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That's Why I'm Here
By Chris Spielman Bruce Hooley
ZondervanCopyright © 2012 Chris Spielman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Question
I ALWAYS LOVED THE LOCKER ROOM.
It's the one place on earth where nothing and nobody could ever bother me. It had been that way since before I played my first game of organized football, and that's how it was on October 20, 1997, as I prepared to play for the Buffalo Bills against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football.
I basically grew up in the locker room. My dad coached high school football, so I felt at home there from the time I started tagging along with him to practice as a toddler. I loved the sights, the sounds, the smells ... everything.
The locker room was my safe haven, my sanctuary.
Tonight, though, would be different.
So different it would alter my life in a way I could not yet comprehend.
About five hours before kickoff, I sat alone inside our locker room, preparing to do the job I loved. I'd sat in locker rooms like this my whole life. It's where I felt most at home, most alive, because football consumed my life and gave order to everything I did. From the time I could formulate my first thoughts of what I wanted to become, I always gave the same answer: a football player.
Early in my career, I told an interviewer, "This is my life: I grow up. I play football. I play in the NFL. I retire. I coach football. I die." That shallow and self-absorbed approach defined me, and at the time I completely embraced it as the way to be the best at what I did.
Other boys wanted to become cops or firemen or doctors. Not me. I wanted to be a professional football player. If I couldn't become an NFL player, then I wanted to become a garbage man, because I thought it would look cool to ride around hanging on the back of that big truck.
Given where I grew up, it seemed my destiny to play football at the highest level. After all, I was born in Canton, Ohio, where professional football began in the 1920s with the Canton Bulldogs and the legendary Jim Thorpe. The National Football League began in Canton and later the Professional Football Hall of Fame was built there, just a mile from the house where I grew up. Located in northeast Ohio, Canton sits next to Massillon, perhaps the No. 1 high school football town in America. Massillon has a football stadium that seats 17,000—over half the town's population of 30,000. They named the stadium after the legendary Paul Brown, who coached high school football in Massillon before he became the father of modern professional football with the Cleveland Browns.
Every baby boy born in Massillon receives a tiny orange-and-black football in his crib from the nurses at the hospital. Maybe that's why the Massillon Washington Tigers have won twenty-two state championships and more games than all but two high school programs in America.
I wasn't born in Massillon, but football was born into me. My dad took me and my older brother, Rick, to practice with him from the time we could walk. While other kids watched cartoons or Saturday matinees, I watched game films with my dad and his coaching staff. I learned not just to watch the game but to see the game, to understand how it unfolded and, most importantly, to admire the same qualities in a player that my dad valued most.
He loved tough, relentless, passionate, hard-hitting guys, and so I came to love that style too. I channeled all my energy into becoming a physical, aggressive player. 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 our living room. I mean, I took her out. She bounced right up, though. You could tell she was a Spielman.
Whatever toy I had—a GI Joe, army men, cowboys—they all became football players. I loved crashing them into each other like the collisions I saw on the field. I fantasized about becoming that kind of player, and I became exactly that. I understood the violence inherent in football, and I played it violently, within the rules. The position of linebacker fit my skills and my temperament like a glove. Launching your body at a high rate of speed into other human beings, with no regard for anyone's safety (yours or theirs), requires an indifference to physical pain. Since linebackers must do that, I did that—and I loved doing it.
That night in Indianapolis, I prepared myself to do it again.
Some players will tell you they get more motivated to play on Monday night because of the national television audience and because most every player in the NFL tunes in. That causes them to put a little extra into their preparation for Monday night games. I didn't need any extra incentive because I prepared the same for every game, every year, whether at Massillon, at Ohio State, or in the NFL. I tailored my preparations that night to eliminate anything that might catch me off guard. I pored over every detail in the scouting report to remove, as much as possible, the chance of letting my team down because I called the wrong defense, failed to make the right adjustment at the line of scrimmage, or missed some minor detail that might make the difference between victory and defeat.
In order to do that, I had my own pregame routine that allowed me to get into the proper frame of mind. For home games that started at 1 p.m., I woke up at 6:30 a.m. and arrived at the stadium by 7 a.m. On road trips, I didn't wait for the team bus. I took a cab and arrived hours ahead of the rest of the guys just so I could feel the stadium. I know it sounds weird, but I wanted to absorb the atmosphere, soak it in, and build toward a mental peak necessary to perform at a high level.
That night in Indy, like every other game I played, I arrived at the stadium before any of my teammates. I slipped into my football pants more than four hours before kickoff so I could get accustomed to them, so they felt like a part of me by the time I needed to bring a nasty attitude to the field.
I started downing as much coffee as I could and tried to offset the dehydration the caffeine brought on by pounding as much Gatorade as possible. I read whatever book I had at the time for maybe twenty minutes before I got too jittery from the coffee to continue. Then I took one more look at the previous week's game film of the Colts, just one final check to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
I invented my own way of watching film. I cleared all the chairs in the room to one side and held the clicker in my hand as I watched the view taken of the entire field from behind the defense. Linebackers see the game from that perspective. Through visualization, I projected myself into the film and became the linebacker for the team playing our next opponent. Many times, what I visualized while watching film happened in the game and prepared me to jump on it.
Like everything I did, I took visualization to the extreme. I always felt if I could get myself angry to play, get myself into a bad mood, then I would bring a little bit extra to knocking people down as hard as I could. I knew on the other side of the building, in my opponents' locker room, they had bad intentions for me. So I made sure a regular part of my routine included working myself into a lather before I went out on the field.
As I worked myself into this frenzy—while going to the bathroom for about the eighth time (remember the coffee and the Gatorade) —I began thinking, It's time. Let's go. It's what you've been put on this earth to do.
Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I got this message, this voice in my head, this overwhelming feeling of a question:
"Chris, what is your purpose on this earth?"
I shook it off. I distinctly remember saying out loud, "I don't need this right now."
Back into my routine, I stretched, warmed up, and went over last-minute preparations with the defensive line and the secondary, making sure they knew what we would adjust to, depending on the look the Colts gave us at the line of scrimmage. Just before going out onto the field for kickoff, I did what I always did—I broke two smelling salts capsules and shoved one up into each of my nostrils.
Now, with a clear head, I joined our other captains for the walk to midfield for the pregame coin toss. But as I got to the spot between the numbers and the hash marks, here came that question again, only stronger this time:
"Chris, what is your purpose on this earth?"
I don't know why it came. It had never happened before. I had always been able to focus on the task at hand and immerse myself in the game. So, after the coin toss, I screened out the question and began doing what came naturally.
We held a 6–3 lead entering the fourth quarter, but the Colts started driving downfield. They handed off to Lamont Warren on a run up the middle, and I had a clear, clean shot at him. That's rare in the NFL. Usually someone blocked me or at least chipped at my knees or ankles. It didn't happen often that I got the chance to unload on someone without anybody in my way.
When I got those opportunities, I didn't waste them. No NFL player will respect you if you shy away from slamming someone when given the chance. If I ever saw anyone shy away or turn down serious contact, that player had absolutely no credibility with me. I vowed I would never be one of those guys. I never had been, and I wasn't going to start now, with Lamont Warren coming right at me.
So I blasted him. On most of my good hits in the NFL, I'd feel it. It would hurt, but the pain never bothered me. I actually liked it. But this time, I lay on the field after making the tackle and couldn't feel anything. I don't mean I couldn't feel anything, like when your driver mushes against a golf ball on a drive you really crush. I mean, I didn't feel anything. Not in my arms, not in my legs, not anything. I couldn't move for about five or six seconds. Because of the momentary paralysis, I stayed down longer than normal. But, finally, like the feeling you get when you hit your crazy bone or when your foot or hand falls asleep, my body began tingling and I regained the strength to get up before the trainers came out to take a look at me.
I thought, Boy, that was weird, but I didn't come out of the game. We ended up winning, 9–6, on a field goal as time expired.
Afterward, the happiness I felt over winning didn't erase the nagging concern over what happened on that hard hit in the fourth quarter. Coming clean about it, telling the doctors, would mean medical tests and maybe missing games, so I just blew it off. Why risk that? After all, I played the rest of the game. I must be OK. I hated the idea of going on injured reserve. To that point in my career, I had started every game but four. If I had my way, I wouldn't have missed those, but they put me on the injured reserve list while I was on the operating table for a shoulder injury (that I fully intended to play with).
I didn't want to risk giving up my spot in the lineup, so I didn't tell the doctors or anyone what happened to me. In my heart, I knew I shouldn't ignore it. It bothered me enough that when I got on the team bus for the ride to the airport, I said something to a teammate, Tim Tindale.
"Man, when I hit that guy in the fourth quarter, I didn't feel anything. I was paralyzed for a second. Did that ever happen to you?"
Tim played special teams. He earned his spot on the roster because of his all-out approach. He flew around out there like a crazy man, so his answer didn't surprise me. "Oh, yeah," he said. "That happens. Don't worry about it."
So, with my rock-head mentality and not wanting to admit I might have seriously injured myself, I didn't think any more about it. I went through practice the next week without any symptoms and prepared to play the Denver Broncos at home in Buffalo.
Three more times in that game I got the same feeling, those slight bouts of paralysis. I never stayed down long enough for the trainers to come on the field, and I'd grown used to it by now. But in my heart I understood the seriousness of the situation. Despite hitting thousands of guys over the years, this had never happened to me before. I'd never had so much as a concussion, at least that I knew of. But now I had lost all feeling in my body four times in seven days. Something had to be wrong.
After getting dressed, I walked up the steps from the locker room in Rich Stadium to where the players' wives gathered. I got to the top of the stairs and saw Stef across the room. The second I saw her, I knew I couldn't ignore the problem anymore. I took one look at her and walked back down the stairs to see the doctor. I told him what happened, and he made arrangements for me to get tested the next day.
Two weeks later, I was in bed at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati after surgeons removed a herniated cervical disc pressing on my spinal cord. That had caused the paralysis. Whenever the disc brushed the cord, I'd momentarily lose all feeling. The doctors fused my third and fourth vertebrae.
They called the surgery a success but wouldn't guarantee that I could continue playing in the NFL. I lay there thinking, This might be it. I might have the chance to come back, but this might be it. The anesthetic from surgery had me pretty loopy, so I drifted in and out of sleep deep into the night.
Then I woke up and I heard it again—that same burning question from the Monday night game in Indianapolis:
"Chris, what are you doing? What is your purpose on this earth?"
This time, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I had no game to play. I had nothing to distract me. Confined to that bed, I had no place to go and no physical ability to get there even if I had an escape route. So I gave the same answer I gave before: "Hey, I've already addressed that. I'm not dealing with that question now."
It didn't occur to me that this question might have come from God trying to get my attention. I grew up in a Catholic home, and we always went to church as a family. I knew the importance of serving God; it just wasn't as important to me back then as football. At Ohio State, Stef and I attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, where I got the answers to why I believed what I believed. But I quickly moved on to, "OK, when's the next football practice?" I didn't suddenly start submitting to God every day. I still thought I had most of the control over my life.
Excerpted from That's Why I'm Here by Chris Spielman Bruce Hooley Copyright © 2012 by Chris Spielman . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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