tackles, intercepted 2 passes, and ran one of them back for a touchdown to win defensive MVP honors. In 1985, he led the defense in an inspired effort in the rain against Number 1 ranked Iowa as OSU pulled the upset in the Horseshoe. In that game, Spielman had 19 tackles including a critical stop on Iowa RB Ronnie Harmon for no gain on a 4th-and-one play.
In 1984, Spielman was just a freshman, and he was not slotted to start the opener against Oregon State. But as the defense struggled against the other OSU's short passing game, Spielman became more and more restless. According to news reports later, Spielman paced the sideline asking again and again to be put in the game. Some speculated that when coach Earle Bruce finally did give him a chance to play, it was just to get the young linebacker off his back. In any case, he made an immediate impact (no pun intended). I remember watching from the stands as Spielman blitzed from the blind side and hit the opposing QB so hard it caused a fumble (recovered by Ohio State). That play, and the enthusiasm of the freshman coming off the bench, turned the momentum of the game in the second half. The Buckeyes scored TD's on their first 3 possessions of the second half en route to a 22-14 win. Spielman had 11 tackles and 2 sacks in his first game, creating a huge buzz in the media and among fans.
Unfortunately, Spielman severely injured his ankle against Washington State in week 2, and the off-and-on nature of the injury caused him to miss most of the rest of the regular season. He played in the Michigan game, but did not start. He returned full-speed for the Rose Bowl game, but he was overshadowed by the excellent play of USC's NFL-bound linebacker tandem of Duane Bickett and Jack Del Rio.
Upon finishing his career at Ohio State, Spielman was taken in the 2nd round of the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He spent 8 seasons in Detroit, leading the team in tackles the first 7. For his career, Spielman racked up 1181 tackles in 148 games, averaging 92 per season. Season after season, he was known as one of the hardest working, and the hardest hitting, players in the game. Former NFL superstar Bo Jackson paid tribute to Spielman when he said "Man, that's the hardest any white boy ever hit me". After 2 seasons in Buffalo, Spielman took a year off of football to spend time with his wife, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. When she lost her hair due to chemotherapy, he shaved his head to demonstrate solidarity. When he went back to play football with the Cleveland Browns, he suffered a neck injury in pre-season that ended his career.
Today, Spielman works as a broadcaster for ESPN doing college football games, and also has a daily radio show here in Columbus. Spielman had previously served one season as head coach for the Arena Football's Columbus Destroyers team, and in fact he interviewed for the Ohio State job in 2001 after coach John Cooper was fired. He was recently inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, and was also named to the OSU Alumni Association's 100th Anniversary All-Alumni team. As the football season rapidly approaches, I look forward to many more saturdays listening to the former Buckeye great discussing football from the broadcast booth. It seems a fitting position for a guy who gave every ounce of himself when he was on the field.