Lions’ Chris Spielman opens up on loss of wife, parenting, finding love again

Detroit News

Angelique S. Chengelis
| The Detroit News

Chris Spielman and his wife, Carrie, had a moment alone this summer, sitting on the back porch of a rented home on Lake Michigan overlooking the water.

Those private times are rare in their blended family, which includes six children. But this trip, what Spielman called one of the best weeks of his life, was the ultimate blessing in this unusual year.

His four children with his late wife, Stefanie — the brave woman who faced down four battles with breast cancer before succumbing in 2009 at 42 — were there, along with Carrie’s two daughters. With deepest affection, he refers to them as his “minions,” and they’ll all be together for Christmas on Friday.

Spielman, the former Lions All-Pro linebacker, who left football and shaved his head to support Stefanie, raised his children as a single father while starting the Spielman Family Foundation which, to this day, raises money in her memory. The constant for Spielman has been his Christian faith — shaped, in part, by Stefanie  — and further enhanced these last seven years during his marriage to Carrie.

He recently left Fox and his job as a color analyst to join the Lions as a special assistant to owner Sheila Ford Hamp and team president Rod Wood. Among his tasks will be working to help the organization find its next head coach. Football has always been who Spielman, 55, was to most who have encountered him, but he is defined by his faith.

“I said to Carrie, ‘If this is our future, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us,’” Spielman said of that time this summer with his wife. “She just started smiling, and we both thought how blessed we are. What she’s been through in her life, what I’ve been through in my life, we sat there and found the moment of perfect peace.”

Spielman admittedly is an impatient man by nature. Going through the long cancer journey with Stefanie forced him to reassess himself while also learning from her, as she dealt with blow after blow after the initial diagnosis that followed a miscarriage. Football is tough, but cancer is brutal and ruthless and doesn’t care who its opponent is.

She maintained the cool confidence and grace that first attracted him to her, and they took their shared faith to a different plane. They had dug deeper early in their marriage by attending Bible study with Lions chaplain Dave Wilson.

“We lost the baby two weeks before she was diagnosed, my career was in jeopardy, and I said, ‘What’s going on? This isn’t fair,’ blah, blah,” he said. “And Stefanie said, ‘How dare you.’ I said, ‘How dare I what? I got a right to moan and complain.’ She said, ‘Stop looking ahead thinking you’re owed another blessing. Look at all the hands that have served you, it’s pretty good so far, so maybe go with the plan, Chris.’”

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Football taught Spielman discipline. It was his lifeblood growing up in northeast Ohio, and it’s what he knew how to do better than so many. He could tackle anything, but Stefanie was tougher and withstood blow after blow until she was sure her husband could handle raising their four children alone. Chris finally understood and was going with the plan.

“Toward the end, when I knew she was ready to go home, she said to me that I proved to her that I can do it, and she was obviously talking about her kids,” Spielman said. “They were going to be OK. And she smiled when she said that, and then I knew she was in a great place to go be healed, as I always told my young children at the time. So that was her perspective.

“My perspective is that when I took her into the emergency room when we knew that the end was here, it was early in the morning and a couple things happened to me. I went home for two hours, and I was woken up by a really pretty strong voice that says, ‘No matter what, it’s going to be OK, Chris, just trust me.’

“I mean, I’ve been one of those guys where I felt like one or two times in my life God has spoken directly to me. And ever since that, I’ve had this peace about myself that, I’m going to do all I can do the best I can. I’m going to have triumphs, I’m going to have failures, but it’s going to be OK, no matter what. That was the biggest confirmation of what I believe and why I believe.”

Leadership at home 

Their oldest daughter, Madison, or “Maddie” as they call her, was 15 when Stefanie passed away. They had three daughters, including Macy and Audrey, and son Noah. Spielman read books on how to communicate with teenage girls. What he learned from books worked for a while, but Spielman had also become an All-Pro at recognizing life lessons as they happened in real-time.

He and Maddie, then 17, once had an argument. She calmly told him to stop treating her like her sisters, 10 and 7 years younger.

“And instead of saying, ‘Do as I say, not as I do,’ I sat there,” he said. “This was the first time I really had insight of myself and decided to start listening to people instead of talking over people. I sat there for a second, and it hit me like a punch in the face, and I looked at her and said, ‘Maddie, you’re absolutely right.’ From then on, our relationship has grown.”

Football players often speak of the leaders they’ve been around in the game. Their coaches shape much of who they are and what they value as competitors. Spielman’s four children, left motherless, looked to him for guidance. The leader in the locker room was charged with handling every aspect of this team of four kids.

