Spielman’s retires

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 31, 1999

The Associated Press

Spielman, the NFL’s most intense middle linebacker, who postponed his comeback from neck surgery a year ago to care for his family, announced his retirement Monday, just two days after a violent hit left him momentarily paralyzed.

Tuesday, August 31, 1999

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Spielman, the NFL’s most intense middle linebacker, who postponed his comeback from neck surgery a year ago to care for his family, announced his retirement Monday, just two days after a violent hit left him momentarily paralyzed.

Fearful that another jarring hit could do irreparable damage to his spinal cord, doctors urged Spielman to retire. And, reluctant at first, he heeded their advice and walked away from the game while he still could.

”You have to accept your mortality as a player,” he said. ”My mortality is today.”

Spielman announced he was leaving the game he loved, the same way he played it: direct and head on.

”As a football player, you’re trained to feel invincible,” said Spielman, who sat out the ’98 season to be with his wife, Stefanie, and their two children as she battled breast cancer. ”I would love to keep playing, but I couldn’t jeopardize my arms and legs.”

Spielman never wanted to quit, not as he fought to get the feeling back in his body, and not even when doctors told him to stop.

Without ever uttering the word ”retired,” Spielman, with Stefanie sitting at his side, ended his stellar 10-year career in the same state where he was a household name before leaving high school.

”I’ve been very fortunate to be an NFL player,” he said. ”That’s the hard part, to wake up tomorrow morning and know I’m not an NFL player anymore.”

Spielman, who underwent neck fusion surgery in 1997, took a crushing, blindside hit from Bears center Casey Wiegmann on Saturday night while defending a screen pass in Cleveland’s exhibition win over Chicago.

Face down in the grass, his body tingling from head to toe, Spielman said he had one thought: ”Get up and get the play called,” he said. ”But I couldn’t.”

Spielman eventually made it to the sideline with some help. He was immediately taken for an MRI, the second he needed this summer following a high-impact collision.

”He had that first hit in training camp and that scared me,” said his brother, Rick, the Bears’ director of pro personnel, who was in St. Louis that night. ”I told him, ‘One day you’re going to take a hit and you’re not going to be able to get up.”’

Despite the second scare, and doctors telling him to stop, Spielman’s stubbornness wouldn’t let him. On Sunday morning he walked into Browns coach Chris Palmer’s office and said: ”I’m not retiring.”

But after consulting with his family, Spielman came to one conclusion.

”Until you have pure medical evidence in front of you, as a player your mentality is, ‘I’ll beat this,”’ he said. ”But as they say in football, the films don’t lie, and here the images of the MRI don’t lie.”

And as Spielman already showed, he has his priorities in line.

”He told me his daughter was at the game and she’s 4, 4 1/2,” Rick Spielman said. ”She knows that Daddy has a bad neck. When she saw him get hit, she just started crying and later she asked him, ‘Daddy, if you’re in a wheelchair, does that mean we can’t go swimming anymore?’ That’s just the nail in the coffin.”

Ironically, the injury that forced him to retire is unrelated to the fusion surgery that interrupted Spielman’s career in 1997.

Two vertebrae in his back are narrowing closer to his spinal cord, and each time he took a solid hit, he got a tingling sensation. He had been having bouts with numbness during training camp, but didn’t tell anyone.

Palmer said Spielman has been offered a coaching position with the Browns, but had not decided whether to accept it.

Spielman, 33, was regarded as the heart and soul of the expansion Browns before they even played their first regular-season game. He joined the team in February, grateful for a second chance and honored to be doing it at home.

”For me as a northeast Ohio kid to play my last game on the Cleveland Browns field, in front of Cleveland Browns fans, in a Cleveland Browns helmet. You couldn’t write it any better,” he said.

The new Browns will go on without him. Rookie Wali Rainer will take over Spielman’s inside spot with the starting defense.

”He taught me so much in just a short period of time,” said Rainer. ”To play every down as if it was your last whether in practice or a game. I thought I was an intense player. Then I met him.”

Considered too small to make it in the NFL, Spielman slipped to the 28th overall pick in the 1988 draft, when he was selected by Detroit. He made the Pro Bowl three consecutive seasons (1989-91), and then again in ’94.

Following the ’95 season, he signed as a free agent with the Bills.

Always around the football, Spielman seemed to be in on every tackle. And when he wasn’t planting his face mask in a running back’s chest, he was causing some kind of havoc near the line of scrimmage.

”I told Stefanie if I ever, ever got helped off the football field, that would be the end of my career,” he said. ”I would do anything to crawl off, cartwheel off, skip off. That’s the first time (Saturday night) I can remember that I was ever helped off the field.

”It turned out to be true. So I stand by my code.”