COLUMBUS, Ohio - Last month as the leaves were changing colors and autumn was setting in, Chris Spielman and his four children visited the cemetery. At a time of year and a setting where they were surrounded by death, they remembered life.
They gathered where their mother and wife was buried.
Stefanie Spielman, a vibrant breast cancer advocate, died last November.
The former Stefanie Belcher, a Jackson High School graduate, married Chris, an All-American linebacker from Massillon and her high school sweetheart. They had what seemed to be a fairy-tale love story.
On this sunny September day, Chris brought his four children to the cemetery. Madison is 16 and Noah is 14. They have memories of their mother.
Macy is 9 and Audrey just 8. Chris, Madison and Noah want to make sure the younger daughters always have memories of their mother.
Audrey plays soccer. She is good enough that she was moved up a grade level. While driving home from a recent practice, Chris asked her what she thought her mom was doing now.
"She said, 'She's probably dancing with Michael Jackson,"' Spielman said, laughing at the thought. "I ask them about her all the time."
That early fall day in the cemetery was the 10-month anniversary of her death.
Stefanie's passing, after a 12-year battle with breast cancer, was very public.
Now the family was remembering her in private. Each kid shared a story about what they remembered about their mom.
"It was interesting because as I listened to each kid, it was a happy moment ... a story that made them laugh," Chris said.
At 16 years old, Madison is the oldest child, the one who vividly remembers her father as an NFL linebacker. She told a story about watching her dad play in a game on TV with Stefanie.
Madison asked her mother, "Why is dad the only guy not freakin' American?" Stefanie didn't understand.
Madison repeated the question. Eventually Stefanie figured it out. Madison had mistaken "freakin' American" with "African-American."
The Spielmans laughed.
It was like that, one by one. Every time a kid told a memory, they laughed.
Then it was Chris' turn.
"The worst one was mine," Chris said. "They were all telling happy stories, and when it was my turn to talk, I told them I miss my friend. I didn't mean to bring everybody down, but that's what popped into my head first.
"There may have been a little bit of tears, but it wasn't something that was sad. It was a cool experience."
Yes, some days are tough. The Spielmans look at most, though, with a greater perspective. Even the kids.
"We're all doing better than what any of us thought we could be doing," Madison said. "It's been really hard on all of us. We all realize she is in a better place than we all could provide for her, and we're grateful for that. It's hard because we miss our mom."
Chris is watching his children grow up without their mother and handle the grief as well as can be expected.
Before Stefanie died, she taped a message for Chris and the kids.
Essentially, that message was never use her death as an excuse for anything, but motivation for everything.
"We've adjusted fine, better than I would think," Chris said. "Certainly, it hasn't been without issues and challenges and our moments. Overall, I think everybody has got back into the groove quickly. That's the way Stefanie wanted it and instructed in her video.
"Certainly there are challenges every family in this situation has to overcome and probably will always have to overcome."
Spielman was a hard-nosed linebacker at Ohio State and in the NFL. Now he's a co-host of a radio show in Columbus where he can be thoughtful, funny and biting. In addition, he's a college football analyst for ESPN.
And he's still learning and growing as a person and parent.
"Everybody who's experienced death knows there are certain songs or holidays or a moment, a picture or even seeing clothes in a closet. I don't think you ever get used to that," Chris said. "You learn to live with it. But there are moments every day where there's a tremendous sense of loss."
Chris said he has learned to be a better parent. Juggling parenthood with a busy career can be hectic. By his nature, he is somewhat of a perfectionist.
He often has said he spent his entire career chasing a goal to play the perfect game.
"My dad ... I can't even begin to describe how proud I am of him," Madison said. "He's accepted the role of being everything and being a single parent. He's the most selfless person I know. He puts himself below all of us. We're so blessed to have him. I don't know where we'd be without him."
Raising a family by himself and coping with his wife's death has tested him.
"I'm a lot more patient than I thought I would ever be," Chris said. "I always have to remind myself that I'm doing the best I can. The big thing is ... you're always fighting spending time with your kids. When you have a house full of them, that's a constant concern. Is she getting enough time? Is he getting enough time? What about her and her? Not only
family time, but individual time.
"It's a battle to fight that you always feel you're falling short."