“Whatever leadership qualities I possess, that’s where I learned the most,” Spielman said. “Obviously, football, being a leader on a team, all that, sure, but let’s talk about leading outside of football and how it can seep into life. What I learned as being a single dad can seep into the football world as a leader.

“So it’s all the same. Leaderships are defined by servants who have one mission, and that’s to make everybody around them better. That’s it. And don’t waver when a clown show or a crap storm hits. You don’t waver. If you choose to lead, you can’t have the luxury of getting rattled. You’ve just got to find a solution. Don’t worry about the problem. We know the problem. Let’s figure out a solution. And I got really good perspective on that, really good focus when that stuff happens.”

But while Spielman focused on his family and the foundation in Stefanie’s name, doing everyone on his own, declining help when friends and strangers offered, something he now regrets, he was lonely.

“I missed my best friend,” he said.

Starting over 

A few years after Stefanie’s death, Spielman went on a few dates. He’d return to his home in Columbus, where he starred at Ohio State, and sit in the chair where Stefanie passed away.

“And I would start apologizing to her for cheating on her by going on a date,” Spielman said. “’That’s not who I am, Stef, you know me.’ The one thing I’m adamant about is being faithful no matter what, but it was so real to me, even though it’s not logical, right? But at that moment, it was so real to me. People that have gone through what I’ve gone through understand what I’m saying.”

During a “Buckeye Cruise for Cancer” that Stefanie helped create to raise cancer research funds — the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center bears her name in Columbus — Spielman first saw Carrie, who was about to make an announcement in the ship’s ballroom. They didn’t meet until the last night of the cruise.

“She was so full of life,” he said of Carrie.

Like Spielman, she grew up in northeast Ohio, in Youngstown. She had a big family and her mom cooked dishes his mother made. They lived in similar homes. They were like-minded on so many things.

“When I met him, so many things lined up,” Carrie said.

Both of them shared a similar outlook on faith. They don’t impose it on anybody, but expose it to everybody, he likes to say. For Spielman, that “sealed the deal.”

“I had this overwhelming feeling that after that first date. I came home, and I went to sit in Stef’s chair and that was the first time where I felt like I didn’t cheat on her,” he said. “It was the first time I felt her presence almost say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ And that’s when I just had to put on the smooth linebacker moves and put the full-court press on Carrie. And it only took me a year and a half to close the deal, but hey.”

His children initially resisted their father finding love again. But nearly two years later, Chris and Carrie were married. They’ve been together seven years. Carrie has that confidence Spielman respects, and she takes part in all fundraising activities done in Stefanie’s name. Chris adores his stepdaughters, Kendra and Gina. “I think they like me,” he said laughing. “No, I know they do.” Carrie dotes on Chris’ four kids. The girls, she said, get along so easily.

Life is full of challenges, and this year proved that for so many across the globe. Spielman, early in the pandemic, auctioned many of his collectables, such as Lions jerseys and Ohio State Big Ten champions rings, and raised $40,000 to distribute to those in need. He has had his share of challenges, and along the way, listening to the wisdom of his cancer-stricken wife, and, later, his teenage daughter, he has learned how to continue to evolve.

“Here’s what I’m really good at: I’m smart enough to be smart enough to ask questions because I know I’m not smart enough, and I’m going to ask the questions, so I can become smarter,” he said. “That humility has come with maturity and experiences in life. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t pretend to think I do have all the answers. But by me asking questions constantly, I am better suited to make better decisions.

“I don’t make emotional decisions. I make intellectual decisions, and I’m a big believer in critical thinking. And I’ve become wiser as I’ve matured. I understand instead of me talking over people, I really talk to people. And that’s how I think I’ve grown as a person.”

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Life is good for Spielman. He relies on and lives his faith, and is grateful he is sharing it with Carrie.

“Here’s the cool thing. I know how the story ends, and it’s all good,” Spielman said. “So that’s why I’m able to enjoy the moments much more, even if I get back into the football world, I know that I’m a different person than I was as a player. Still committed and driven, but yet, I’m going to actually enjoy the journey instead of being on a roller coaster of the highs and lows all the time. I’ve already climbed my mountain, now my goal is to help other people climb theirs. That’s my whole mission.

“Their success is more important than my success. My goal, my mountain, was to be an NFL player and be the best that I can be for my team. I lived that. Everything else is extra for me. And I’m just as determined, and I’ll be better for it. I know I will.”

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