There were no tears and definitely no regrets from Cleveland Browns middle linebacker Chris Spielman today when he announced the end of his 10-year pro career because of a spinal cord injury.
"I always said that when I leave the game, I'll leave with no regrets and no sadness because I did it the way it was supposed to be done every single day," Spielman said at a news conference. "That's what I'm most proud of."
Spielman became a hero in northern Ohio as an all-American high school player in nearby Masillon. He earned similar honors at Ohio State and spent 10 years with the Detroit Lions and Buffalo Bills. He underwent neck fusion surgery in 1997 and sat out the '98 season to be with his wife, Stefanie, while she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for breast cancer.
The expansion Browns worked a deal with the Bills for Spielman to return to his football roots in January. From the moment he was signed, he became the team's emotional leader and most popular player.
Spielman played in only three preseason games for his new team, the first in his home town of Canton in the annual Hall of Fame game. Early in training camp, Spielman reported some initial numbness to the medical staff and requested an MRI exam after a head-on collision with fullback Tarek Saleh. When tests revealed no injury to his surgically repaired neck, he kept playing.
Spielman admitted today he had more numbness and tingling sensations all during training camp. Because it quickly went away, he said he tried to play through it and told no one.
But Saturday night during a preseason game with Chicago, Spielman was rocked on a clean block by Bears center Casey Wiegmann on a screen pass. He was knocked to the turf and said he felt no movement in his arms or legs for about 10 to 15 seconds.
After spending Sunday discussing his future with Stefanie, team officials and Coach Chris Palmer, he decided to heed the advice of Browns doctors and specialists at Cleveland Clinic and end his playing career. In what one player described as an emotional session, he addressed the team this morning to tell them of his decision.
"Everyone in the room knows it could happen to any of us," the player said.
Said Spielman: "To put myself at risk playing this game is not feasible. I have tremendous faith in the Cleveland Browns doctors. They felt the wise thing to do would be not to step on the field again. . . . I'd love to keep playing. But I cannot jeopardize my legs and my arms to keep playing."
Spielman said his condition was described to him as a narrowing in the spine between the C-3 and C-4 vertebrae. Every time he got hit, he was told the spinal cord would bruise and create more of a risk for permanent damage, including possible paralysis.
Palmer, team owner Al Lerner and team president Carmen Policy all made it clear that they felt strongly that Spielman should not risk his health by continuing to play. Lerner already has talked to him about working in a sports marketing firm he owns, and Palmer has told him he would like him to stay on in some coaching capacity.
Spielman will be replaced in the Browns' starting lineup by Wali Rainer, a fourth-round draft choice from the University of Virginia who has had an outstanding training camp. But many players agreed today that no one could take the place of a self-described "football warrior," a man who devoted his life to the game.
"People ask me the things I'm most proud of," Spielman said. "I tell them my effort level and my intensity were never questioned by anyone, any time, from pee wee to professional football. I've always played by a code, and it may be a stupid code. I told Stefanie if I ever, ever got helped off a football field, it would be the end of my career. That's the first time [Saturday night] in my career I was ever helped off. I stand by my code."