Because Chris invested his NFL money wisely and he's become one of ESPN's top analysts he is in a position to provide for his kids in a way many single parents are not. But his children aren't pampered.
He demands one thing from them in their athletic endeavors: Play with maximum effort. He said there have been times when he put one of his kids on a treadmill if they didn't give maximum effort in a game.
"They know the standard is high," Chris said. "It isn't about scoring points or winning. It's about something they control, and that's effort."
If that seems abrasive, that's just the way Chris is.
"I'm very honest with my kids. That's one thing I wish I was better at: Getting the same point across but doing it with more tact. Stef was very good at it," Chris said.
Spielman has become Mr. Mom in some ways, too. Madison recently needed a dress to attend her first homecoming.
"We went homecoming dress shopping," Spielman said. "That was something that Stef would have normally done and been a part of. But it was something I got to do, and I did enjoy it."
Shopping for dresses is something Spielman still needs to refine.
"He had no idea what he was doing. It was funny," Madison said. "I'm glad he came and supported me. It was fun. He knew how much it meant to me. It was a good bonding experience."
Madison recently started driving. She will help her father with errands or going to the grocery store. They have, it seems, the kind of father-daughter relationship some dads don't enjoy with teenage daughters.
Chris called his sister-in-law, Sue Fitz, to help him have "The Talk" with his daughter.
"We had an open conversation about what's expected of her as a young lady, and it wasn't like, 'Oh dad, shut up.' When it comes to dating, all I ask is her boyfriend comes over and looks me in the eye and he does."
But the old football player does come out. Parenting is not perfect.
"I continue to grow and realize I make mistakes and my kids make mistakes," Spielman said. "... I have to work on myself in that regard. It's like watching game film, and I see something I did wrong, and I would kick myself in the rear-end for four hours. It's a learning and growing process. I'm still learning almost 11 months after. There's a long way to go, but I'm getting there."
There are days when Spielman wonders how less fortunate single parents get it done. He packs lunches in the morning. He makes breakfast.
Spielman admitted to hiring help to cook dinner.
"Honestly, I don't want to waste time cooking," Spielman said. "That's about prioritizing, and if I have the means by God's grace to hire somebody to put good food on the table, to me that's money well spent."
Spielman makes sure the kids have a mother figure in their life. They have "Aunt Sue Mondays," where Stefanie's sister picks the girls up from school and spends time with them. There is little time for Chris to have by himself.
"It's not a luxury I have right now, and I don't mind that," Spielman said. "I have an obligation and a goal. There's a goal to be met and a journey to enjoy here. I understand what that is. Something has to be sacrificed. For me to take up a hobby or an activity, that's not going to happen."
Spielman can't help but wonder if he was blessed to play football as a means to provide breast cancer with a platform. He was, after all, on the Wheaties box as a high school senior. He was famous before he ever graduated from Washington High School.
"Stef and I were given certain challenges in life," Spielman said. "As a young guy I defined myself as a football player. Then I got married and had kids and grew older, and I realized there had to be much more than that. I noticed a gradual change in me that there's so much more in life.
"When I hurt my neck I think it started God's way of training us to handle things that were coming our way. That started a string of tough issues. ... Then when Stef was pregnant with our third child, she lost the baby, which was difficult enough. Then she discovered the lump on her breast, and months later was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Football helped prepare me for this. You think of coming back from tough losses. Now multiply that by 10."
Stefanie's Champions is a charitable event in which loved ones of cancer patients are recognized for their commitment and dedication. Nearly $8 million has been raised for breast cancer awareness since Stefanie's Champions had its first event in 2000.
Now Chris helps to organize.
"I promised her I would do that," he said. "In one of our last conversations where she was able to communicate, I promised her I would continue her legacy in this fight and I would be the best dad I could be. I'm getting the kids involved a little bit."
Like a linebacker tackling life with his head on a swivel, Spielman rarely pats himself on the back. He takes comfort when other parents pay his children a compliment.
there is Madison's perspective. She looks at their loss with the kind of grace her mother provided to breast cancer survivors.
"Of course we wanted her with us, but we knew she was going to be so much better off where she was going," Madison said. "It would be selfish of us to want her back when you think about where she is now."
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