WINTERSVILLE - Retired NFL linebacker Chris Spielman had a message for the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce that may seem odd for a man known at one time for his bruising style on the field: Pray to be the weakest man in the world in order to become the strongest, through grace and faith.
It is a message about knowing life's mission and living it with purpose.
Spielman, now a color commentator for ESPN college football coverage, lost his wife in 2009 to a lengthy battle with cancer.
Michael D. McElwain
GUEST?SPEAKER — Chris Speilman, retired NFL linebacker, stressed living life with a purpose during the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting and banquet held Monday evening at St. Florian Hall in Wintersville.
His message was one neither of football nor cancer, though both figure so prominently in his story.
Speaking to the chamber's annual meeting and banquet at St. Florian Hall Monday night, Spielman detailed how he grew up the son of a high school football coach and defined himself throughout his life as a football player. He said he is humiliated by some of his thoughts about his career coming as his wife, Stephanie, first began to fight cancer after losing a baby.
They had two healthy children, he had his dream career and had married his high school sweetheart.
"We were living the dream," he said.
He had begun to have some introspection when he said he had a realization before undergoing a major back injury with the question popping up, "What is your purpose?"
He thought the answer was being the only linebacker to come back from a herniated disc and bruised spinal chord.
It was in June 1998 that Stephanie lost the baby and found out in July that she had cancer. Chris had just been traded from Detroit to Buffalo. While he knew he had to be with his wife, he felt he had to be in Buffalo. He said he got angry on the way to the hospital with his wife and asked why this was happening to them.
"We're good people. We go to church. I'm a nice guy. We give to charity. She looked at me with a look she had never given me in her life, a look of disgust. She said, 'How dare you.' I said I had a right to be angry and upset. She said, 'Why don't you for once in your life stop looking ahead for the next blessing you think you deserve, that you think you deserve something because you work hard. Why not look back at the thousands of hands that have served you, at the thousands of blessings you've had in the first 29 years of your life.'
"I was humbled," he said. He decided not to go to play football in Buffalo the following season so that he could be there as Stephanie underwent surgery and chemotherapy and to help take care of their 2-year-old and 4-year-old children.
He said even after Stephanie beat cancer the first time, he lived as if he was getting a good deal from bargaining with God. She was diagnosed with cancer a second time after the birth of their third child. He said he was scared and had literally collapsed in the back seat of his car, yelling at God for breaking the deal when he heard about grace.
"Our power as people can be made with grace. I now pray every day that God makes me the weakest man in the world, because when you know grace, you become the strongest man in the world."
He showed a video featuring Stephanie and others talking about keeping up the fight. Stephanie said the key to being successful in your life's mission is to have a passion for it.
Chris said that's not just about surviving cancer or being a friend or family member with a cancer patient.
"There is an opportunity for all of us to be a positive difference in somebody's life. You all are making a difference. Success would be if the size (of the chamber group) was doubled.
"It can be anything that you are passionate about. What you give, you grow. What you keep, you lose," he said.
"Don't be Chris who defines himself as a football player. Be Chris, the guy who wakes up every morning and pleads with God to be the weakest man in the world. When you do that, you will be the strongest," he said.
Spielman accepted a $2,000 donation from Wal-Mart Distribution Center 7017 for the Stephanie Spielman Breast Cancer Research fund.